Independently, divorce and moving are very stressful — experienced together, this confluence of stress-inducing events can be overwhelming and heart wrenching for both adults and children alike.
Adults tend to have more background with these sorts of epic events; we may be going through our first divorce, but chances are we’ve already weathered a break up or two, and/or lived through a relative’s (such as our parents’) or close friend’s divorce. Depending upon their ages, our children probably have little to no reference for divorce, and may not have moved before either. Seen in this light, it’s no surprise that the divorce of their parents, plus the impending sale of the family home, or the displacement of one or both parents, would seem incredibly traumatic and threatening to a child.
How do we protect our children, and minimize the fallout from all of this stress, upheaval and change?
When going through my own divorce, I sought out the advice of Betsy Brown Braun, behavior specialist, parent educator, and best-selling author. She helped to guide me through the minefield of dismantling my marriage, establishing new routines, and ultimately moving my children on from our longtime family home. I reached out again to her recently for this article; her wisdom and guidance are invaluable when navigating these murky waters.
Change & Predictability
“Children don’t like change of any kind; they thrive on predictability,” says Braun at the start of our interview. She believes that change is the most disruptive thing in children’s lives. “Moving and divorce are so disruptive and unsettling, the very things children hang on to for security are about to be swept away.”
To further illustrate this point, I turned to another expert Christina Rowe, author of Seven Secrets to a Successful Divorce, who writes “children see their parent’s marriage as something like the roof over their head, the food on the table, and the bed they sleep in at night. Whether they are happy or not, their parents marriage is ‘home.’” So the idea of “home” for children is not only their house, but also their parents’ marriage. Divorce and moving represent MAJOR and very threatening change for our children.
Preparing children for change, and giving them some degree of predictability to know what’s coming is really important. The first step is to understand what’s going to happen, and then communicate your plans to your child(ren) in age-appropriate ways.
There are so many variables when it comes to moving and divorce. What’s going to happen to the family home? Is it going to be kept by one of you? Are you both going to live there for a time, but in separate quarters? Or perhaps the children can be kept in the home, while you and your ex trade off sharing an additional property, such as a rental (a nesting arrangement)? Will the house have to be sold — either now or at a predetermined future date?
Typically, a lot of thought, consideration, and often negotiation goes into creating your divorce settlement, and the subsequent plans for your living arrangements. Your children should not be consulted on these sorts of decisions. Involving them in big decisions is scary and overwhelming for children, and gives them too much power. When you’re clear on what your next steps will be, that’s the time to communicate with your child(ren), and involve them in the small decisions.
Braun explains the way to talk to young children about an impending move associated with divorce: “Mommy and daddy are not going to be living together as a husband and a wife in this house. Mommy is going to live in this house, and daddy is going to live a new house. Mommy will still be your mommy. Daddy will still be your daddy.” She says it’s beneficial to give children control over small, age-appropriate decisions, such as “Do you want to see the new house?” or “Would you like to choose some toys to take to daddy’s house?” Braun recommends that the kids be involved in the process of moving some of their stuff to the new house. “You want to feather the new nest together — a house is only a house until it is a home.”
Creating That Safe Place
When your child will be going back and forth between households, Braun says that is different from a typical move. It’s more like adding a place for your child to become comfortable. How easy it will be for a child to adjust, and how long it will take really depends upon the child, and his/her temperament, as well as the child’s relationship with each parent.
What also plays a factor is the relationship is between the parents. How contentious (or not) is it? “The degree of getting along matters,” explains Braun. “If there’s anger between the parents, and the child has sensed it, it will be really hard for the child to leave one parent or the other.” In Braun’s experience she’s found that in the face of contention, young kids will typically want to stay home with mommy.
In an ideal situation Braun says that the child is loved equally by both parents, and loves each parent equally. Hopefully his loyalty to both parents is not being undermined by bad talk, bad feelings, or bad pheromones that are lacing the air that the child is breathing. “For example,” explains Braun, “if mommy is really mad that dad is having a night with the child.” She goes on to say, “Not to sound sexist, but it’s been my experience that women generally have a more difficult time being without their child. If the child senses how hard it is for mom when he goes to see dad, it undermines the child’s ability to let go and be comfortable.”
Braun can empathize with the mothers — she knows how challenging this is. Her advice is to try and understand how difficult it is for your child to see you suffer. When you say, “Oh honey, I’ll miss you!” That puts your child in a terrible position of causing his/her mother’s unhappiness. For your children’s sake, put on a happy face, and do your best to encourage them to enjoy their time with their other parent.
New Family Traditions
For the parent who’s moving into the newer place, everyone’s first inclination is to go out. Braun’s advice is to spend time there from the start. She recommends creating some early memories, rituals and routines. “That may be making popcorn and eating it on the floor as you play Candyland or Monopoly; or having a camp-out in Daddy’s bedroom with your sleeping bags,” explains Braun. “Do fun stuff to make it familiar, safe, and predictable.”
Follow the Leader
Another important recommendation is to follow your child’s lead, watch to see how he/she is adjusting to the new home, and not force the issue of spending tons of time there right away. “Use a drip method for getting the child accustomed to it,” says Braun. The drip method is exposing the child to the new environment little by little over time. First the child goes and just has lunch. Next he goes to have lunch and then a nap. Braun elaborates that this is not about just ripping the bandaid off. That’s an unhealthy way of doing it. In order to get to an emotionally steady comfortable place, you must build some scaffolding. “This can take anywhere from a couple of weeks of getting comfy, to it happening the first time,” says Braun. It all depends upon the temperament of the child.
Signs the Child is Not Ready or Not Adjusting to the Change
Braun says that you can usually tell if a young child is unhappy, as he might have a hard time settling, experience sleepless nights, or regression on previously mastered behaviors. And older children pretty much tell you.
Additionally, according to author Rowe some kids will act out, express anger, and have trouble at school or at home. “Your child may say hurtful things to you, blaming you or your ex for the end of the marriage. It’s important that you let them get it out,” says Rowe. “Another child might withdraw or become depressed.”
Braun’s advice if your older child is not communicating, is to encourage a show of emotion, by sharing your own feelings. “If you’ve been a child of divorce, you can say something along the lines of: ‘I remember when it was time for me to go to my other house, it was so hard for me. I was sad, I was scared, and I was worried. It made me uncomfortable. It took me awhile to get comfortable.’ By bringing that up, it might allow the child to say, ‘Yeah, me too.’”
For anyone moving their children out of their family home for the first time, Braun recommends creating a photobook to memorialize what it looked like, and how the family lived there. She says take photos of each and every room and create a story to go with it: “This is our living room, this is your bedroom, this is where you learned to swim…etc.” Braun says there are multiple ways to do this — with younger kids you can make the book and tell their story; with older kids you can give them a digital camera or a disposable one and let them take part in making the book. “Even if the child does not want to participate, I still think it’s wonderful for the parent to make one for them,” says Braun. The book will help to create opportunities for the children to talk about their feelings, as well as help them to get comfortable in their new digs.
Another tip for older kids, especially teenagers, is to get them a bulletin board for their new room. Braun believes that all teenagers should have bulletin boards. “Not whiteboards,” she explains. “You want them to be able to stick up stuff, cut out pictures from magazines.” This is a fast way for a child to decorate his/her room, and feel like they belong.
On that note, Braun says it’s best if a child can have a photo of the other parent at each house. “A photo of mommy at daddy’s house, and a photo of daddy at mommy’s house.” Allowing that goes a long way to reassuring your children that they still have two parents, and that the room is their room to decorate as they see fit. “Most of all you want your child to feel like this is their room.” On the plus side of moving and divorce: maybe your child(ren) will decorate and get the new room they’ve always wanted!
*Are you faced with selling the family home, and want to prepare your kids? We offer complimentary home evaluation sessions, and have tons of experience with prepping everybody for a stress-free move. Please contact us today!
**As ALWAYS, we recommend that you consult a divorce attorney, tax/financial expert, and/or other divorce-related professional for advice pertaining to your specific situation. With regard to asset (or personal property) division, financial or legal guidance, etc, please consult your legal/financial professional for personalized direction. The above is considered information only, and does not constitute specific or general legal/financial advice.