When a child has two involved parents, a move away can change everyday life for each member of the family. Usually, the children will see far less of one parent on a daily or weekly basis during the school year, while the "school year" parent will have full responsibility around the clock. These are major life changes. How can parents help their children manage their level of the anxiety and stress generated by all these changes? Can parents manage their own stress and not overtax the child's natural capacity to bounce back?
Separation and divorce can generate toxic stress or what researchers now call an ACE, or "adverse childhood experience". "What will happen to me?" say some children. "Did I do something wrong?" "My Dad (or Mom) left. I'm not important enough." "I'm scared". "If they really love me, why are they doing this?" "I don't have my home anymore. Where do I belong?" All ages of children are affected including teens trying to ride the seesaw of their brain's stormy emotional development stage.
Regardless of a parent's verbal assurances, as the changes pile up, so does a child's stress. Then, if there is also a move away, this second blow can sometimes be even more stressful than the divorce. The ground beneath their feet can roll and shake. There may be more imposed changes in routines, schedules, climates, possibly schools, friendships, relatives, neighborhoods, and homes. Despite a child's natural resiliency and the magic of today's electronic communications, a child still needs a parent's strong physical presence and parenting skill to manage the heightened stress generated by divorce and the move.
Managing Toxic Stress
Stress, fear, and anxiety are all normal experiences. The "good" stress of excitement, challenges, and joy are energizing. But, too much anxious or intense stress can be dangerous. We have heard about how chronic stress can weaken an adult's immune system. Now, research shows that chronic or toxic stress places children, most especially the youngest ones, at risk for negatively altered brain functions, immune systems, and hormonal functions.2 Children's capacity for managing these intense experiences is limited and their internal systems cannot process them safely. Instead, their brains can be altered thereby limiting their future emotional responses, impulse control, and attention. Toxic stress can even modify how a child's DNA is utilized.3 As adults, they are at greater risk for a series of health problems and other limitations.
Even more worrisome is that toxic stress is not limited to the obvious dangerous or abusive circumstances but can also be found in everyday behavior. For children of divorce, there are daily opportunities for extreme stress. Examples are many: their parents' anxiety, stress, and diminished parenting before, during, and after the divorce; a parent's emotional issues; the move away with its myriad changes; intense hostility or disrespectful behavior by one or both parents; being in the "miserable middle" of parents' arguments or resentments; carrying messages between parents; the worry or the actual loss of frequent contact with a beloved parent; trying to cope with different rules at Mom's than at Dad's; loss of friends, extended family, a home, school, or neighborhood; and countless more. The American Academy of Pediatrics is clear: a child's brain is exquisitely interconnected with his or her environment and chronic and toxic stress is to be avoided. So what can parents and professionals do? First, take heart. There is a way through this. Here are a few helpful tips.
Tips for Managing Toxic Stress and Easing the Transition4
- Construct a parenting time schedule that is tailored to your child's Temperament, Level of development and physical Constitution or sturdiness (TLC). For the youngest children, don't ask them to travel to you, go to them. Set up a generous travel fund including emergency travel.
- Put each child's needs first. Be even more aware that with change, each child will need different things from you. One may just want the car to explore, while another needs to stay close and be reassured more. Show by your actions, not just words, that they are your priority, that you will always protect and care for them, and that things will work out with time. If you are the parent separated from the children, spend every minute with the children when you are together, especially that first year apart. Don't leave them with sitters or share time with a new love interest. Make trips to see the children your priority. Drop everything when there is an emergency to be at your child's side. Stay connected.
- Plan Ahead: Get an assessment from a trained professional for both you and your children before the move. The impact of the move on everyone can be significant. What one person can manage or even welcome, another one cannot. Try to repeat the assessment a year later to capture unforeseen effects.
- Face the fact that this will likely be a grieving process for the children and the parent without the children. It can be heart wrenching and long lasting. There can be resentment, depression, and anger, not just sadness. Parents, talk together about how to ease the transition process for the children and each of you.
- If you are the 24/7 residential parent, plan for the single parenthood experience. It's essential that you have more relaxed one-on-one time and fun with the children. Take outings, work on projects together. Keep things calm. Avoid violent movies or TV. Be especially affectionate. Discipline may become more of a challenge as a child may be acting out in response to his or her stress. Ask the other parent to back you up with discipline.
- Review each day with the children. Have a family ritual where you hear about the day together or at least a private moment with each child. Don't be rushed. Encourage and applaud when a child managed or understood something. With issues, emphasize that tomorrow is another day to start fresh and that things often take time.
- Keep or develop a daily structure and be consistent-even when you are the long-distance parent. Structure is a key stress reducer. It feels predictable and safe. Have house and safety rules and follow through. Emphasize that you are a family, that you look out for one another, and that everyone does their part. This can offer children a sense of ownership, purpose and control.
- Manage your own stress, anger, depression, or fear so that your children feel safe dealing with their own sadness and frustration. Use a counselor to help you monitor and manage your stress and any challenges you and the children may have.
- Support the children's relationship with the other parent. Try to speak about the other parent with respect and with a smile. Have his or her photo in their room. Your support helps their transition. When a decision or issue comes up, take the lead, for example, "I'll ask Dad what he thinks." Take a tip from military families: Use Skype and speakerphones for full family talks with both parent and all the children. Send a weekly update to the other parent-even when he or she is in frequent contact with the children.
- Stay updated! Use electronics. Both parents can have school and activity calendars and are on email lists. If a child has a cell phone, use it frequently. Send photos, videos, texts, and notes back and forth. Explore on-line communication sites. Resident parent---try to be in touch with your school age-children several times a day. Be creative.
- Be a parent team. Cooperate and communicate. Hostility and bitterness are major causes of toxic stress for everyone. Try to be Courteous, Calm, and Diplomatic (CCD). Keep your arguments with the other parent out of earshot and sight of the children. If teamwork is a problem, try using a special parent-business set of guidelines to regain composure and develop agreements It's not easy to be "CCD", but it's the key to a better future.
1 Isolina Ricci © 2014
2 Some of the dangerous and extremely stressful circumstances are unsafe, incompetent, or neglectful parenting, serious mental or emotional disorders, domestic violence (whether or not it was witnessed by a child), stalking, threats, physical and sexual abuse, criminal activity, drug or alcohol abuse, intense parental conflict, and attempts to alienate a child from the other parent.
3 An extensive list of universities, government agencies, and states, are now focused on ACEs. See more at: http://www.childtrends.org/glass-half-full-the-bright-side-of-aces-research/#sthash.wXrUnDNq.dpuf. Also see, the American Academy of Pediatricians: http://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives
4 For more articles and tips, go to www.coparentingtoday.com, click on "articles and parenting tips" on the left.
5 A special "parent business" type of relationship is explained in Chapters 4, 5 and communications in Chapter 6 of The CoParenting Toolkit, and Chapters 7 and 8 in Mom's House, Dad's House: making two homes for your child, by Isolina Ricci.