Making sure the kids are all right, post-divorce

The process of divorce can take a toll on your children so it is important to help them through it too. — AFP pic
The process of divorce can take a toll on your children so it is important to help them through it too. — AFP pic

SINGAPORE, June 4 — Going through a divorce is a tough time for couples but they are not the only ones affected by it. Couples who have children also have to deal with the repercussions that their separation has on the little ones and do everything they can to guide them through this trying time.

It was announced in March that a pilot scheme had been launched last November by Singapore’s Family Justice Courts, to train professionals known as “parenting coordinators”, who will help divorcing couples to make sure issues like access arrangements are followed accordingly.

These coordinators work toward reducing conflict and help couples on their journey toward successful co-parenting.

However, even if the separation is a somewhat peaceful process and sharing custody of a child is not a problem, divorce affects children in various ways and parents should address them. Not surprisingly, experts agree that the key here is communication.

“Children are egocentric and they may blame themselves for the divorce if parents do not communicate about it to them,” said Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Gleneagles Hospital. “Most importantly, parents should present a united front. It is best to explain things together and avoid blaming each other. Explain things in simple terms and keep to the facts.”

Jessica Lamb, a psychotherapist and mediator at Relationship Matters, added that children benefit from honest, open and clear communication so it is important that they know what is happening.

“Children need to know that although their day-to-day family life is going to change, the divorce is the ending of their parents’ marriage and not the end of their family,” said Lamb. “It’s important to reassure them that they will not be asked to choose between Mum and Dad and will not lose their relationship with either parent.”

Let them talk

It is also advisable to give children the chance to express themselves. Dr Lim stressed the importance of allowing children to talk about their anxieties and feelings of uncertainties. Parents then need to reassure them that the decision is made by the adults and they are not to be blamed in any way.

“Give your child space to talk and validate how they are feeling,” Lamb explained. “If your child is angry then encourage them to talk about their anger and help them express it and make sense of it. If they are sad then let them know that it’s normal to feel sad and that you do too. If they are feeling anxious about the future then acknowledge that it is an uncertain time and that they are loved and things will settle down soon.

“Let them know that you are both available and willing to talk or listen when they need it and that if they would like to contact their other parent when with you, it is ok,” she added.

And there are rules to follow as to what you should and should not do in front of the kids. Fighting for your children’s affection is a no-no and so is bad-mouthing each other in front of them. Never blame the children for your divorce or ask them to take sides. And do not fight in front of the kids. It is also important to continue to work as a team when it comes to parenting.

Help them cope

How children cope with your divorce and the means to help them depends on their age. For very young ones under five, Dr Lim recommended explaining the divorce using story books with such themes. While these kids may not be able to understand the concept of divorce, they are vulnerable to separation anxiety and will often blame themselves for the divorce. So keep to a consistent schedule for visitations, to minimise any difficulties in adjusting.

Children aged between five and 10 can understand the divorce proceedings better but will still blame themselves for it. “The older ones in this age range may take sides and villainise the ‘bad’ parent,” said Dr Lim. “A greater amount of time may need to be spent to hear them out. Reassure them that they are not abandoned and keep the visitations schedule predictable.”

It gets a bit trickier for children between the ages of 10 and 16 as they can often get rebellious and make it harder for parents to communicate with them.

“Let the children know that the door is always open should they want to talk to maintain open communication. Always be ready to talk and to listen when the teenagers come to you,” said Dr Lim.

And just because they understand the situation better does not mean that you should lean on them. Lamb elaborated: “Although children at this age are more able to process what is happening and understand their parents’ point of view, they should not be expected to take on the role of a friend and become an emotional crutch for either parent. They still need their parents to be their Mum and Dad and take care of them, not the other way around.”

Finally, if you’re going through a divorce when your children are aged above 16, tread carefully as they are able to understand the emotional turmoil involved and may be more scarred and have a mistrust of marriage as a result. It is also at this age that they are more likely to experience grief over the ‘loss’ of their family.

Dr Lim advised that parents therefore have to also address the emotions and grief that the youths experience. Talk to them about their insecurities and negativity of marriage, and help them learn that not all marriages end this way. — TODAY

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