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A Change in Family Structure

Helping kids adjust to divorce.

Divorce is a crisis for children. However, there is much parents can do to foster children’s long-term adjustment to divorce, or to any major change in the family. If relationships with parents are close, nurturing and dependable, they can buffer children from many of the consequences of these changes.

Our goal as parents, after all, is not to prevent or protect our children from experiencing any stress in their young lives, but to help make the challenges they do face moderate enough so they can tolerate and overcome them. This fosters the resilience they need and that we, as parents, seek to help them develop. There are four key methods to developing this resilience and to helping your children adjust to any major change.

The first, and by far the most important, is to create a stable home environment. According to the most current research on the subject, the most important thing you can do to enhance your children’s long-term adjustment to your divorce is to create stability at home. A stable home represents safety and security to the very young, reassurance and love to the school-age child and guidance and refuge for a successful adolescent. This one factor helps kids adjust to virtually any change they encounter in their lives, whether it is losing a parent or grandparent through death, experiencing a divorce in the family or adjusting to stepfamily life.

One of the most effective and successful ways to achieve stability is to set up regular, organized routines and schedules for meal times, bedtimes, afterschool schedules, curfews, chore lists and the like, and to make every effort to apply them consistently. Stability is nothing more than how your home is run— it is children knowing who makes dinner, what their responsibilities are, what time curfew is on weekdays and weekends, how family members spend time together and how rules and expectations are enforced. It is predictability. And it is important to both children and adults because it tells us the world is safe and drives away the chaos that often accompanies major changes.

When children know how your household runs, you have stability and predictability. Even when children oppose rules and argue against them, they take comfort from them. It is this consistency that assures them they are safe and secure.

The second key is for parents to build good relationships with children. Your relationships with them are crucial to your child’s adjustment to any major change. While there are many ways to do so, one of the most effective ways to improve these relationships is to spend time individually with each child. Keep one child with you as you prepare a meal, giving him the floor to tell you all of the important events of his day, without having to compete with siblings for your attention. Ask another child to stay behind as you put dinner things away, giving her your undivided attention. To the third, you can devote an extra ten minutes at bedtime, tucking him in at the end of the day.

Many parents who do this with their children find that the children save special confidences to share with their parents during these special moments. What a wonderful connection to build with your child at this trying time!

The third key to assisting your children is to create an atmosphere of open communication with them. One of the most effective ways to do this is to just listen to your children. We all need to be heard; children are no exception. Look at your child when he is talking to you. Make eye contact, pay attention, ask questions and echo the feelings and thoughts you are hearing from them.

Tell them by your actions that you are truly listening to them and that what they have to say is important to you; as important as other activities in your life. Show them they can come first in your life, and can take priority over talking with your friend on the telephone, making dinner or listening to the news. Then, when they have something important to share, they will know where to come with it.

The final key is to limit the amount of change in your children’s lives. Most adults assume children experience only one change as a result of their divorce: seeing parents at different times. If we step back and take a closer look, however, we become aware that there are multiple changes children cope with when parents divorce. Some of the most common include adding a new home environment, losing the family home, neighborhood, neighbors and friends, as well as having to change schools, which entails losing not only friends at school, but also teachers, coaches, scout leaders, school counselors, aides and others too numerous to name, that may play a crucial role in the lives of your children. It doesn’t take much to achieve double digit numbers in the changes a child of divorce must face.

There are ways to make these changes easier on your children as well. If your family is experiencing divorce, give your child a minimum of six months between any major changes. For instance, a separation occurs and one parent moves out. Even if the family home must be sold, give your child six months to cope with the separation, itself, before adding another adjustment he must make.

Whenever possible, allow your child to finish out the school year in the old school or, even better, to make the change at a more natural time, such as when all children are switching from elementary school to middle school or middle to high school. Whenever possible, keep childcare providers, coaches, dance teachers and other adults in your child’s life as consistent as possible.

Then changes are necessary, make them as gradually as possible, but give your child time to prepare himself for the change. Children should be aware that the home is being sold before the real estate sign appears on the lawn. Strive to continue familiar routines in your new home, incorporating as many things as you can from your previous home. Finally, help your child to find a positive focus, such as a new bedroom to paint or a great ice cream store in your new neighborhood, to make the best of a potentially trying situation. They will take their cues from you. Model a positive attitude for them.

Remember, divorce is a crisis for children. But armed with this information about how to help them, you can make this a learning and growing experience that helps teach them resilience, a skill they will use for the rest of their lives!

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