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How to help someone going through a divorce
Divorce and separation helping children and parents to cope As parents, we all hope to build a safe familiar world for our children to grow up in. When your children experience the ordinary losses and disappointments of life, as an adult you can stand back a bit from their distress and offer them your sympathy and support. But when you face a serious family loss or upheaval, it is a struggle to manage your own grief, disappointment or anger, so at first you may not be able to help your children. It is not surprising that at times most parents find this double burden too much to cope with. We hope this leaflet will help you to understand how you and your children may be feeling and to think about what may be best for all of you when relationships go seriously wrong or break down. How parents come to terms with separation Separation affects everyone. The loss of a shared life and giving up the idea of a future together for the family is bound to be painful. You need to make allowances for yourself and your children for some time — maybe for several years. Living with the children It is usually the mother who remains living with the children, often as a lone parent. Many people feel very alone at times like this. Before you can give support to your children, you need to feel supported yourself. If you are fortunate, you have understanding and supportive family and friends who rally round. Some people also turn to their own cultural and religious communities. This can be a valuable source of support. There is a natural and inevitable temptation to fill the gap left by your partner by taking one of your children into your confidence. But this puts your child in a very difficult position and may stop them being able to turn to you as a parent. This may be the time to talk to someone who is not personally involved — perhaps your GP in the first instance. Keeping in contact with both parents Even when children feel it is better for their parents to part, almost all of them want to know that it is not going to cost them one of their parents. They may feel they are increasingly losing touch with the everyday lives of the children and have to find new ways of being together with the children. But children feel deeply hurt and rejected when a parent suddenly disappears from their life even if the parent thought they were acting for the best. Any contact is usually better than none at all. When regular visits are not possible, letters, photographs, birthday cards and phone calls make a child feel cared about by both parents. For some children the possibility of contact causes great distress. This may be related to exposure to violence or other traumas and professional help may be needed for the child. Visits Arrangements must be faithfully kept so that your child is not let down. This can be difficult for both parents. The visiting parent may see questions about what will happen during a visit as doubting their parenting ability. Further help You may find it helpful to contact a group of other lone parents, such as Gingerbread, or your own community group for information and support. If you have concerns about your children you may find it helpful to talk to your health visitor, GP or school about a referral to your local NHS Child and Family Guidance Centre. For adults, local dispute resolution and mediation services exist through the courts, National Family Mediation or privately. Often the practical arrangements for contact with the ex-partner are a problem. They often help when ex-partners do not want to meet face to face. If you need specialised legal advice, solicitors who are members of the Family Law Association are able to help. The library or town hall can help you with addresses for the services mentioned or look in the telephone book under your local health authority. Protecting children from adult problems When adults are angry with each other, misunderstandings can easily occur. Try to put the children first. Try not to let the mood you are in affect the arrangements, leaving your child not knowing what to expect. Your child is very tuned into your state of mind. You need to be honest with yourself about the messages you are conveying to them. For instance, if you feel uncertain or unhappy about visits, your child may not feel free to come and go or be able to benefit from the contact with their other parent. Financial insecurity may lead to short tempers, anxiety, nagging and hostility that is hard to conceal from children, but do try. Useful Understanding Childhood leaflets Grandparents and the extended family How children come to terms with separation Children usually wish that their parents would stay together. Sometimes they try to bring them together again by being very good. Children develop by becoming able to face difficult experiences and they learn from seeing how you struggle through. It may be that they are struggling hard and will come through well in the end. Loss from separation and divorce is different from loss through death. Their behaviour can seem selfish and unnecessary to the child. It may be hard for the child to understand and name what they have lost. They may be confused about whether the loving family they once thought they had ever really existed at all. You may feel tempted to persuade one, or all, of your children to take your side against your ex-partner. They may well feel disloyal whatever they do and it makes it more difficult for them to sort out their own feelings. How children express their feelings Your children may need to fill you with all the anger, doubts and helplessness they feel overwhelmed by themselves. It is easier for them to cope when they are able to make their suffering clear and to feel confident that their needs will go on being met. It may feel to you as if they are telling you that everything you try to do is wrong, but it is their way of asking you to help them. Sadly, children may feel that not only have they lost the parent who has gone, but that the one who has stayed with them is terribly changed. Useful Understanding Childhood leaflets Children, like adults, react in their own way to stress and unhappiness. Their reactions are likely to be different at different ages: Under five Young children normally experience anxiety when they are separated from a parent. This anxiety usually shows itself in crying, clinging and difficult behaviour. With the additional stress of family break-up, you must expect the child to find separations and changes even harder to manage. They may show great reluctance to leave you for a contact visit, and then have a tantrum when it is time to say goodbye to their other parent at the end of the visit. This is distressing for everyone, although it is natural in the circumstances. Middle childhood Children aged between about six and eleven years old have a better understanding of what is happening, but are not able to deal with the conflict of loyalty the separation stirs up. They may even blame themselves and have feelings of guilt. They need you to accept that they are in turmoil and to understand that they may take this out on those around them before their life begins to settle down again. School can sometimes be a haven for the child but you need to be patient if they are not coping as well as they did with friends and school. Adolescents also feel guilty too, because they feel that they have caused the separation. Some teenagers deal with this by a sudden angry rush towards independence, as a way of not facing what is happening at home. For others, the uncertainty may pull them back into the family. It is important for adolescents to have contact with the parent of the same sex. The child who makes little fuss and withdraws into themselves is the one to be most concerned about. You should take special care to offer a child like this as much time and consideration as you would if they were more obviously having problems. Whatever the age of your child at the time of the separation and their reaction at the time, it is something they will continue to sort out in their minds in different ways as they grow up. So be prepared for difficulties to resurface whenever there are changes and uncertainties to be managed. Discipline Children probably experience a lot of inconsistency from distressed, preoccupied adults during the separation. As a result, discipline is likely to become a much more difficult issue than before. You may feel anxious about what your children are allowed to do when they are with your ex-partner or you may discover that your own new partner looks at the matter of discipline in a different way. Try not to take this situation out on the children. Parents need to understand that they have a responsibility to sort it out. They may see good behaviour chiefly as a reassurance that the children have not suffered, or they may become more intolerant of bad behaviour because of the worry and guilt it stirs up. Stepfamilies When families break up, it is often to form new families. If you have a new partner, you hope to build a new future for your family together. You need to remember that you are asking a lot of your children just when they are trying to manage the loss of one parent. Such a close relationship can only grow in time — and then only if a step-parent and step-child really do have a feeling for one another. It is better in the meantime to accept that a certain distance is inevitable and more respectful for all concerned. Your ex-partner also does not want to feel that someone else has taken their place as dad or mum. If you take things slowly, it may be possible to sort out an arrangement with which everyone feels comfortable. Useful Understanding Childhood leaflets.
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