Families can be hard work. And sometimes, no matter how much they love one another and how hard they work, things just don't turn out as planned.
Andrea Carson, 33, never pictured herself as a divorced, single mom, yet two years ago that was a decision that she found herself making. "I have learned that life doesn't always turn out the way that you thought it would, but you have to live the one life you get to the fullest," she says.
Like many parents going through a divorce, Carson's priority was to maintain a sense of normalcy for her then two year-old daughter – something family counselors highly recommend. Malissa Boyd, a licensed clinical social worker with Hancock Counseling and Psychiatric Services in Greenfield, advises divorcing parents to keep children's activities and environment as consistent as possible so they can feel secure. "They need to know that life can still be normal and positive despite challenging life events," says Boyd.
In Carson's case, she and her ex-husband quickly established separate lives, making sure their child was always surrounded by love and support. She says, "Moving quickly helped us move on for the sake of establishing a good routine for her. She knows she has three days with Daddy and four days with Mommy. Routine is key, as is constantly reassuring her that we love her."
Children are not BFFs
Divorce is painful, and parents may sometimes turn to their children for support, sharing information with them that is not appropriate. Jennifer Wilson, a school counselor, helps many children cope with divorce and has experienced this particular situation herself. Her parents' own rocky 23 year marriage, which included multiple separations, finally ended in divorce when Wilson was in college. In retrospect, she says her parents' biggest mistake was using their children as confidants instead of receiving counseling.
"I was my mom's best friend during this time, which was very unhealthy for me," says Wilson. "It caused me to become very resentful toward my father. Now that I am older, I wish she hadn't shared such personal information about their marriage."
As a school counselor, Wilson tells parents to talk openly about what is happening without inserting negative comments about their spouse. "Keep in mind that the relationship you have with your spouse is different than the one your children have with your spouse."
Let kids emote
Divorce is a major upheaval in children's lives and they should understand that it is alright to have strong emotions about it – including anger. "It's okay [for children] to feel angry about the divorce – they have a right to their own opinions. Anger is a normal emotion and can be channeled in healthy ways," says Boyd.
Whatever emotions your child is feeling, he or she should be allowed to express them. "Be aware that divorce is not a short-term situation for children," says Wilson. "It's a grieving process. Divorce is the loss of a family structure. Reassure your children that they are loved by both parents and they are not at fault."
While focusing on how children are handling a divorce is critical, parents should also consider their own healing. Boyd recommends setting new personal, healthy goals. People with support systems, such as family, friends or structured support groups, fare better during a major life change. As Carson says, "It gets very lonely, but I try to stay busy when I don't have my daughter. I recommend getting out of the house and enjoying yourself so that the time spent without your child is easier."
Some parents may question whether they have made the right decision for their family. Boyd says that many marriages end due to conflict, and that usually means that the conflict also ends. It can be helpful to remember that by eliminating this stress, you have opened the door to a more positive living situation. While your children may not understand or agree with your choice, they will benefit by your strength and confidence in your decision.
For additional support, try these online and local divorce resources:
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- DivorceCare (www.divorcecare.org)
An extensive list of support resources based upon location
- DivorceCare for Kids (www.dc4k.org)
Associated with DivorceCare, geared specifically for children's issues
- PsychologyToday.com (www.psychologytoday.com)
Find a psychologist or therapist in your area who meets your specific counseling criteria
- Local churches
Check local churches that offer divorce support groups for adults and children