Parenting through divorce: Helping children to safely navigate worry and anxiety.- Guest blog by Heather Rutherford
Divorce is stressful for kids, all kids. It’s a crisis in a family and it’s not at all surprising that it causes deep emotional reactions including anxiety.
It’s completely natural for the children of divorcing parents to feel anxious. Divorce is a process of huge family adjustment and change which is unfortunately so often accompanied by conflict. Uncertainty with the need to transition and change can be unsettling for even the most resilient child. For children who are more temperamentally disposed to feel worried or anxious, or for those who are already struggling, the process of divorce may exacerbate these feelings. For other children the change in the dynamics of their relationships, the practical adjustments such as getting used to two homes or the conflict they witness may cause them to feel fearful, anxious, and worried.
Anxiety is a normal human response that is there to protect us and keep us safe from threats. When our bodies perceive danger our primitive brain, our amygdala, takes charge with a fight, flight, or freeze response. The danger could be to a charging tiger but could equally be a ‘dangerous’ situation such as a new experience, an important change, or a big presentation. Our bodies respond instinctively and as our nervous system reacts, we feel the adrenaline surge giving us a boost of energy, our heart beats faster and webreath quicker and are more alert. This all serves a purpose and is useful when we need to flee from danger or rise to a challenge. Healthy anxiety comes anddoes its job then recedes, like a wave hitting the shore. As the body is not designed to be on continual high alert, anxiety can become unhealthy when it’s prolonged or consistent.
It’s entirely understandable that children would feel scared when their parents’ divorce and this fear and worry can show up as anxiety. It’s also understandable that children witnessing sustained conflict between their parents may have a heightened fear of abandonment.
How do we spot anxiety and what can we do to help?
· Reduce conflict. This must be at the top of the list. The latest research on the impact of divorce on children tells us that it’s normal for children to take up to two years to transition and adjust. The research reinforces what we intrinsically know that it’s not the divorce that damages children but the level of conflict they experience before, during and after. The higher the levels of parental acrimony and conflict, the harder it is for children and teens to adjust and the longer the ripple effects continue with negative impacts on mental health and wellbeing. Remembering that divorce is an ongoing process rather than an event and continually working hard to reduce the conflict is the most important thing parents can do to help their children build resilience against mental health problems, including the negative impacts of persistent anxiety. Reference- https://devexmediation.co.uk/budcms/includes/kcfinder/upload/files/Family-Solutions-Group-handout-from-Gordon-Harold-2022-on-impact-of-parental-conflict-on-children.pdf
· Recognise the signs. You are the expert on your child. We all display our anxiety in different ways that reflect our temperament, stage of development and the intensity of our feelings. Tuning in deeply and consistently to our children we hope to pick up on any signs that they are struggling – it may be a change in their behaviour, tummy aches, avoiding things, worry and catastrophising, crying or clinginess. Doing all we can to stay connected and fully focused gives us the best chance to notice when our kids are overwhelmed. Typical worries or anxieties come and go, and they may be more prevalent during family turmoil, but more serious forms of anxiety stay around, get in the way of our kids living a normal life and, in these circumstances, we should seek help.
· Explain and reassure: Share with your child how anxiety works. Explain, age appropriately, how it’s a completely normal human response that’s designed to keep us safe. It can feel very uncomfortable and sometimes it takes over when it doesn’t need to.
Feeling anxious at certain times is anormal healthy part of life. The first day at a new school when you panic that you won’t find a friend. The fear that you will forget everything in an exam or the worry about trying new things. When our body senses a threat, it’s job is to keep us safe. We might feel butterflies in our tummy, our heart beating faster, our breath quickening as we get ready to fight, fight or flee. We’ve all felt this. Remind them that it’s helpful when we must run from danger, or indeed when we’re stimulated for a big test, but our primitive brain can do its job too well.
Our ability to ride the wave of anxiety, reassuring ourselves that we are safe, is a key part of resilience. Reassure them that it’s normal that a child experiencing family breakup, change and perhaps conflict to find their mind on high alert. When our body is triggered into a fight, flight or freeze response, our emotional brain takes over and our thinking brain goes offline, and we might feel like our brain is in a fog or we are overwhelmed with ‘what if’ thinking. We can work with our children to help them find calming and coping strategies and above all to help them feel safe. The more we practice, the more our brain wires itself to respond with resilience.
· Help them feel safe: One of the most powerful things that we can do to help our kids manage anxious thoughts and worries is to help the children feel safe. Overwhelmed with big feelings, our kids often feel scared, worried, and alone. Recognising that anxiety is an emotional response reminds us that no amount of rational reassurance will work until they are reconnected, calm and feel safe. Our co-regulating presence provides the feeling of safety and security that all children need to learn to self-regulate and build resilience themselves. It’s about modelling a calm response to worry perhaps by getting down on their level, with a soft voice and a soft expression. It’s about talking less and sending the message with your presence that ‘I am here. You are safe, seen, and secure. We’ve got this and you are not alone.”
· Be an Emotion Coach: Listening, trying to understand, validating, and giving voice to emotions helps kids get back to a calm space, start to process their feelings and find healthy ways to cope. It’s what Dr Dan Siegel calls’ it’ and it’s a way of making sense of our feelings. We can teach our kids to do this by modelling it ourselves. When we notice our children overwhelmed with big feelings, simply naming how we think they might feel, with no judgment or attempt to explain or rationalise helps them calm down. It might sound like this: “I’m wondering if you’re feeling a bit anxious and unsettled inside about what all this means for you. I can understand that” or ‘When you are with Daddy, you miss Mummy. And when you are with Mummy, especially when you are having a tough day, you miss Daddy. That is so hard.” Giving voice to difficult feelings doesn’t highlight or exacerbate them, but rather helps normalises them, helps us feel validated and heard which helps us calm down and is the first step in helping kids learn to cope.
· Teach coping and calming strategies: Talk often and openly and model coping strategies and help your kids explore what works for them. Breathe work such as box breathing is one of the most effective coping tools and can be taught to children at any age but there are many others. A recent survey of children and young adults suffering with anxiety and depression conducted by the Anna Freud Centre shows that their favourite calming techniques were listening to music, watching a film, or reading, talking someone they know and trusted, having a cry or laughter. Talk to your children about what helps them cope. An important approach to anxiety is to be brave and take small steps towards or through it. Our brains learn from experience and avoidance may seem comfortable, but it can feed the anxiety as we lose confidence in our ability to cope. Show your child that you believe in their ability to cope and work with them to practice one small brave step at a time.
· Keep life as predictable as possible. Children thrive when they feel safe and secure. This is especially true for children who are temperamentally less adaptable or flexible. During family separation and divorce routines, schedules, living arrangements and ways of communicating are sure to change. Working hard with your co – parent to keep your children’s routines predictable, keep your child informed and involved and where appropriate give them a say are crucial to avoiding unnecessary stress and anxiety. Keep thinking, what does my child need, and how can we meet those needs and how can we help them feel understood and heard?
Divorce is a challenging and sometimes devastating process. We want to remember that in order to be present and meet our children’s needs for safety, understanding, validation and security, we need to learn to manage our own stresses and worries. Divorcing parents need help and support and it really isa case of putting on our own oxygen mask first before we help those who are relying upon and need us. Children pickup on the anxiety that we feel. Along with reducing conflict, our own well-being is vital to support and help our children manage theirs.
Heather Rutherford is a parenting coach, mum to three young adults and she is divorced. Heather’s mission is to share practical effective parenting skills to support families through the challenges of separation and divorce, raise happy and resilient children and help each unique family thrive. To find out more please contact Heather: firstname.lastname@example.org www.theparentingpartnership.com