Building Resilience in Children of Divorce
Challenges are a part of life—resilience is key. Teach your children to use their feelings as fuel.
We can’t change the fact that we will face adversity, disappointment, and loss during our lives. Divorce changes the foundation of a family… it rocks everyone’s world. With intentional help from you, children of divorce can maintain stability and resilience.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from stress, challenge, process tragedy, and recover from trauma or adversity. When children are resilient, they are braver, more curious, more adaptable, and more impactful on the world. We can help build these skills in ourselves and in our children. As they watch us go through challenging times, they take our lead.
As parents, we can build resilience in our children; its a skill set we build throughout our lives. We can empower them to bounce back from stressful experiences and challenging times. This skill will serve them now and throughout their lives.
Resilience can be nurtured in all children of divorce.
During times of stress and change, we must actively support our children— their brains and their bodies with special care and attention. When we are taxed ourselves, this can be hard, but is especially important. Our human physiology was designed to run on high-alert for only short periods of time; our brains are functioning differently during these times.
The process of divorce disrupts the entire family. As parents, it is our job to slow down, focus and support our children, as your family struggles through challenging times. Take time to truly be present with your child and notice their emotions. Pouring into your child will strengthen your bond with them, and encourage trust and transparency. Giving your children tools and habits of resilience will empower them now and into the future.
“Take time to truly be present with your child and notice their emotions. Pouring into your child will strengthen your bond with them, and encourage trust and transparency.”
– Leah Hill, Founder Divorce Strategies Northwest
Resilience can be strengthened at any age. We can change the wiring of the brain and build resilience, by changing how we process and react to negative events. The right experiences can shape the individual, intrinsic characteristics of a child, in a way that will build their resilience, grit, and determination.
How does resilience affect behavior?
Children have different levels of resilience and different ways of recovering from stressful times. They have different ways of expressing when circumstances are overwhelming and outweigh their capacity to cope. They may become emotional, withdrawn, defiant, angry or resentful.
Even the most valiant of warriors have days where life can feel like too much, but low resilience leads to reactionary behavior. The intense pressures of divorce increase stress levels on everyone. We can help our children process stress and anxieties, develop healthy habits, and move through to a new normal.
Empower your children by building resilience from within.
Building kids into healthy, thriving adults isn’t about removing adversity from their lives. It can be tempting to eliminate what may cause them to stumble, but it doesn’t do them any favors in the long run. Think of how satisfying it feels to encounter a problem and solve it on your own. We must offer this opportunity to our children, and allow them these same valuable victories.
Measured amounts of stress help kids develop the skills they need to feel accomplished, to learn, and to flourish. Strengthening children towards healthy living is about nurturing mental toughness, and developing their own strategies to deal with adversity. Resilience can be strengthened by expressing gratitude for the good things in our lives.
“During and after divorce, intentionally bringing trusted adults into your child’s life can have a lasting positive impact— family, teachers, coaches— anyone who they can trust. Unconditional love is a powerful, stabilizing force when a child’s home life is changing and everything seems uncertain.”
– Leah Hill, Founder Divorce Strategies Northwest
Unconditional love is invaluable.
The reliable presence of at least one supportive parent or adult relationship is a major factor in children overcoming adversity. In the context of a loving relationship with a supportive parent, children have the opportunity to develop vital coping skills that will carry them into the future. A responsive, loving adult holds kids accountable and reminds them of reality, when life seems overwhelming. This loving presence will ensure the child’s developing brain, body and immune system are protected from the damaging effects of long-term stress.
During and after divorce, intentionally bringing trusted adults into your child’s life can have a lasting positive impact— family, teachers, coaches— anyone who they can trust. Unconditional love is a powerful, stabilizing force when a child’s home life is changing and everything seems uncertain.
Build a network of people who care about them.
Social support is associated with higher positive emotions, a sense of personal control and predictability, self-esteem, motivation, optimism and long-term resilience. Kids don’t always notice the network of people who are in their corner, cheering them on. Skillfully let them know about the people in their fan club!
Be clever, intentional and strategic about how you build the village around your child. Their connections with people who love them will strengthen their self-confidence and help them face the world, knowing they are loved unconditionally.
Let them know it’s okay to ask for help.
Children of divorce often have the mistaken idea that being brave is about dealing with things all on their own. Teach your children that true bravery is knowing when to ask for help, and that asking for support is a sign of strength. Showing vulnerability is a way to become close to others. Encourage them to take initiative on what they can do themselves, and guide them towards help, but resist carrying them there.
Build their sense of accomplishment.
Remind your children they can do hard things. You do this by acknowledging their strengths, their courage, their efforts when they achieve something difficult, and encouraging them when they make their own decisions. This process is hard on parents! The easy route is to have agency over your children. Teaching your children to think for themselves takes patience, love, and dedication…. and reaps benefits in spades.
When children have a sense of mastery, they are less likely to be reactive to stress, and more likely to respond to challenges with confidence in the future.
Optimism is a key characteristic of resilient people. The brain can be rewired to be more optimistic through the experiences you are exposed to, and how you choose to see them. If you have a child who tends to look at the glass as half empty, show them a different perspective. Reveal teachable moments in ways that discovery happens naturally, and encourage positivity.
This doesn’t mean invalidating or criticizing how they feel… it means acknowledging their experiences and their viewpoints. Then, gently suggest they consider an alternative way to look at things. Over time, we can build resilience by changing how we process and frame negative events.
Teach them how to reframe.
The valuable ability to reframe helps us feel less threatened and is linked to resilience. In times of difficulty or disappointment, reframing helps focus on what you have, rather than what you’ve lost. To build this skill, acknowledge disappointment, then try to steer away from analyzing the problem, and look for new opportunities that have come as a result.
Imitation is a powerful way to learn and begins at birth. Children of divorce are watching the adults in their lives, soaking us in like a human sponge. Within the realm that they can cope, let your children see how you deal with disappointment and problems. Bring your family into your emotional world at appropriate times. This intentional practice will build their strength, speed and response to adversities, and help them see challenges as normal human experiences, not catastrophic. Show your children the advantages of emotional regulation, and how most “problems” are an opportunity for brainstorming a solution.
When experiences are normalized, this becomes a routine for children to apply this approach to their own lives, and experiment with ways to respond and recover independently.
Ask ‘how’, not ‘why’.
When things are confusing and disappointing in life-– asking kids ‘why’ will often end in an open-ended response of ‘I don’t know’. It can be hard to explain why things happen, why people make the decisions they do, and why life is sometimes painful. A key truth to remember is that we all experience hard times and disappointment. Instead of asking why… teach children to ask ‘how’ and ‘what’s next’. This slight shift moves us forward, into a mode of growth, problem-solving, and finding solutions.
Meet them where they are.
Resilience isn’t about never falling down or failing. It’s about getting back up again, and there’s no rush or timeline for this to happen. We all experience emotional pain, anger, disappointment, grief, sadness, and loss. The key is to learn to respect those feelings, but not let them take over as the ultimate focus.
Sadness and grief, for example, can make us want to withdraw for a little while. It is during times of withdrawal that experiences and relationships are reflected upon and processed, so that internal balance and optimism can be found again. If this process is rushed or disallowed, it can resurface in behavior, often at unexpected times.
Build their problem-solving toolbox.
Self-talk is an important part of problem-solving. As parents, our words and even our tone of voice are powerful. From an early age, our words are the foundation on which our children build their inner voice, self-talk, and narrative about themselves. Rather than solving their problems for them, start by giving your children empowering language, to learn to solve their own problems. Some places to start:
• What would (someone who they admire / see as capable) do?
• What has worked before (focus on the positive)?
• List as many (alternative option) ideas as you can in two minutes, even the silly ones. (brainstorming can bring levity to a tough situation)
• How can we break this big problem into manageable pieces?
Resist solving problems for them.
The New York Times described “snowplow parenting”— parents who resemble “machines chugging ahead, clearing any obstacles in their child’s path to success, so the child does not encounter failure, frustration, or lost opportunities.” We all know parents who escalate issues and flutter around, ensuring their child never experiences injustice, heartbreak, disappointment, failure, etc. How are these parents setting up their kids for independent success, when they are away from home? Depriving your child of the chance to develop self-efficacy does them no favors.
Instead, be a sounding board for your children, encouraging them to work out issues and find their own way. As they talk, their mind is processing and strengthening. Guide them, let them talk, and try to come up with their own solutions. Problem-solving is a wonderful skill to have, now and in the future. Their time spent brainstorming and coming up with their own ideas will build, and cause their skills to grow. Give your children the opportunity to explore their self-confidence and increase their own great potential
Take a break from your problems… together!
In many ways, we are all ego-centric, especially children and teens— this is natural, human self-preservation. Every problem seems huge to a child. Problem-solving is a fluid, creative process. Anything that strengthens their problem-solving skills will nurture their resilience. Children are naturally curious, inquisitive and creative. Give them space and time to relax, play and be creative.
Sometimes the process of divorce can make life feel too serious. The logistical changes, the details, the decisions and the issues can feel overwhelming to adults and to children. Your children are watching how you process all that is happening. As a leader in your family, take time to be together and just “be” as a family. Take a break!
During these high-stress times, take time out, with just you and your children, to be together. Start by turning off all cell phones for a few hours. Go to the movies, make a fun dinner together, go bowling, take a cooking class together, go on a short hike with a picnic… anything, to truly connect and take a break together from the pressures you’re facing. This is demonstrating resilience, showing your children the importance of family connections, and practicing healthy self-care. Laughter is good medicine.
Let children know they are loved unconditionally.
No matter what your family situation, meeting your children where they are, and loving them unconditionally is key to a close relationship. This gives them a solid foundation for when things seem unsure, or when they need advice.
Eventually, children will realize they can give that solid foundation to themselves, capable, and ready to thrive. A big part of resilience in divorce is building your children’s belief in and love for themselves.
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