Some children are more vulnerable (2): Support for children of divorced parents in times of health crisis

When dealing with a COVID-19 virus health crisis, we take care that children are different. You can read about it in the article “Some children are more vulnerable: What kind of support they need in times of health crisis”. There are many groups of vulnerable children, and this text aims to help children who are already growing up under the stress of divorce (separation) of parents, often accompanied by parental conflict. We have long known that parental divorce is a stressful experience for children who overcome with support. We also know that divorce itself is not the cause of possible negative consequences for children, but the intensity of conflict between parents and the child’s assumption of responsibility for parental well-being.

Now we are all passing this crisis. Consider, with everything you have experienced in your life, how you have been in the last few days … You probably have at least an occasional sense of loss of control, loss of social contacts, common routines and habits … Many will remember other changes, minor or major. We know that it is fully expected to feel fear, anxiety, confusion, anger, insecurity, increased caution, irritability, sadness, helplessness, difficulty concentrating … These are all normal reactions in an abnormal situation and we try to deal with it as best we can and know it. Most of all, we need the support of loved ones.

What we know for sure is that many of these reactions are felt by your child as well. You can recall earlier periods, some of these reactions occurred before and during divorce or separation, and some of them intensified in the current health crisis. What is an additional burden on the child of separated parents in the current crisis is the continuation of conflict and mutual misunderstanding between the parents, ie the two most important persons who need it in the present situation when basic security is violated. There are many children in our society who are not with both parents in the current crisis, ie their parents are separated. We know a lot of parents who manage to cooperate even after separation, and their children after the divorce have a good relationship with both parents. We also know many families where one parent is the source of trauma for the child and the other parent and such children need protection for the whole system, all of us, both before and after this crisis, and now because one parent (unfortunately, sometimes both) is objectively dangerous for the life, health and safety of the child. It is very important that we all take care that children with such experiences continue to be protected and even in times of crisis like this and not be invisible to us, along with their families.

However, there are many children whose parents still have a level of daily conflict even after separation, and children are not protected from this. Conflict is sometimes about the choice of school and leisure activities, about the way of eating, about the differences in the parents’ attitudes about how each of them sees the agreement, whether, for example, “return by 7 o’clock can be up to 7 hours and 15 minutes.” It is difficult for the children, after the divorce they have learned to live in the same way between the two parents, they have learned to satisfy each parent individually, they tell their mother what they think she wants to hear and their dad what they think that dad want to hear. These children are very sensitive to direct and indirect conflicts (they recognize, for example, their mother’s angry expression while writing a message, they notice their father’s disinterest when they mention mom, etc.). These children are more vulnerable than others because they have a higher risk in later emotional development than children whose parents co-operate after divorce.

 

So what now? What about when experts warn from all sides – children need all possible support and parents are separated and harder to negotiate?

This is one of those situations where we call for the best interests of the child, the rights of the child and the fulfillment of the child’s needs. In the context of separated parents and if one parent is not detrimental to the health, life and safety of the child, the best interests of the child are the availability of both parents, active encouragement by both parents to have a free relationship with the other, protecting the child from developmentally inappropriate information, and parental cooperation around at least important aspects of life. Perhaps in the context of today’s situation, every parent might think about what they can do to have a child available to both parents. Let’s not forget that even when a parent is present and lives with or spends their days with their child, they are not always available. We often hear the example of the difference between the presence and availability of parents from the children: “When I am with my dad, he always sleeps”, “Mom is at home with me, but she is constantly on cell phone, we do not play”, “When I tell them I am sad, they say I’m big and stop complaining once”. Availability, then, is not a mere presence, it implies that the parent sees child (in terms of understanding needs, not in physical terms), knows how to comfort them, gives them the feeling that they is there for them, provides them with emotional security and is a source of child protection from violent situations.

Particularly in the current situation really important to put in the center of the child’s needs and establish cooperation with each of their parents, to enable the child at least indirect terms of communication with the other parent, if his hand cannot meet, try to find the positive in the other parent from the position of a child, consider and devise a plan for the maximum availability of both parents in the current situation. It is certainly important that the child not be exposed to a situation in which the agreement of parents will come perhaps up to the conflict, but that should be excluded from it, and later informed about the common decision and agreement of parents. This is the moment when you create security for your child (“They are there for me, they both love me”).

The system also takes care of all situations in which the parents cannot agree, and even in this situation there are recommendations in accordance with the general instructions of the Civil Protection Staff on the permanent residence of all at the address of residence. Therefore, if there are difficulties in reaching agreements that cannot be solved solely by the parents, we consider it important to contact the competent CSW in this emergency situation, for which, as we have stated, there are recommendations.

 

What as a divorced parent you can now do together for your kids:

  1. Be responsible for your health, follow the instructions to protect your health and that of your children
  2. Avoid communication with children, do not lessen the danger, or flood them with constant information that they cannot understand. On the other hand, encourage them to ask you questions
  3. Collaborate with the other parent, do not let this situation be the beginning of a new war
  4. If you are separated from your child, be creative, encourage indirect ways of communicating with your child, through the exchange of games, stories, movies, use Skype, WhatsApp, phone, Viber. Remember, we said the most important thing – being present and available is not the same. Be available if you cannot be present. No one should be hugged now, and even those who are together do not. However, if you live with a child, be active in fostering this kind of contact with the other parent.
  5. Be clear, honest, and open-minded, provide accurate and clear information to the other parent about what is happening to you and your family, and try to work out what steps you can take to protect your child. And of course, inform one another about everything that is going on in your child’s health status
  6. As adults, show understanding for each other, in the current situation, everyone is in a different way in another crisis (health problems, family, economic, emotional, social).

 

For your child, these days will remain a living memory for life. It is important that with all the hard feelings they have, they brings with them the feeling that both parents may have been available to him or her, perhaps in different ways. Therefore, it is important:

– Give the child clear explanations of what is happening and what you have agreed with the other parent. You can also ask your child if there is any additional suggestion, such as how to communicate with the non-seeing parent in the current period (but only after agreement between the parents because the decision is made by the parents)

– Expect more intense feelings for the child, show understanding if he or she acts a little younger (eg be patient if you need light at night again, if you get wet sometimes… don’t judge and hurry…)

– Particularly show understanding for anger. It is often the basis of anger and sadness and frustration … give support to such feelings

– Show understanding for your child’s day-to-day crises, but also for easier and more difficult days, tell your child to see that his / her dad / mom is missing, to know that this is difficult, this will give the child “permission” to just talk about it

– Normalize your child’s reactions, “It’s normal for your mom to miss you … It’s normal for you to remember your dad many times in the day”

– Suggest that the child preserve the things that the child does (eg drawings) that he or she will show one parent to another

– If you live with a child, you do a lot of things with the child that relaxes him (exercise, what he loves, telling stories…)

– Do not diminish your child’s reactions (Do not say, “Come on, what are you crying, you know that Dad is fine …”), but do not overwhelm him with your reactions (Do not say, “I will die without you, I’m very sad”)

– Ask your child to make a poster on which to write when he remembers what each parent will do when everything goes, let the poster be “homes” for both mom and dad, maybe for grandparents, friends, ie whom the child chooses. This contributes to optimism and positive expectation, and this helps in a crisis. If this refuses, do not insist.

– Whether you are with the child all the time, or occasionally, always repeat to him that both parents love him, show him love, support a sense of security, “We will both always be there for you”

– Don’t give false hope, answer your child’s questions with what you know, the “I don’t know” agreement is the same answer.

 

We know that all this is not an easy task, especially when you are already feeling helpless and tired, but we also know that a large number of parents can find the best solution for themselves in this situation, for both parents and, ultimately, for the child. You may be surprised and this crisis manages to lead to a different way of communicating with “Her” or “Him”, with the child in focus.

These days, The New York Times published a testimony from a mom. In summary, this is:

My ex and I were arguing just about everything. We share custody of our two sons … And then came the coronavirus. If a pandemic were to be thrown into our divorce, who knows what could happen … I was just shopping, food, disinfectants, medications … What if I was alone with my children in quarantine?

One morning his message arrived. We first started to talk about the little things. We realized that we needed to make the decision together. And so we went on….

I know there are different stories, different experiences. For my ex and me, I know that one day there will be disagreements again. We are certainly not going to be a divorced couple spending the holidays together. But I hope we can use this moment as an opportunity to turn the page a little towards our shared parenting. I should start to believe that boys have a father who wishes them the best. The kids need us both. A pandemic cannot change it – it can make it clearer.

 

Written by:  Bruna Profaca, PhD, clinical psychologist and Nikolina Škrlec, Social work MA

 

Disclaimer: This is unofficial translation provided for information purposes. Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center can not be held legally responsible for any translation inaccuracy.   

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