Booklet from The Parent Practice looking at the impact of divorce on children.

Helping children deal with family separation.

Booklet from The Parent Practice looking at the impact of divorce on children, identifying any possible discomfort they might experience and how to support children during family separation, and beyond.

(October 2013)

Tags: Children, child welfare, health, mental health, psychology, contact, divorce, separation

Table of Contents

1.      Helping Children Deal with Family Separation

2.      But What About The Kids?

3.      How Children Respond to Family Breakup

  • 3.1 Babies -12 months
  • 3.2 Pre-school
  • 3.3. Five to ten
  • 3.4 Ten to thirteen
  • 3.5 Teens

4.      Signs of Difficulties

  • 4.1 Physical
  • 4.2 Signs of depression
  • 4.3 Behavioural Signs
  • 4.4. Sibling rivalry

5.      What To Do About It

  • 5.1  How to talk to children about divorce
  • 5.2  Rules, rewards and consequences
  • 5.3  Reflective Listening
  • 5.4  Descriptive Praise

1. Helping children deal with family separation

This handout looks at the impact of divorce on children at different ages and in particular identifies signs that children may be struggling, whether physical or behavioural. It looks at how to help children deal with family separation, how to help them cope in the moment and continue to flourish thereafter.

When adults divorce their world is in turmoil and so is their children’s – this is a time when they need to have really good parenting – they need clear boundaries at a time when there is much uncertainty; unconditional love when they question whether they are loveable; and they obviously need practical arrangements to help them feel secure.This is very hard for distressed adults to achieve so separating families need lots of support.

Adults whose marriage has broken down are often coping with changes in their financial circumstances, maybe the loss of their home; they may be going through a fight in the courts as well as experiencing feelings of guilt, fear, loss, overwhelm, loneliness and sadness. They may be feeling unattractive and unlovable. Women sometimes face having to go back to work before they might have wanted to and men may find their working hours affected by access arrangements. Men often move out of the family home and have reduced access to their children. Often when they do have access they are more fully in charge than previously and they need to learn a lot about the children that may previously have been the mother’s domain. There may be a lot of practical difficulties as well as emotional upheaval.

2. But what about the kids?

There is no doubt that the impact of divorce on children can sometimes be devastating and although it will always be distressing for them it doesn’t have to cause lasting harm. Some of the statistics around divorce and the outcome for children are very scary but if parents (or even one of the parents) can find ways to deal with their own emotions so that they can focus on helping the children, if they understand what the children really need and they get support from family, friends, community or professionals the children will be alright.

1 in 3 marriages in Britain fail so if your marriage has ended you are not alone.

There are more single parents than ever before and there is more acceptance of the single parent state.

  • Around 26% of children in the UK are living in single parent households.[i]
  • Just under half of couples divorcing in 2009 had at least one child aged under 16. Over a fifth (21 per cent) of the children in 2009 were under five and 63 per cent were under eleven[ii]
  • Only 10% have someone they can talk to[iii]
  • 11% of children whose families have split up have emotional disorders (compared with 3% amongst families who are together)[iv]
  • 37% of fathers lose contact with children within 2 years of divorce. This is devastating for the children and research shows lots of poor outcomes for children growing up without fathers such as reduced financial circumstances, difficulties socially and at school resulting in fewer qualifications, issues with discipline, a greater likelihood of trouble with authority in adolescence and experimenting with substances[v]

It is important that we don’t underestimate the effects of divorce and separation on children. It is sometimes said that children are resilient, especially young ones – but children generally do not have the ability to express the feelings of sadness, disturbance and lack of security they experience when the centre of their world collapses. If the divorce and separated existence thereafter is not handled well it can result in lasting damage to children. Mary Lobascher, Clinical psychologist at Great Ormond Street maintains that there is evidence to suggest that some children suffer greater disturbances as a result of divorce than when there is bereavement in the family[vi]

3. How children respond to family break up

Children are of course individuals and therefore react individually to family break up but children in different age groups tend to respond differently and have different coping mechanisms. Below are some ways that children in different age groups respond to family separation. Some children will not show any signs of distress immediately after the split but may store feelings which don’t emerge until the next developmental stage.

Children can manage the trauma of family splits if adults provide them with:

  • Love
  • Honesty
  • Care
  • Safety
  • Structure

What care the child needs will vary according to age but all children need:

  • Honesty and age appropriate explanations of what’s going on. Beware of giving too much adult information though. See below for more on what to say to children.
  • Parents who can look after themselves. Children need to be able to be children.
  • Reassurance that there is nothing they can do to get their parents back together again. They need to know they are not responsible for the state of their parent’s marriage.
  • Understanding that children often become nervous and expect bad things to happen. Help to rebuild trust in adults.
  • Conversation. Freedom to express how they’re feeling through words, games, drawings.

All studies world-wide of children [under stress] have found the most significant positive influence to be a close, caring relationship with a significant adult who believed in them …and from whom they could gather strength to overcome their hardship”. Froma Walsh, professor of psychiatry and co-director of Centre for Family Health, Chicago.

3.1 Babies -12 months

Looking after a new baby is hard enough; doing it alone and under the emotional strains of a break up is doubly difficult. If parents are stressed and distracted the baby may be exposed to high levels of distress and not get the attention they need. Single mothers/fathers of newborns need maximum support from family and friends.

Babies thrive when they feel they are the centre of their parent’s universe –they need to feel loved and secure and get this through consistent contact with the parent through the everyday routines of feeding, changing and playing. It is essential that the divorcing parents of infants get as much practical and emotional support as possible.

It is a strong and wise parent who recognises when they need help and asks for it.

People will help when they know it is wanted and how to offer it.

Let friends and family and neighbours know that a cooked meal would be very welcome or if there are older children an opportunity to get them out of the house to allow the parent to focus on the baby and to give the older kids some fun time.

3.2 Pre-school

If a child is very young when the family breaks up he is not ‘too young to know’. If a very young child is overlooked or not played with and is picking up on signals of distress from parents they might not feel safe or important or learn to play which is so important for a child’s development. If a parent is not able to give positive attention the child’s developing sense of self will be affected. He may assume that there is something wrong with him. They may not get the help they need to make sense of what has happened in their lives and may become afraid, controlling or uncooperative.

Toddlers cannot express their feelings very well in words and will tend to let you know how they feel through their actions. They need boundaries but they also need understanding. If they are feeling overwhelmed with and confused by all that is happening in their world they may respond by biting or hitting. It is important to recognise the cause of the behaviour (the child’s emotions) and deal with that (by talking to them about how they feel as well and showing them how to express themselves) rather than punishing poor behaviour.

3.3. Five to ten

By this age children are already developing personalities and have learnt quite a lot about the world and will have absorbed ideas about safety, love and attachment. The imaginary world is very strong in this stage. Sometimes if their reality is disturbing or unwelcome they may try to build an alternate reality or make sense of it through their imaginations. They may need help accepting an unpleasant reality through gentle talking through of what’s happening. They do not yet have much of an emotional vocabulary and still express their feelings through behaviour and body language. ‘Misbehaviour’ is the strongest indication that they are suffering. Hitting, lying and stealing are not unusual and lack of concentration at school is the norm. Playing the class clown and being aggressive in the playground can lead to lowering of standards of work and alienating peers. This in turn upsets the adults around children and if they don’t understand the emotional disturbance at the root of it may react by criticising and punishing or by ignoring poor behaviour. Children in this age group often worry about losing the other parent and behaviours may emerge which involve checking that their resident parent is still there, (getting up in the night) or not allowing them out of sight (refusing to go to school).

Well meaning but false promises by adults (that everything will be alright) serve to remind children that adults are not to be trusted, that bad things happen and the adults cannot prevent them. We cannot promise that nothing bad will happen but we can promise to be there when things are upsetting. Children need to feel safe to be able to explore and to learn.

Children often believe that they can get their parents back together again, and may even seek to destroy new relationships between a parent and a new partner. They need to be helped gently to see that this is not going to happen.

3.4 Ten to thirteen

Children in this age bracket are getting ready to and leaving primary school and making the transition to secondary school with all the anxieties that brings.

While boys and girls are outwardly ignoring each other they are secretly fascinated with the opposite sex and there will be experimentation with appearance and wondering about sex. By now they know what boundaries are in place and are aware of tensions in relationships.

They will try to work out what is wrong with their parents and will look for evidence (especially girls). Phone calls and other conversations may be listened to and messages or emails read. It is ineffective to give children in this age group half-truths.

A child in this age group may understand what is going on but not have the emotional vocabulary to express how they feel about it.

Children often have difficulty at school at this time. Transferring to secondary with all its challenges including increased academic demands and social challenges is hard enough without a background of emotional distress occasioned by family breakdown.

Some children fail academically at school and some put all their energies into doing better and better in the academic or sporting arenas or by being very good as if they are trying to control a life that has spun out of control. Some children end up walking on egg shells to prevent bad things happening and become very fearful. They need to be able to trust that the adults can look after themselves and they don’t need to be responsible for their parent’s happiness. They need to be encouraged to do activities they’ll enjoy outside the house. It’s important that children don’t become too adult and neglect their childhood.

Some children in this age group will feel they have to take sides and try to be two different people for their two parents.

3.5 Teens

During adolescence children need to complete the following developmental tasks: they need to learn who they are, what they think, who they like and who likes them, find out about sex, grow up and away from parents without breaking necessary family ties.

Parents who are in a stable relationship find teenagers hard enough (with rudeness, sulkiness, defiance, lack of organisation, self-absorption, untidiness and secretiveness to contend with) but when the family has broken down it is doubly difficult. One difficulty for parents is that a teen will very often seem not to care on the surface and will need help to give voice to emotions that may otherwise overwhelm him. Allow a teen to have his privacy and be secretive. They feel they need to look as if they can cope. Offers of help by well-meaning adults should be made in private.

A teenager may react to a breakdown in a parental relationship that actually happened some time before but his reaction is not being expressed until adolescence. Parents need to work on the basis that the behaviour makes sense given what the teen is dealing with and then think about ways to change it. Allow some latitude but don’t give in where it’s important.

At this age teens can choose whether they want to see one parent or not. If they refuse to see one parent the teen will suffer because they need both parents. They need male and female role models, they need to feel that 100% of their genetic make up is ok, need a sense of history which is provided by both parents, and they need to be able to turn to the other parent if one is unavailable. Practically teens miss out when they only have one parent (with support at and encouragement of activities and attendance at functions, help with academics, advice about choices for the teen’s future, money, holidays etc) and developmentally they are short some support. He only has 50% of the eyes and ears looking out for him and the parent he is with may be distracted. The custodial parent suffers too from too much responsibility and too little freedom while the non-custodial parent may be feeling hurt and powerless.

If parents do not have clear structures and agreed rules for co-parenting, if a teen has too much power or not enough support there may be troublesome behaviour which shows up in the moment or there may be problems sown which don’t materialise until later in life. Teens need the security of a safe base while exploring the adult world and their place in it –they need to have something solid to fight against.

Parents often feel guilty about the impact of the divorce on their children and feel sorry for them having to grow up without one parent –this can lead to them wanting to protect their children from all difficulties and bad feelings which doesn’t teach them to cope.

4. Signs of Difficulties

4.1 Physical:

  • Sometimes unexpressed emotions will come out in physical symptoms such as: tummy aches or period pains for girls, Girls sometimes feel they want to get out of living because living is too hard and use their period as an excuse not to take part in activities. If this is allowed to happen she will learn that she doesn’t have to face up to life’s challenges and will miss out on many valuable activities including school.
  • Headaches,
  • Asthma or eczema,
  • Facial tics or nervous habits, scratching, nail-biting, hair pulling and lip and cheek chewing might be used by a child to find a physical sensation which counteracts the pain they feel inside. Parents need to pay attention to what the child is trying to communicate while involving the child in stopping destructive habits. They may need help to find a positive alternative without being made wrong for doing it
  • Disturbed sleep. The lack of sleep may be because of fears for their parent, for themselves as they no longer feel safe or it may be that they can’t turn off their brains through worry and confusion, that they have unexpressed feelings or that they feel powerless and this is one way to exert control over a parent too exhausted or distracted to insist on proper bedtimes. It can be very difficult for one parent to have bedtime rules if the other lets the child stay up as late as he likes –they may feel there is no point and don’t want to be the ‘mean parent’.
  • Bedwetting or soiling. Some children may not want to learn to use the toilet if soiling themselves gets them what they want such as attention or not having to do something they don’t want like going to stay with an angry parent. Soiling may also be used to get back at angry, not understanding or distracted parents.
  • Children who are feeling rebellious or out of control may also refuse to eat or go to bed.
  • Childhood depression (hopelessness, sadness and lack of self-worth). Sadness is a normal response to a breaking home and needs to be lived with, understood and accepted. Children who are not allowed to be angry or sad and who suppress their feelings may be in danger of becoming depressed. Sadness which goes on too long and prevents a child from coping with life may lead to depression.

(2% of children under 12 and 5% of adolescents struggle with depression often caused by traumatic event such as divorce. Royal College of Psychiatrists.)

4.2 Signs of depression:

  • Looking unhappy and lonely a lot of the time
  • Frequent health problems
  • Becoming withdrawn and avoiding friends and regular activities
  • Sleeping badly
  • Finding it difficult to concentrate and make decisions
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Unusually sulky, irritable and introverted
  • Losing interest in hobbies
  • Feeling guilty or bad, self-critical and blaming
  • Hyperactivity, aggressive or troublesome behaviour
  • Neglect of appearance or hygiene
  • Fears of separation and reluctance to meet people
  • Suicidal thoughts

While it’s a good idea to have any of these physical symptoms checked out by a doctor it may also be that these very real pains are rooted in the emotions that the child has not been able to deal with. He needs help to express them.

Any of these pains may be a child’s way of expressing himself if he cannot speak to his parents or some other caring adult. Are the adults soldiering on and not showing their emotional side to the children? Or are they having such a hard time coping with their own emotions that the child cannot burden them further? Or do they brush away feelings and display a stiff upper lip so that the child concludes that they would not have any advice for them in how to deal with their raw and painful emotions? Below we look at how to encourage the expression of difficult emotions in a constructive way.

4.3 Behavioural Signs:

At School

Many children will respond to the stress of a breaking home by:

  • refusing to go to school; or by
  • a drop in academic standards or
  • non-engagement in social or sporting activities.

Many have:

  • lapses in concentration and
  • lack energy and

Some may be angry and aggressive.

Some may find it hard to see the point of school given the overwhelming impact of what’s happening at home. Some children will refuse to go to school because they are fearful of what happens if they are away, they think they need to watch over a troubled parent.

A day off may be appropriate every now and then but if parents give in when children refuse to go to school they get the message that they can avoid challenges in life and they get inappropriate levels of power. They need to attend school and they need to do homework. Life needs to proceed in as normal a way as possible. Sometimes school can be a haven –a place where they can be a child.

It takes energy to insist that homework is done and school is not optional – get support in the form of homework club or mentors and lifts to school from other parents. Whatever help is available in the family’s community should be employed to support school work, projects, trips to museums etc and just opportunities to have some fun. Sanctions for non-attendance (not earning pocket-money, computer/console or TV time and mobile phones for older children) may be appropriate but mainly a child needs to not be made wrong or judged or criticised and for parents to act as interpreters of their feelings.

At home

Some children become unmanageable, refusing to do anything and calling the shots.

This can affect any area of life –homework, getting ready in morning , going to bed, mealtimes, toileting, shopping or car trips, chores or social occasions. They are too young for this sort of power and it actually feels uncomfortable to them but it occurs if no one else is in charge. Children don’t really want to be in charge –they want to feel safe, they want to be able to trust and they want to be children. Some children demand more and more as they feel they are getting less and less love, respect and attention.

Some tyrannical behaviours emerge because children are angry and try to take power to control their environment. They need guidance and rules and an adult to hold the line. Parents need to work together to manage these children when they become difficult. The children need to feel they have some control –they need to be given more choices and less nagging, more brainstorming/ consultation –they need to be asked what they need to do rather than told. Parents who are exhausted lack the energy to say no and often over compensate for the suffering they feel they have inflicted on their children by giving in to all their demands. It is easier in the short-term to say yes when one is paralysed by grief.

Children model themselves on their parents so if they see violence being used in the resolution of conflict they may use it too, if they see adults avoiding problems they may refuse to do what they don’t like, if they see adults behaving disrespectfully towards each other they may do the same.

Too good child

As mentioned above some children will also behave impeccably, doing their best to please, being helpful and caring. This may not seem like much of a problem and it may not be unless the child is developing habits of walking on egg shells around others, constantly watching out for the reactions of others, taking on too much responsibility and not taking care of their own needs. They can be very unaware of their own emotions and needs. In later adolescence problems may emerge in eating disorders, drug abuse or self harm. They may exhaust themselves by striving to be perfect. They need to feel free to be children.

Sometimes if children have too much responsibility when young they finally rebel in adulthood in quite dramatic and inappropriate ways and shrug off responsibilities when it has significant impact on others.

4.4. Sibling rivalry

This is unlikely to be caused by but can be exacerbated by family break up. Parents may be too distracted and emotionally overwrought to be able to address it and they may be modelling poor conflict resolution and relationship management themselves. As parents have less attention to give jealousy between siblings may escalate. If children aren’t feeling happy sometimes they take it out on siblings or they may turn to their brothers and sisters for comfort.

If the children are fighting:

  • Accept that siblings won’t necessarily get on all the time but be prepared to take action if the level of fighting is too intense or frequent
  • Avoid favouritism
  • Give time to all family members to talk and be heard and understood (scheduled one to one time),
  • Accept that all needs are equally important, encourage expression of feelings, and don’t make children feel bad for having whatever feelings they have including jealousy and anger.
  • Give praise and attention to each child
  • Provide fun and games as a family and individually as well as family responsibilities (chores). Chores or jobs are a way of each member making a contribution to the family and build up competencies in the child that encourages confidence.
  • Have rules, rewards and consequences.

5.      What to do about it

In this section we will look at how to talk to children about divorce and how to use

Reflective Listening, Descriptive Praise and Boundaries to help them flourish in a post divorce world.

When a family breaks up the children lose out on the security they need when growing up and experience doubt and uncertainty. They may feel abandoned and unsure to whom they are allowed to give their affection. There will be tension and sadness in their lives. Children will have feelings and questions but rarely will have the language to be able to express them and their parents may be too caught up in adult matters to notice how they are feeling. If children don’t get help and lock up their unexpressed feelings and difficult questions their hurt will come out in physical symptoms or difficult behaviours or even self harm. Parents going through divorce can often barely function let alone give the children what they need so it is vital to call on support of friends, family and support services.

5.1  How to talk to children about divorce

  • Carefully choose the time to tell the children –children need to be given time to assimilate the news. It will be a shock even though they may have witnessed much fighting. Choose a time to tell the children when there are no plans for a few days after so that they can ask questions, confusions can be cleared up, their fears can be aired, tears shed and sleeplessness dealt with. Bring friends and family in to help.
  • Tell them together where possible- it is vital to try to get this very difficult conversation right. The adults need to separate their own feelings from the explanation they give the children and have the conversation as calmly and as rationally as possible so that the children will be less afraid and better prepared.

The children will feel much safer if both parents tell them of future plans and comfort them. They will believe the answers to their questions if both parents give the same reply. They will be reassured that both parents are united in creating a new structure that will keep them safe. If the parents are so conflicted that having this conversation together may cause more tension then tell them separately. If one parent has to tell the child alone s/he should do so with support from others so that the other parent does not get so tarnished as to preclude the possibility of the child’s rightful loving relationship with them. If talking separately say ‘mum and dad have decided…’

  • Admit that the parents no longer love each other and reassure them that both parents will always love them. It may help to say that the love that adults have for each other is not the same as the love a parent feels for a child in case they think their parents may fall out love with them.
  • Let the children know:

their mother and father were happy together once

they were born out of love

they are still very much-loved by each parent

the separation had nothing to do with the children- they are not to blame

the decision to separate is definitive and the children cannot get the parents back together again. It is not their responsibility to try and make things better between/for mum and dad

mum and dad are sad but they will take care of their feelings- it is not the child’s worry

you know this will be difficult for them. They can ask questions/talk to either parent or to relatives or friends or teachers. They will have lots of different feelings which is normal and they should tell mum or dad.

When deciding what to say try to consider the information through your child’s eyes:

  • Avoid blame. Sometimes one parent will want to assign blame to the other and say the ‘child needs to know the truth’. Ask yourself why the child needs to know about such adult matters as infidelity. The children need to believe in the goodness and love of each parent whose DNA they share. Children know they are part mum and part dad and if one parent is vilified they will feel they are part bad as well and self-esteem suffers. Explanations of adult issues such as infidelity can be expressed as the sad end of the adult relationship, addictions can be rightly described as illnesses and abandonment can be expressed as the difficulty of the absent parent in dealing with life. These explanations are not for the sake of the no-longer loved partner but for the child. A caring parent will want the child to have the two parents that are part of their birthright.
  • Don’t demonize the other parent –it is essential that even when venting to other adults or having others understand one parent’s point of view that these conversations are not overheard by the children. It is just as important that children are not directly told what a ghastly person their other parent is. A child has the right to access both parents. When badmouthing the other parent a parent systematically undermines that right. Children will not know who to believe or whom to love. Children often miss their fathers and want to see them but don’t dare discuss it with their mothers because they fear a strong negative reaction. Sometimes this lack of ability to speak of the other parent and their feelings for them comes out years later in poor behaviour or self harm. Shared parenting from different households is possible and can work well if the children are allowed to love and respect both parents.
  • Let them know how life will change and emphasise what will remain the same. Address practical issues clearly and give simple honest answers to their questions without overwhelming them with too much information in the first conversation.

Questions about housing, residence and contact (with both parents and extended family members) need to be explained first. Then questions such as school, pets, holidays, money and the parent’s feelings. Some questions won’t have immediate answers –let your child know that Mum and Dad are considering the issue with the child’s best interests at heart and will let him know as soon as a decision has been made. If a move is involved tell the children in advance and involve them in some decisions about the new house. An involved and informed child will feel more in control of his life and will be able to cope better.

  • Speak in age appropriate language and avoid burdening the children with too adult matters. Don’t talk to them about detailed financial matters (beyond reassuring them that their needs will be met), legal matters or sex (children do not need to know of any sexual impropriety and certainly do not need any details which will disturb them and convince them that there is something wrong with their parent).

To include children in conversations about such matters will scare and confuse them. If an affair is a major reason for the divorce and one parent is leaving to be with the other person then both parents should tell the children that one has someone else in their life and has chosen to be with them. This will take superhuman reserves of dignity on the part of the partner who has been left but is essential for the child to preserve a relationship with the parent who is leaving.

  • Revisit the conversation as often as necessary. They won’t absorb it all in one go.

Some children may find it easier to talk to one parent than the other and they may want to talk at bedtimes when things are quiet and siblings aren’t around. It may be a good idea to have some latitude around bedtimes for a while. Some children talk better while doing an activity such as taking a walk or tidying up.

5.2  Rules, rewards and consequences

Why is it important to have rules? Children need boundaries, parameters, guidelines.

These enable them to feel safe and allow room for exploration within limits. Children don’t need to keep testing boundaries so much when they’re secure. There is an overwhelming need for stability when the once stable centre of the family has been rocked to its foundations. Feeling sorry for what children are experiencing when a family breaks up is understandable but relaxing the important rules at this time won’t help. Having said that it may be a good idea to allow a later bedtime if an important conversation needs to take place or a day off school occasionally if the child is feeling overwhelmed. But generally it will help children to see that life goes on if the usual rules apply.

Having clear and consistent rules gives children certainty, helps them know what’s required of them and teaches responsibility.

• Getting clear about your values (what you want to happen) is the first step toward making it happen

• Following through consistently helps children get clear about the rules and learn to respect them.

Many parents don’t like the idea of rules irrespective of whether they are divorcing.

Some parents going through a turbulent divorce may feel as if rules don’t apply anymore in their new topsy-turvy world. Parents often feel that rules will break a child’s spirit or crush spontaneity and creativity. They feel that children have enough rules at school and that they want the home environment to be more relaxed. This can be particularly so for parents who don’t have much time with their children and who want the time they do have to be free of conflict. Most people feel that the enforcement of rules involves negativity, using anger, criticism, blame and punishment. Divorcing parents may well feel that the children have had enough to deal with without any more negativity.

However, a safe, secure and predictable environment provides the best conditions in which to bring up happy children with good self-esteem and a clear system of rules which have been carefully considered and are positively implemented is not a negative experience for a child. On the contrary, clearly communicating what behaviour we expect of our children will help them to get life right. It’s like understanding the rules of the road when we’re driving or the rules of the football game in which we’re taking part.

The Parent Practice’s system of positive discipline involves setting up rules and routines so that children can get things right instead of waiting until things have gone wrong and then scolding. Enforcement of rules need not be negative, indeed the more rules you have the more opportunities for descriptive praise there will be.

A rule needs two parts:

  1. Be clear about what you want your children to do not what you don’t want them to do.

• Express it in the positive eg instead of don’t run say walk inside. It matters how we phrase it because if we tell our children what not to do all the time they hear a lot of don’ts and we want them to know how to behave. Telling a child not to tip on his chair puts the idea of tipping into his head –he has to think about tipping in order not to do it. Saying keep your chair legs on the floor is a quicker, more effective way of getting to the behaviour you want to see.

Getting clear on your values, what you want to happen and why, makes it easier to see them through. You know you have good reasons for asking your children to behave in a particular way. There is no one set of correct rules – every family has some differences in values and rules reflect these values– what is important is consistently applying your rules.

Here are some examples of rules with possible reasons for them: (we are not suggesting that you should have these particular rules in your family)

Eg insisting on seatbelts in-car (safety issue); playdates only on weekends (this child gets too tired and homework doesn’t get done if she has friends over mid-week); go to movies only within the child’s age classification (the parents don’t have to assess each film for suitability and argue the case with the child);older child needs to ring in and say if he’s going to be home later than agreed (to relieve the parent’s anxiety and assure the child’s safety) TV/electronics only on weekends (want to limit consumption so that children will do other things) Practice violin for 10 minutes after breakfast (practice makes for improvement the child will enjoy playing more if his skills increase and this child is fresh at the beginning of the day).

• Parents can change rules as circumstances require but be sure this is not because of pressure from your child. Distinguish pressure (eg whining or other poor behaviour) from reasonable argument.

• In separated families ideally parents should work together to maintain as good a united front as possible for the sake of the children but sometimes communication between ex-partners is not good enough for this. In that case children can learn that there is one set of rules at Dad’s house and another set at Mum’s. It becomes even more important to be consistent within one household. One parent cannot be responsible for the different rules or lack of them in their ex partner’s house but that doesn’t mean they should give up on rules generally.

• Make rules specific – not ‘good table manners’ but broken down ‘Sitting up straight, chewing with mouth closed, asking to leave table, using knife and fork’

• Preferably write them down or have them in picture/photo form to help depersonalise them and to help everyone remember

Be clear about the rewards and consequences ( it’s often a good idea to think ahead about what these will be to stop us making them up on the hoof and then regretting them) – then be determined to follow through consistently by responding to good or bad behaviours. Otherwise your child learns that you don’t really mean what you say or don’t really care about what you’re asking them to do/not do.

Eg Problem behaviour:

1. Child drops belongings on floor on coming home from school.

2. Child is not doing homework


1. As soon as child comes in he needs to put his/her hat and school bag on its peg and shoes on the rack.

2. Child needs to do homework at a consistent time each evening in a consistent place


Descriptive praise: notice and mention what your child does right.

1. “You’ve put your coat on the peg. That shows me you’ve remembered the rule about what to do when you come in. You’ve done one of the three things you need to do. I wonder which thing you’ll do next. I love it when you’re responsible for your own things like this.” Rewards: Eg a snack and a game for putting things in the right place

2. “You’ve come down to the kitchen and I only had to call you twice. I know you really don’t enjoy doing your homework and so I know it took real self-control to do that. You’re following our new rule about homework so I’m going to give you a tick on our chart. I see you also remembered to bring your reading book home.

Reward: TV/screen time or play a game with a parent

It is very important to praise children for following rules at home especially if they are having a hard time elsewhere or being told off a lot so that they get a sense that they can actually be cooperative. Otherwise it is easy for them to develop a view of themselves as ‘naughty children’ – and act accordingly.

Set life up so that children earn treats (eg pocket-money, time on computer or games consoles or TV, toys, outings, friends to play etc.) rather than getting them just because they are alive. If children need to earn their privileges then the responsibility becomes theirs if they don’t earn them as opposed to the parents being the mean spoilsports for taking away the things they think of as their ‘right’. Once something is earned, don’t take it away.

Here are some ideas for non-material rewards. This doesn’t mean you should never have material rewards but most parents want to try to limit these.

• The primary reward should always be to acknowledge what the child has done with Descriptive Praise and that they’ve followed the rule. This is mostly skipped over by parents. “Thank you for taking your plate across to the dishwasher, that was helpful.” “I appreciate you calling to tell me you’ll be late. Now I won’t worry.” “You put your pjs on your pillow and your duvet on the bed.” “You’re practising very hard on your piano scales –you’re really getting quite fluid with them now.” “I love the way you keep bringing your attention back to your work –you’re looking at the homework sheet now.”

• Text/email an older child with a descriptive praise or a joke

• Tick charts, star charts, stickers, certificates, pasta jar

• Fun time with parents/ special evening with parent doing adult activity–one 6 year old girl went on a ‘date’ with her dad; they both dressed up and went to a local tapas bar. Another mother of 2 and 4 year olds hid lots of their soft toys around the house and then they turned out the lights and went on toy safari – hunting for the toys with torches. Don’t neglect this area of rewards for older children –going out to a café or just roller-blading or cycling with them can be a good reward. One mum played with her soccer crazy 10-year-old even though she said she’d rather stick pins in her eyes, because he loved it so. It meant so much to him.

Another (football loving )Dad looked at books on Star Wars with his 8-year-old son until his eyes glazed over and the boy felt so affirmed by his Dad taking an interest in what he loved.

• Choices – choice of meal, outing, place to walk etc “You’ve got five stickers on your chart, that means you can choose between pasta and potato wedges”

• Later bedtime

• Play dates, sleepovers at friend or relative’s

• An extra story “you were so quick in the bath we’ve got time for two stories”

• Watching a DVD together, maybe with popcorn and the lights out”

• Pillow fights, rough and tumble

• Cooking together

• Board games “When you’ve tidied up the toys we can play a game of UNO”

• Building a ‘den’

• Making things

• Foot or shoulder massage, with oil

• Disco night (where parents join in!)

• Bubble bath with candles and music (at Halloween one mum put green bubble bath in the bath and called it her cauldron and stirred the children around whilst cackling madly)

• Screen time –ie time on the TV/computer/play station/game boy etc“you’ve tidied up the toys/done your homework so now you can watch your DVD


For a rule to work you must follow through by having rewards and effective, teaching oriented consequences. These are not punishments. They are not delivered in anger with judgment or criticism. Consequences need to have an educative function – ask what learning can come from this. No learning happens when a child is feeling resentful or feels hopeless, inadequate or bad –if he thinks he can’t get it right there is no incentive to try.

• allow your child to experience the natural consequences of his actions– do not rescue them. Eg cleaning up their own spills, being late for school when they have a meltdown and having to explain to the teacher themselves why they are late, no time for a story when they won’t get out of the bath, having to stay home for a while if they break the rules on where they are supposed to be or reporting in.

• where responsibilities have not been carried out the privileges are not earned (getting out of the bath when asked/not splashing too much means there’s time for a story, after school snack is earned once shoes are put away, tidying up toys or completing homework earns some TV time or playing a game-but if the job has not been done the reward is not earned).

• take two’s for minor misbehaviours like adopting a rude tone of voice or running too far ahead of an adult to a corner. A take two requires the child to say it again in a polite tone or walk back half a block and approach the corner again, then cross the street. This is much more effective than telling them off. They get a chance to correct their mistakes and are more likely to learn by doing it than by parents lecturing them about it.

• consequences don’t have to be negative. It could be to do something helpful for a person wronged; draw a picture, lend a toy, help with a chore.

• Ask the children what an appropriate consequence would be –sometimes they are much tougher than the parents would be!

• Take action (especially with younger children) – remove the weapon, take away something they are fiddling with or making a noise with. Take them out of the room

if they are too excited. Stop the car if they take off their seat belt.

5.3  Reflective Listening

Parents build strong self-esteem, develop resilience, encourage problem solving and help their children deal with difficult times by accepting and acknowledging their feelings.

A child who knows his feelings, thoughts and opinions are heard and understood, respected and valued feels respected and valued himself –it really validates a child if parents pay attention to how he feels and what he thinks. Children experiencing difficulties at school or elsewhere will feel less hopeless if their difficulties are acknowledged and they realise their feelings are normal. They will feel more able to develop strategies to overcome or cope with their problems if they believe in themselves and know their parents are ‘on their side.

We aim to teach our children emotional intelligence. We want them to understand themselves better, to understand how their feelings affect them and what they can do to manage their feelings. When a child is able to manage his feelings he feels more in control which is good for his self-esteem.

• Eg When angry or frustrated have strategies such as using a punch bag or pillow, ripping up paper, doing an ‘angry’ drawing, stamping feet, or taking vigorous exercise, taking deep breaths, counting to 10, having a calming mantra to say in your head.

• Use visualisation/breathing strategies to help oneself calm down,

• When sad share your feelings with someone else or listen to happy music or think of happy occasions, find something to laugh about –eg joke books, funny films.

• When anxious be with someone else, remind oneself of occasions when you’ve been resourceful, take some small positive steps.

• When feeling out of control sort something out or do a puzzle.

How to reflectively listen:

• Pay attention to your child. Stop what you are doing and convey with your body language that you are paying attention. Use empathetic noises, such as ‘umm’ or ‘I see’ but don’t offer an opinion or any suggestions at this stage.

• Look for the feeling behind your child’s words or actions and imagine what your child is feeling. Reflect it back to him in words. “It sounds like you are really upset”, “Maybe you felt left out when the others wouldn’t let you play with them.” “When you get stuck on a sum I think you sometimes feel a bit stupid and maybe it feels like you can’t do what everybody else seems to be able to do”, “It takes courage to try something if you’re worried you might not get it right. I think sometimes you think you might look silly if you make a mistake.” “Maybe it feels like people are telling you what to do all day long and you wish you could be the one to say what happens.”

• “It seems like you’re really sad that daddy doesn’t live at home now. That’s understandable. I think sometimes you get really, really cross with what’s happened in our family. It’s ok to be angry. You can punch your pillow the way we talked about if you want.”

• Describe their resistance in words. “You don’t feel like doing your homework right now as you’d rather be playing. You’re finding the new sums very challenging”, “In the mornings when it’s time to get ready you really want to play with your Sylvanian families and Mummy keeps asking your to get dressed or have breakfast or make your bed or brush your hair. I’ll bet you wish you could just be left alone to play as long as you like”. This doesn’t mean that you have to give into what they want; it actually helps lower their resistance when they see that you understand

• Give wishes in fantasy. Giving your child her wishes in fantasy with a smile makes the situation light and fun without suggesting that the fantasy is really possible. “I bet you wish you could wave a magic wand and your homework/the tidying up would be all done.”

Reflective listening means making time for conversations. Sometimes kids don’t want to talk which is ok but make it clear that you are available when they do want to talk.

Sometimes you can open up a difficult topic by reading a book about it –there are many good books for different age groups available about divorce.

Many children will not say anything in response to reflective listening but they will still have had the experience of you reaching out to connect with them and having their emotions heard. You may see from their body language or behaviour that they feel a bit lighter but don’t expect immediate results. They are experiencing deep emotions and these will take time to heal.

It doesn’t work to say: “just get on with it and stop moaning, you know you have to have a bath/do your homework”; or “there’s nothing to be frightened of, don’t make such a fuss, you’ll be fine”; or “we can’t always have what we want in life”; or “just ignore those silly children calling you names and go and play with someone else.”; or “just think about all the good things you’ve got.” or “it’s not that bad. Gemma’s parents are divorced too and look at the fantastic holidays she goes on.”

Don’t say ‘but…’ because that has the effect of negating your empathy. It’s rarely necessary to repeat your rule or say again what the child has to do –they already know that but it’s their feelings that are getting in the way of them doing what they have to do.

Their feelings need to be acknowledged and then some descriptive praise would help to

motivate them. Brainstorm with children for solutions to problems –apart from the wonderful effect on their self-esteem, they come up with some fantastic ideas!

It’s not the parent’s job to take away the feelings of upset our children experience, which we can’t do. It is our job to help them cope with those feelings. Don’t try to take their feelings away but instead help them to cope with their feelings by showing that you accept them. Try to keep their feelings separate from your own adult issues –sometimes a tall order. Make sure you have someone to support you too. Don’t let any feelings of guilt you may have, make you try to justify and explain to your child decisions made for valid adult reasons. Just allow them to be hurt, sad or angry, overwhelmed, lost or confused. Accept that those feelings are uncomfortable to deal with. Once the child’s feelings have been heard they are often able to come up with coping mechanisms, sometimes with help from an adult.

5.4  Descriptive Praise 

A child will cope better with family break up and all his feelings around divorce if he feels confident about himself, if he thinks he is worthwhile and that the significant people in his life care for and appreciate and approve of him.

The adults in a child’s life can help him to cope with a steady diet of descriptive praise.

All adults know it’s a good idea to praise a child to foster self-esteem but the kind of praise normally used, evaluative praise, isn’t always effective because it lacks credibility.

Descriptive praise is a different way of speaking to children and teens which uses less superlative and evaluative language and involves simply noticing and mentioning what the children are doing right and what the adults appreciate about them. Relatives and friends should be invited to get involved in using descriptive praise because divorcing parents will find it hard to do when they are feeling down.

Describe the positive behaviours you see “You remembered to bring home your reading book”, “You looked at Granny when she was talking to you then –that was polite.” “You went to get the nappy for the baby when I asked you to –that was cooperative.”

“You’re brushing your teeth without me having to remind you –what great initiative!”

“You got on your bike again even though you fell off just now –you’re being brave”.

Notice and mention the tiny steps in the right direction “You hung up your hat, so you’ve already done one of the three things you need to do when you come home”.

“Sophie, you’ve taken your pyjamas off so you’ve taken the first step in getting dressed.” “You’re sitting at the table at the right time and you’ve got your worksheet out. You look like you’re getting ready to start your homework.” “You put your pillow on your bed.”

Praise effort, improvement and strategies: “I’m so pleased to see you’re not giving up with that writing. Copying letters neatly can be tricky, but you’re persevering.” “You’re making a big effort to do up your buttons on your own. You’re not asking for help.”

“These days your presentation is so much neater. You’ve remembered to underline the title and put the date on the page.” “I noticed that when the first approach you tried didn’t work you tried another tactic. How’s it going?” “You kept on trying with these sums even though you didn’t find it easy. I call that persevering. Your efforts have paid off – five out of six are correct. I wonder if you can work out how to correct the sixth one.” “You’ve been sitting still for five minutes Glen. In another five minutes we’ll take a stretch.” “I like the way you covered up your spelling word and tried to picture it in your head. That’s a good way to learn a word.” “You’re really slowing down your writing so you can get it neat –look at all these letters on the line! You’ve got a capital letter for ‘George’ too so that tells me you know names need to start with capital letters. There’s also a full stop at the end so I can see clearly where the sentence ends.” “Thank you for telling me how you’ve been feeling –it’s important that you share these big feelings with the people who care about you.”

Point out the quality shown by the behaviour. Eg maturity, self-control, responsibility, consideration, tolerance, kindness, flexibility, courage, honesty, being supportive, perseverance, loyalty etc “You felt shy but still went and asked the waitress for the menu -that was brave.” “You stood up for yourself when Ethan pushed you – you used your words and you said “I don’t want to be pushed”.

Use praise focused on the individual. Make sure the praise is non-comparative. This is important if the child is not to think he is better than others. Also we want our children to feel uniquely appreciated not just considered in relation to others.

“That’s a great test result. It reflects all the hard work and commitment that you put into your revision.” “You ran your hardest in that race. I’m sure that’s faster than I’ve seen you run before.” “You’ve been practicing getting dressed quickly and I’m sure you’re much faster than you were at the beginning of term. That must be helpful when you’re getting changed for sport.”

Descriptive Praise helps our children continually redefine themselves as sensible, capable, loveable and considerate. If we focus on the small steps they are taking in their learning they will think of themselves as learners. Praising them for the coping strategies they are using to handle a big upset in their lives will help them see themselves as people who cope and will encourage resilience.

Descriptive praise lets children know exactly what we want them to do, gives them positive attention and motivates them to do more of what is expected of them as they hear frequently that their parents are pleased with them. It works because it is believable. Rest assured that it is possible for children to thrive even when their parents are not together –it’s not the fact of family separation that causes difficulties so much as how separation is handled.

[i] Lone parents with dependent children, January 2012, Office for National Statistics

[ii] Divorces in England and Wales 2009. ONS Statistical Bulletin, February 2011

[iii] NSPCC

[iv] ONS report 2008

[v] Civitas/NSPCC report 2002 and ONS 2008

[vi] ‘Psychological Assessment: Cultural, Social, Educational implications’ Paediatric Neurology, 2008


Author Information

The Parent Practice

Email: Elaine@theparentpractice

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