Supporting children through the experience of a divorce while attending to your own grief, anger, worry and the practical challenges of resettling your family after a significant change will challenge most parents going through a separation. Despite the end of the spousal relationship, your co-parenting relationship will continue for years. How you and your former partner decide to handle yourselves and one another will set the stage for the wellbeing of yourselves and your children in the time ahead.
Most parents will rightly focus on supporting their children’s progress through the divorce experience. In addition to supporting the children’s positive growth, parents should attend to their own divorce zone “tasks.” Otherwise, parents may get stuck in the upset feelings that usually accompany divorce – the same feelings that can get in the way of effective and supportive parenting. Parenting well during and after a separation or divorce requires each parent to attend to the tasks outlined below.
Mourn the loss. Acknowledge loss and mourn any hopes and dreams that were not realized. Blaming maintains anger and prevents closing the door on a period. Mourning is the healthy and necessary experience of processing grief feelings after a loss occurs and cannot be completed if you get stuck in blame, denial or obsessing about the actions of your partner or yourself.
Resolve big emotions. Feelings of exploitation or betrayal can consume you and resolving them will allow you to move forward. Similar to mourning the loss, attending to the other emotions that come along with the ending of a relationship is an important act of self-care, a significant step towards healing and healthy modeling for your children who are also experiencing big feelings. Journaling, talking to a good friend, joining a separation/divorce support group and getting connected to a counsellor are all great ways to effectively resolve the emotions you’re carrying. Remember, although they might know more about your experience than anyone, your kids are not your support people. If you aren’t sure what’s appropriate to share with them and what isn’t, it’s best to keep it to yourself or better yet, save it for a friend or your counsellor.
Reclaim yourself. The old “we” must now become a new “me” without self-degradation or blaming your former partner for your new solo status. Your children will benefit from your efforts to establish your sense of self as an individual separate from the couple relationship that ended. You’ll bring more energy to parenting, be less caught up in emotions connected to the separation and model resilience and the importance of self-care through hardship. Finding “me” after “we” can happen through activities that give you a sense of joy and pleasure, making plans to fill the time the kids are with the other parent in a meaningful way or taking up a new activity that isn’t associated with the relationship that ended.
Put yourself out there. Venture forth, reconnect with good friends and family, and meet new people who can support you as you change. Withdrawal and self-isolation can be comfortable when we’re feeling hurt and vulnerable. It’s okay to keep to yourself for a while after a separation, but if weeks are turning into months or longer, find a buddy who can help you step out of your comfort zone or hold you accountable to your commitment to rejoin the outside world.
Investing energy in your divorce zone tasks is the ultimate act of caring for the caregiver. As a parent, it’s too easy to put your needs on the backburner, and it’s important to know there is a cost for that and the cost will be borne equally by you and your kids. Attending to your emotional needs during and after divorce sets the whole family up for success as you move into the next stage of life.