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Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. Headshot

Helping You And Your Children Make It Through Divorce

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Any relationship break-up can be tough, but divorce comes with its own problems and pitfalls. This is especially true if children are involved. Obviously, you can't just walk away and take care of yourself. It's important to minimize the negative effects that divorce will have on the children. The bottom line is that it's vital to regain your own psychological equilibrium to make sure your children can get through the process unscathed. You can't help your children if your own emotions are running wild.

It's useful to understand that regardless of how objectively upsetting a situation might be, it's sometimes compounded by unhealthy reactions. So, just as the safety announcements on airplanes urge you to put on your own oxygen mask first, make sure you have the tools to change your negative responses so you can focus on also taking care of your children. Research shows that children thrive with "attuned" parents and falter with those who ignore or minimize their feelings. Divorce can knock anyone off kilter, so don't underestimate the negative effects that stress can have on you. Learn to manage your own reactions so that you can recognize when your children need comforting, and don't push them away or minimize their pain. Be available to let them talk about their feelings and deal with any confusion they may have.

The need to regulate your own responses cannot be overstated. Your anger, depression or anxiety can cause lifelong problems for your children. Remember, just because negative reactions emerge does not make them true or useful. Self-help techniques can help you stay in control. You can find some in my book, Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy. For instance, one adult client kept rehashing a fight. Another child client kept seeing his father angrily walk out the door for the last time. You can help yourself and your children get rid of distressing mental pictures by imagining it on top of paint in a can. Then, just stir it up. That disrupts "working memory" and makes it go away. You can also use other techniques to immediately change negative emotions or thoughts. This will empower both you and your children. It will also allow you to be present with your children and show enough happiness so they don't feel like they have to take care of you. No child deserves that burden.

It's also vital that you make sure to let your children know they are not to blame for what happened. Carefully explain that this was an "adult decision" and while things will be different, they are still loved and that will never change. Emphasizing this and saying "I love you" are a vital part of what children need in order to recover their own equilibrium.

Remember that children often take on blame for what goes on in their lives. It can haunt them for years in many ways and cause many emotional problems.

For instance, in Getting Past Your Past I describe how personalities develop and different kinds of problems emerge. It includes many examples of how children were derailed by the actions of their parents, and how they took on guilt that didn't belong to them. EMDR therapy processing of the memories liberated them into a healthy life, but rather than allow problems to develop, it's important that you make sure your children feel free of personal blame for the divorce. That includes not putting them in the position of "go-betweens" or "sounding boards" for pain and anger. I can't tell you the number of adult children of divorced parents who report how painful it was to be in the middle, and how much it compromised their relationships with both parents. It's important for the parents to set appropriate boundaries and handle difficulties with each other while leaving the children out of it. If you have to vent, do it with a grown family member, friend or a therapist. But make sure it's in a location where the children can't hear. Otherwise, youngsters can carry the pain and confusion with them for years to come.

If you notice that they have already been negatively affected, reach out for professional help. An EMDR specialist can help both you and your children to process the divorce as well as any negative experiences that led up to it so the memories can be digested and let go. Also consider, couples' therapy to help you and your ex part in the best possible way for the sake of the children.

The bottom line is that our childhood experiences set the foundation for how we see the world. Make sure to stay attuned and available while maintaining your own emotional balance. Children can feel loved and nurtured whether in a one-home or two-home family, and that can set them on the path to a happy and productive future.

Here is a list of tips to remember:
1. Tell children "I love you" and let them know that will never change.

2. Let them know the divorce has nothing to do with them or anything they've ever done or been or could do.

3. Make sure not to blame or demonize your ex. Don't put children in the middle or use them as go-betweens.

4. Talk to your children about their feelings. Let them know it's okay and normal to feel sad, angry, confused, etc. Teach them ways to cope.

5. Make sure they know that they can talk with their friends about their experiences and that they don't have to be silent or keep the divorce a secret.

6. Plan fun activities to participate in with your children.

7. Plan fun activities with friends and family members to nurture yourself.

8. Make sure you have the tools and techniques needed to handle your own emotions and stay attuned to your children.

9. If things feel stuck, get yourself and/or your children therapy (like EMDR) to communicate and process the feelings.

10. Keep going back to #1 because it can't be said often enough.

Click here for an extended list of tips
Also see: How to Take Back Your Power After a Divorce