5 tips for supporting your kids during a separation or divorce

If you are navigating a separation or a divorce with a former partner, chances are that you are not only dealing with the change for yourself, but you may be supporting your children through this process as well. There may be financial changes or strains, different living arrangements, time shared between parents, or a shift from a double parent to a single parent household. This can mean all kinds of changes for both you and your kids. There is so much to take care of and to think about, on top of your own emotions in connection with what’s happening.  Understandably so, it may feel overwhelming to know where to start in emotionally supporting your children through this transition.

Developmentally speaking, children are ego centric which means that they understand the world as it relates to them specifically. No matter what is happening or why, children think that it is about them or because of them. Children are also extremely dependent on their parents or caregivers to keep them safe, to meet their physical and emotional needs, and to help them to navigate their world. As a result, they want nothing more than to please their parents or caregivers. This is normal and developmentally appropriate, but when it comes to a separation or a divorce children interpret this event through their ego centric world view and often believe that it is their fault or because of something that they did or didn’t do. They want so badly to please their parents and caregivers, so the news of a divorce or separation can be scary and upsetting for children if their incorrect conclusions are not addressed. They may feel anxious, ashamed or insecure, and their understanding may negatively impact their self esteem.

Our work at Art as Therapy is based on the idea of empowerment. We believe that every individual has the capacity to reach their full potential and to meet life’s challenges confidently and competently. One of our main goals in our work with clients is to help them to discover their inner strengths, and to use these strengths as the foundation for building self esteem.

When changes such as a separation occur, our interpretations of those changes often impact our self esteem. Art therapy can be an excellent avenue for exploring emotions connected to the separation. As clients have the opportunity to express how they feel, they can begin to make sense of the changes and to process their emotions in a safe space. Clients can share their understanding of what has happened and how their understanding may impact their feelings about themselves. Through the therapeutic process the hope is that the client will be able to incorporate the separation or divorce as part of their story in a way that feels empowering and does not negatively impact his or her self esteem.   Ultimately we hope to help kids to understand that a change in their family does not mean a change in their worth.

In our work with children and families navigating a separation or divorce, we have noticed some simple things that often help children with coping outside of the art therapy sessions.  We have organized our observations into five tips for supporting your child through a separation or divorce:

  1. Children need to know that it’s not their fault. Divorce is an adult decision. Nothing that they did or didn’t do caused it, and nothing they do will change it. It’s permanent. Communicate this message to your children as clearly and as often as you can.
  2. Show your children that you love them in your words and actions. Even though so many things are changing, one constant is your love for them. They need to know and see this.
  3. Maintain connection. Spend quality time alone with each child, even if it’s just a few minutes. If it’s not possible to spend time together, maintain a connection with each of your children by writing letters or sending text messages. It doesn’t really matter what the content is (a funny joke you heard, something about the weather) as long as it’s developmentally appropriate and communicates the message “I love you” and “I’m thinking about you”.
  4. Try not to talk negatively about your former partner in front of your child. If possible, let your child talk to the other parent whenever they want to. Try not to make your child feel disloyal for wanting to talk to their other parent.
  5. Provide routine and consistency whenever and wherever possible. Being unsure of where they will be or what time they are leaving causes stress and anxiety. Children feel safe and secure when they know what to expect.
    1. Discuss arrangements for visits with the other parent before suggesting them to your child.
    2. Keep the visits and routines as regular and consistent as possible.
    3. Try making a visual schedule or calendar for your child so they can see where their time will be spent. Check out the example with this post – it’s colour coded and uses symbols and words which makes it suitable for younger children as well as older ones.
    4. If possible, be consistent with rules and routines in both households. If it’s not possible to agree with your former partner on rules or routines, then keep your own rules consistent at your house. This provides some predictability during a time of uncertainty which helps kids to feel secure.

It will take some time for everyone to adjust to the changes resulting from a separation or divorce. Children may return to behaviours that they seemed to have outgrown, for example sleeping with a teddy bear, talking in a baby voice, or having temper tantrums more easily. Usually these behaviours disappear again as everyone adjusts to the changes. However, if you notice a sudden change in your child such as a persistent sad or depressed mood, increased anxiety, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, bedwetting, nightmares, or aggressive behaviour, it may be possible that your child could benefit from some additional support.

Art as Therapy works with children, teens and adults offering art psychotherapy services. We have lots of experience working with families who are navigating separations or divorce, and we would love to work with you too. You can find support for your child and / or for yourself. While we have focused on the kids in this post, it is just as important that you as the parent or caregiver receive the emotional support that you need. If your emotional needs are being met it will be easier to support your children. Contact us today! You can call 1-519-307-9000 or email info@artastherapy.ca to get started.

Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, Art Therapist at Art as Therapy