Date: June 1, 2012
During the summer, children whose parents have divorced may spend a prolonged period away from the parent and home where they usually live. How do you help prepare your children and make the summer as smooth as possible? The following guidance is based on a child spending most of the year with Mom, although the advice is the same if the child spends most of his or her time with Dad.
Children age 6 or younger often struggle with anxieties when separated from their primary caregivers. (Unless a child has excessive anxiety, separations after age 6 should be easier.) For this reason, we focus on the extra support younger children need.
A young child may long for time with a beloved father or parent he doesn't often see, and relish time with this parent, yet simultaneously suffer from time away from his primary caregiver.
Children ages 3-6 can manage visits longer than a weekend, but need support during these visits to feel that their relationship with their primary caregiver remains intact. The security of a child's relationship with the primary caregiver — and also with the other parent — is threatened if the primary caregiver is completely out of the picture for a week or two. The effects may not be immediately obvious, but could show in time in direct or indirect ways.
The most important thing both parents can do is to believe and convey that the child's relationship with his or her other parent is valued and supported. Tensions and resentments between parents may make this level of authentic support difficult, but hopefully not impossible.
Here are some ways a parent who does not often see a child can support that child's relationship with the primary caregiver while the child is visiting:
Frequently mention the primary caregiver. If the primary caregiver is the mother, Dad can say, "Let's tell Mom about how you went down the slide when you talk to her later."
Arrange times for phone calls, Skyping or other modes of contact. The visited parent can prepare for these calls by helping the child think about what to say, and can handle the call as an intermediary if the child is not comfortable managing the call.
Share photos of your child's activities. Suggest that your child dictate a description or note to accompany the picture.
Have your child open notes or small presents from the other parent, perhaps every day at dinner. These notes should be modest and convey the parent's understanding of what is meaningful to the child.
Recognize that missing the other parent is part of loving the parent, and that missing this parent does not mean that the child does not love and wish to be with the parent he or she is visiting. The child may long for the parent he or she is currently with when living with the other!
Parents help children with their feelings when the feelings are acknowledged and accepted. It is helpful to say, for example, "I know you miss Mommy. I am sorry that you are so sad. Let's see what we can do to enjoy our time together. We are so good at that, and I hope that this will help." It is much less helpful to say, "You don't need to miss Mommy. We are having so much fun, right? And you will see Mommy soon anyway."
The helpful comment recognizes that your child can live with mixed feelings, and that he will develop emotional health by building the capacity, or mental muscle, to find enjoyment and meaning even while feeling some troubling emotions. The unhelpful comment encourages children to talk themselves out of their feelings, or at least not seek understanding and support from that parent, which may result in fewer complaints but may interfere with optimal emotional development.
As Lucy Daniels Center clinicians often tell parents, divorce is not easy for anyone, but when parents are able to prioritize their child's needs in their feelings, decisions and actions, children can emerge from the travails of divorce emotionally healthy and prepared for a full and successful adult life.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families.