Question: My husband and I are currently going through a separation. Things have gotten pretty bad between us in the past two months. We don’t seem to be able to have a conversation that doesn’t end in an argument. We have two children, one is three and the other is five years of age. Lately I have noticed that the kids are complaining of stomach aches and headaches, especially when they have to go and visit their father. Should I make them go anyway? It seems like this is creating a great deal of stress for them and I don’t want to make things worse, what should I do?
Separation and divorce is stressful for everyone involved, and knowing what is best for the children is never easy. In cases of divorce, research tells us that children do best when they have a healthy relationship with each parent and their extended families. Children often sense and react to stress and anxiety that a parent might be experiencing. If your children are having difficulty leaving you to go to their father’s, it is important to think about why this is occurring. Some children believe that the parent they are leaving will not be okay if they are left alone. If you believe that this might be their concern, it is important to reassure them that although you will miss them, you will be okay. Other children may believe that the parent they are going to visit can’t take care of them. It is important to help them feel safe and secure with both parents, especially at a time when things are changing, like during a divorce.
In order to assist your children during this time, parents are encouraged to do the following:
1. Ensure there is a consistent routine and schedule in each home. This routine doesn’t have to be exactly the same in each home, but the more consistency the child experiences, the better.
2. Parents should foster and protect a relationship with both parents and their extended families. When in doubt, think about how you would handle a particular situation if you and your spouse were still together. It is unlikely that you would tolerate bad mouthing of a parent if the two of you were together so don’t tolerate it when you are apart.
This means that when the children complain about the other parent, you could listen with understanding and then help the children resolve the issue. This does not mean solve it for them, but rather ask the child what they think might help, or how they want to address the issue. The most difficult thing for most parents to do is to watch their child struggle with something, we are moved to fix it for them, but this does not help them to build their problem solving skills. Help brain storm different solutions and then allow the child to choose which solution is best for them. You can point out difficulties they might encounter with their solution, but unless it is unsafe, allow them to follow through with their plan and support them if it does not work.
3. Minimize the children’s exposure to parental arguments. Many of the children I have worked with describe feeling torn between their parents, arguing in front of them makes this feeling even more pronounced. Remind yourself that the children did not ask for their parents to divorce, and they deserve to grow up loving both parents and feeling loved by both parents.
4. Try and work out as much of the divorce settlement as you can out of court. The court process is not only expensive, but also very stressful. When discussing the division of marital assets and custody arrangements it is important to keep the best interest of the children in mind. There are divorce lawyers who commit to working out a divorce settlements out of court, this is not only less expensive, but also less stressful for everyone involved. If this is something that you and your spouse have agreed upon, commit fully to this process and remember that fair is not always equal.
5. Provide your children with a sense of safety and security in each home. Allow the children to take special items, or gifts from one home to another. Allow them access to contact the other parent if they feel the need, but don’t make this a requirement. Sometimes parents project their own need to talk to the child daily onto the child. Most children live in the moment and if they are happy and productive during their time at the other parents home, they may not feel the need to connect to the other parent during their visit.
Get support for yourself during this difficult time in your life. If you are concerned that your child may be unduly stressed by the situation, you may want to seek professional help for your child. Refusal to visit a parent, is often an indicator of defensiveness, and reasons behind this should be explored carefully. If you are concerned about your child a counselor with experience working with children can help.
Sherry Tucker, BA, BSW, RSW
Director of Family Services