Nurturing the Mental Health of Your Children Following Divorce
A divorce is never easy. Even amicable separations can cause grief and force your entire family to deal with unexpected changes. And as difficult as a divorce may be on you, it’s often just as hard, if not harder, for the children involved.
Children have to deal with a lot while watching their parents get divorced, which can negatively impact their mental health. They likely have already witnessed the issues leading up to the separation and now their lives could change even more, due to everything from custody arrangements to potentially having to move out of a familiar home.
So, what can you do to nurture the mental health of your children following a divorce? How can you foster a healthy and safe space for them, while supporting their strong feelings and emotions?
The Importance of Your Children’s Mental Health After a Divorce
It’s easy to assume that children are resilient, and though that isn’t entirely untrue, they’re experiencing a great loss when it comes to divorce. Whether they fully understand the situation or not, divorce can be difficult for your child to deal with.
This means it’s essential to make your children’s mental health a priority.
While most children will recover from the effects of divorce, fostering an environment of mental wellness will help them not only now, and also in the future. In the United Kingdom, anywhere from 5% to 19% of children have an anxiety disorder of some kind. Separation anxiety is the most common culprit for children under the age of 12. A divorce can trigger that type of anxiety, leading to symptoms like:
- Difficulty concentrating;
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns;
- Constant worrying;
- Negative thoughts.
Some children will display more noticeable symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health difficulties than others. However, even if your child doesn’t appear to be impacted by your divorce, it’s still a good rule of thumb to keep checking in and do what you can to make your home a safe space for supporting their mental well-being.
One of the best things you can do following a divorce is to talk to your children about what happened and how they’re feeling. Ideally, that’s something you’ve been doing all along.
However, it’s easy to get caught up in the craziness of the divorce process and distracted by your own grief. As a result, far too many parents don’t have effective discussions with their children about what to expect following a divorce. Thankfully, some communication tips can make it easier to talk to your children about divorce.
It’s best to have both parents involved in this type of communication. If you’re not on speaking terms with your former spouse, keeping a few helpful “rules” in mind can ensure each conversation about the topic is productive, including the following:
- Don’t divulge specific details about the divorce.
- Use age-appropriate language.
- Reassure your children they will always come first.
Simple explanations work best for younger children, while older kids might try to distance themselves or hide their emotions.
Additionally, having a conversation about your divorce with your children shouldn’t be a one-time thing. You may need to bring it up more than once (even though it’s not your favorite subject) to ensure your children are coping healthily. In some cases, if your children are struggling to cope with the changes in their lives due to your divorce, it can also be beneficial for them to talk to a therapist.
Now, more than ever, your children need to feel supported.
That starts by providing a constant comforting presence in their lives. They need to know they can turn to you for anything. You don’t have to “push” to get them to open up about their feelings. Rather, your consistent presence and support will often speak for themselves.
It’s also important to be actively involved in your children’s hobbies and interests. They might use them as distractions for a while or as healthy coping mechanisms to let go of stress.
Perhaps your child is interested in after-school STEM activities and they have a knack for science. Or maybe they’re involved in sports, music, or theatre. They can help your children secure their sense of identity and not feel so lost because things are changing. Many of these activities can also provide longer-term benefits for children and their development.
Try to participate in these activities with your kids. If they’re interested in STEM subjects and activities, look for ways to introduce that into your time together, such as going for a nature walk. If they want to play sports, help them practice on the weekend. Not only does this give you some quality time with your kids, but it also can help you both cope with the difficulties of the divorce.
Beyond participation, however, show them they have your unwavering support. That kind of physical and emotional reassurance can be exactly what your children need to know there is a “constant” in their lives, even when everything else seems to be changing.
Again, divorce is never easy on anyone. Take the time to consider how your separation might have affected your children and what you can do to nurture their mental health. If you’re struggling to do so, consider how your own mental well-being has been impacted and get the help you need (and deserve) so you can be there for your children.