couple going through a divorce

Strategies for navigating divorce, with kids in tow

If you’ve been through divorce, you will know that navigating it is one of life’s most intense challenges. Somehow Gwyneth Paltrow’s expression of ‘conscious uncoupling’ seems to downplay the disruption and sheer agony of a marriage break-up. Some describe divorce as a tornado that rips through your world leaving a wake of shattered dreams and disappointment. Others experience it as a great relief.

If you’re walking through a divorce, regardless of the circumstances, it is very important that your kids hear your story and that the story is narrated well. For parents, divorce often brings a sting of toxic stress and for kids, divorce is often an unexplainable event that they struggle to comprehend. For both parents and kids, there is seldom a corner that is left unaffected because divorce requires you to renegotiate all aspects of your life – at a time when you are least resourced for it. Friendships, finances, living arrangements and – most crucially – your children, all are significantly affected by divorce. When everything inside you wants to run and hide away to heal, as a parent you’re forced to dig deep and find the wisdom, confidence and stamina to turn up and help your kids navigate through as well.

Every couple has their own unique set of circumstances surrounding their decision to divorce, but one thing couples who are parents share is their desire to want the best for their kids. Parents going through divorce often approach us seeking strategies that will help minimise the impact on their kids, smooth the way for everyone to regroup and prepare for some kind of new normal to emerge.

No matter how ‘messy’ the split is for you and your ex, there are a few must-do strategies that can make the journey significantly smoother for your kids. Here are some tools to help you navigate the path ahead:

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Narrate your story well

As difficult as it is, the story of your divorce is really important to your kids. Regardless of what happened in your relationship, your ex-partner is still your child’s biological parent and is likely to be in your child’s life for a very long time. When you criticise your child’s parent, remember that your child may interpret that as criticising them. As hard as it is, don’t let your resentment and anger towards your partner leak out all over your kids and affect their relationship with their only other parent. Pay careful attention to telling the story of your divorce in a way that is simple and age-appropriate, so your child can easily make sense of things. Narrating your story works best when you can team up with your ex and tell the kids together. That way you can both take shared responsibility for this decision instead of blaming each other.

Keep calm in front of the kids

Kids do much better in all aspects of their world when they’re not exposed to the toxic atmosphere between separating parents. In nearly all cases of relationship breakdown, it’s the conflict and toxic communication between partners that is more harmful for kids than the divorce itself. Remember that the real enemy between you and your partner is the conflict. It’s vital that your kids don’t feel caught in the middle because it’s impossible for them to navigate that position in a healthy way. Kids should never feel like they need to mop up their parents’ pain or protect one parent from the other. It’s not your child’s job to act as a go-between, so keep the issues between you and your partner private to protect your children from getting stuck in the middle.

Keep communication light and polite

A positive outcome of divorce is that it’s a reset for the relationship which can now transition towards healthier ways of communicating. You have released one another from the expectations of the marriage so now you can focus on establishing a more respectful relationship that is less triggering and more sustainable. Switching up the communication to lighter and politer will give your kids a sense of safety and security within all the change. It can be helpful to now think of your ex-partner as more of a neighbour or colleague – relationships where communication can be polite, pleasant and purposeful, but not overly friendly or personal.

Keep routines as normal as possible

Kids draw a lot of comfort from the normal rhythm of routine and will navigate changes better when they understand what is going on. It’s also important they know that they can ask questions at any time and have access to reassurance and clarification. Every family has their own rhythms and routines. As much as possible, keep these consistent. Carry on with pizza night on Fridays or visiting grandparents on the weekend. Continue the family rituals that you have already established and work together to maintain normal routines for your kids.

 

Reassure kids: it’s not their fault and they can’t fix it

Despite the facts of your divorce, kids might tend to blame themselves for the breakdown of your relationship and set about trying to fix things between you. It’s important to remind your child, over and over again, that your decision is entirely an adult decision between you and your partner and nothing that happened between you is your child’s fault. Neither is it your child’s responsibility to help make it better. Gently reassure your child that although you are no longer together, you will always be their parents. Now is the perfect time to remind your child how precious they are to both of you and let them know that even with all the change, you are committed to walking through this together.

Stay emotionally available

Questions can be a child’s way of staying close so allow plenty of time for relaxed conversation. The volume of questions will differ based on your child’s age and personality but rest assured, it’s normal and expected that this change will bring up lots to talk about. Generally, younger kids will ask more practical questions and older kids are likely to have far more challenging questions. If your child is not much of a talker there is no need to sit down for long chats, but do make sure that you replace words with time and connect with your child through shared activities. Simply opening up some space where all questions and emotions are welcome can give kids the reassurance that although you are leaving the relationship, you are still completely available for them.

Keep the communication simple and age-appropriate

Resist the urge to overshare or paint yourself as the victim or the villain. Ideally, both partners can come up with a shared explanation that is authentic yet respectful. It’s ok not to have all the answers just yet, but it’s important that you meet your child’s uncertainty with reassurance. You want to reassure them that even though you are not together with your partner anymore, you are still both parents and that will never be up for review.

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Make space for your child’s personality

We’re all wired differently but you can expect that during this challenging time, you will see the good, the bad and the ugly of everyone’s personality come out to play. Your peaceful child might try and be extra good or hide themselves away in their bedroom. Your playful child might busy themselves trying to cheer everyone up. Your perfect child might fly into sorting and organizing themselves and everyone else to find their normal again. Your powerful child might try and take control, thinking that if the adults can’t do it, then leave it to me. A healthy response to navigating divorce is simply slowing down and noticing your child’s reactions. Make space and time for them to talk and to reassure them that although this is hard, they have your time, love, care and attention.

 

Cool-headed and kind-hearted

As painful as it is, divorce does bring its very own masterclass in leading by example and showing our kids what it means to respect ourselves and others. If we are hoping to raise kids who are cool-headed and kind-hearted, then we must find the courage to rise above the meanness of our ex-partner and demonstrate healthy boundaries. This is not easy to do when we are constantly triggered. It’s hard to resist the temptation to keep battling it out with your ex, but getting back in the ring is unhelpful. Instead, spend your energy on building connections with supportive people – those whose positive influence will help you be the parent you want to be.

Sure up your lines of support

In the flurry of a relationship ending emotions will be running hot, so resist the temptation to jump into panic mode and make all your big decisions at once. Instead, take the time and space you need to find your calm, your maturity and your wisdom. Reach out to others who are strong, wise, calm and kind, and allow yourself time for healing and recovery. Resist the urge to retreat and withdraw, instead intentionally create a community of friends and professionals around you, people you can lean on and people who can support you through this. When you feel supported you will have more capacity to support your kids.

The last word

It’s pivotal to remember that your own safety and well-being is vitally important for your kids. If at any stage in your relationship you feel you are in danger, or that you could do with some more support, please reach out. There are trained and understanding people ready and waiting to help you.

Where to get help

  • Women’s Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 – 0800 REFUGE (0800 733 843)
    www.womensrefuge.org.nz
  •  Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day – 0508 744 633
    www.2shine.org.nz
  • It’s Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450
    www.areyouok.org.nz
  • Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and Middle Eastern women and their children. 24/7 crisis line: 0800 SHAKTI (0800 742 584)
    shaktiinternational.org
  •  Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
  • Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
  • Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
  • CASPER Suicide Prevention

If it is an emergency and you, your children, or someone else is is at risk, call 111.

Are you facing domestic violence? 

Agencies agree that your first step is to talk to someone. Free and confidential help is available 24/7, see the contact details above. Your next step is to develop a plan to stay safe – ask for help with this.

If you are in imminent danger, the following steps are recommended:

  1. Call 111 and speak to the police.
  2. Go somewhere safe. If you are in danger within your home, take your children and leave as soon as it is safe to do so. Go somewhere where other people can look out for you and protect you. Women’s Refuge offers urgent safe accommodation across NZ for women and children in danger.
  3. Get police protection.
  4. Apply for more permanent protection. A protection order means an abuser can be arrested if they hurt, threaten or even approach you or your children.

 

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About Author

Jo Batts

For Jo, relationships are at the heart of whānau. Jo is our Family, Relationships and Marriage coach at Parenting Place working with family, sibling and relational dynamics. She’s a counsellor, a strengths coach, a parent, a partner, and the leader of our relationships and marriage programme. Jo's down-to-earth approach helps people to develop the practical tools to build healthy relationships for everyday life.

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