Any change is stressful, for both adults and kids. The degree of impact may differ, but the effect of change is the same.
It is important to keep in mind that kids express their stress through their behaviour.
Being able to know you’re experiencing an emotion, labelling that emotion, and expressing it in words are developmental skills. Some kids don’t have these skills yet, or don’t have them fully developed.
As a parent, you can keep an eye out for difficult behaviour that’s out of the norm for your child. This is how you can tell whether or not your child is stressed.
If you notice “acting out” behaviour, you could make a point of regular parent-child “dates” where you simply hang out (do your nails together, go for a hike, grab a pizza slice) and, in casual conversation, invite your child to talk about how they are doing.
This will give your child an opportunity to express what’s going on in words, and, if you listen carefully, you can get information that can help you respond to what’s bothering them.
If your child won’t talk about what’s on their mind, you could make some guesses about what it’s like for them: “Taylor, I’ve noticed you seem kind of short-tempered lately. I’m guessing this whole divorce thing is tough.” And see what they say.
You might also like to affirm that what they are feeling is normal. Let’s assume that Taylor nods yes. Then you could say, “Yeah. It is tough, isn’t it? So much change. It’s pretty normal to be thrown off when there’s that much change. I’m finding it tough, too.”
(This is a time for you to let Taylor know you understand, so you briefly refer to your experience, without going into detail. It’s important for kids to know adults have hard times too, but it’s healthier for us and our kids when we share details with another adult.)
If you feel adventurous, you might even take some guesses at what specifically your child might be finding hard: “I imagine one of the things that’s hard is being in a new neighbourhood. Do you miss the old place?”
Your kids may never acknowledge what you’re saying in the way you would like, but the very act of making guesses about how they’re experiencing their stress and how it’s affecting them lets them know you care, and that you’re paying attention.
It also helps them with the developmental task of labeling emotions. This is a key aspect of emotional intelligence that will equip them well and help them be more resilient as they grow.
By the way, I don’t propose attempting to have this kind of conversation in the midst of a busy day, or in the middle of a big fight. It’s the kind of interaction that needs some sit-down time.
One final note: If you haven’t got someone who can listen to you about your stress and worry, you might be feeling depleted. Then it can be very difficult to approach your acting-out child as described above.
It is important to get support, and to have space where you can troubleshoot parenting through a divorce. Working with a counsellor is one way to do this. To learn more, schedule a free call with Shulamit here.