Helping Children Through Separation & Divorce
Although it is one of the most disliked of permissible acts in Islam, divorce has been permitted and sadly appears to be a growing is a reality within our community. Most would agree that it is the child who is usually affected the most by the separation of their parents and that it is of paramount importance that their needs and wellbeing is prioritised.
Articles that focus on children in relation to divorce from an Islamic perspective, tend to do so in terms of custody and maintenance responsibilities. This article in contrast is aimed at parents who are going through a divorce or are already divorced. It aims to highlight some areas for consideration as well as provide some practical tips and guidance to help minimise the suffering that children may experience when their parents separate.
It is written in the hope that both parents are mature, rational and capable of putting their child’s needs before their own. Unfortunately, in many situations this is not always the case and parents prioritise their own needs before that of the child.
Every family’s situation is unique, every divorce is different and children will react in a variety of ways depending on their age, personality and experiences. In many cases the actual impact of a divorce on a child may not be apparent until months or even years later. However if both parents are intent on helping their children during this difficult process then children will develop resiliency and InShaAllah grow into grounded adults.
An Overview of Some Key Do’s & Don’t’s
Make sure that…..
- Your child’s needs are given priority over your feelings towards your ex-spouse
- Your child knows your divorce is not their fault
- Your child knows that both parents love them
- You allow and validate their feelings
- You allow time and space to grieve
- You listen to your child
- Both parents are actively involved in their child’s life (where possible)
- You maintain a consistent routine
- You minimise disruption to your child’s daily life
- You agree on how communication between you and your ex-spouse will take place regarding your child
- You get your child extra emotional support if needed
- You get the support you need
- You do not argue or discuss your differences in front of, or within earshot of, your child
- You do not make your child take sides
- You do not make your child a ‘surrogate spouse’
- You do not talk or criticise the other parent when speaking to your child
Behave with Proper Adab
Divorce is an extremely difficult and stressful time for all involved. Emotions such as anger, hurt, frustration, sadness and anxiety may be running high. This is understandable and it is important that you get the proper support you need and an outlet and confidential space where you will feel heard and understood. Regardless of any feelings you have towards your ex-spouse, when it comes to talking to your children, you need to put your own personal feelings and frustrations to one side. Strive to act with the correct Islamic morals and manners and be mindful that Allah (swt) is a witness over everything and we will be called to account on Judgement Day for all our actions.
A Note of Cultural Stigma & Shame
In many of our communities divorce is still surrounded by shame and stigma and seen as something that is ‘not done’. Even when it does occur it is often not discussed, covered up and denied. The shame that many divorced parents experience is often passed on to their children who may be told not to tell anyone that their parents have split up and/or to make excuses such as ‘tell the community your dad is away working’ and so on….. As a community we need to stop being so judgemental and have more compassion for the difficulties families are going through.
Children should never be encouraged to lie or to live a lie. Having their parents divorce is enough of a trauma for them without out the added burden of feeling that the community must not find out. Ultimately whatever sense of shame you may be experiencing is yours as an adult to contend with. If you have followed the Islamic protocols for divorce then you have nothing to be ashamed of. Children need to be told the truth and to feel supported in telling the truth of their situation.
How to Explain Divorce to Children
When explaining to children that you and the other parent are separating it is preferrable for both parents to be present. Despite the separation and the fact you will be living separate lives, informing them together can help convey to your child that you are both united in your role as parents regardless. As stated above you need to find a way to put any feelings of animosity and so on towards the other parent to one side. If this is difficult have another person(s) who the child trusts, such as a grandparent, an aunt or uncle etc, present to help mediate the conversation and reassure the child.
Depending on the age of the child you then need to explain in a way that feels appropriate to you and your child that you are divorcing. For younger children you could simply say something along the lines of “mummy and daddy no longer make each other happy and this isn’t good for anyone so we have decided to live in different homes….. we both love you so much and will make sure that we both continue to look after you …. we are so sorry that this is happening and that it will upset you”. For older children you can explain a bit more directly but with the same compassion and validation etc depending on the context.
Many children pick up on the dynamics between their parents even when parents think they are unaware. Children may also have overheard arguments, witnessed a parent crying, a door slamming or picked up on passive-aggressive behaviours between spouses.
Therefore it may or may not come as a surprise to children that their parents are splitting up. Children may respond or react in a variety of ways when being informed – some may burst into tears, plead with you to stay together, get angry, withdraw to their room or show no apparent emotion at all. All are expected reactions and different ways of responding to upsetting news.
Ensure that you allow your child the space to ask questions, not only when you first break the news to them but assure them that they can come to you and ask you questions at any time about the implications for them of what is happening and the changes that will occur. Do not go into details about why you are splitting up as that is personal between you and your ex-spouse and children should not be burdened with such information.
Tell Them It’s Not Their Fault
As demonstrated in the above example – it is imperative that you tell children of any age that the reason for the decision to divorce is not due to anything they have done. Young children in particular, are egocentric and tend to think everything is caused by them. You need to explicitly and repeatedly state that you both love your child and tell them that they have done nothing wrong. Explain in an age-appropriate way that the divorce is due to an irresolvable difference between you and the other parent.
If children do not understand this clearly, then they will form assumptions that their parents are divorcing due to something they have done e.g. if I hadn’t been so naughty and made mummy angry then daddy wouldn’t be divorcing her or if I’d been better, nicer etc then mummy and daddy would stay together.
Then reinforce repeatedly again that although you are separating you both love your child e.g. Although we have decided not to live together we both love you very much and you were the best thing that happened to us.
Allow and Validate their Emotions
Let your child know that their feelings are very important to you and that you understand they must be feeling sad, scared, angry and so on. Let them express how they feel and validate by reflecting back to them that feeling that way is completely understandable e.g I can see how upset you are and I understand this is really hard for you….
Children often want to provide the response that they think will please their parents or that will protect their parents, so if you child says they are fine or appear very understanding, it is important to remind them that all feelings are ok and allowed and that they can talk to you anytime about them.
Following the divorce, make sure you validate your child’s feelings when you sense they are missing the other parent e.g. I can see you are upset and I’m sensing that you miss your dad/mum and this is really difficult for you……I know you love your dad/mum and he/she loves you very much too …
If your child feels they cannot express or show how they feel for fear of upsetting or angering you, then it will cause them internal conflict and have a detrimental effect on their mental wellbeing. You can then discuss with them what they can do to help themselves feel better e.g. would you like to speak to your dad/mum on the phone? Maybe if you write about it in your journal that will help? Would you like to go for a walk with me to the park so we can talk about it some more? What would you like to do? What do you think would help you feel better?
If your child needs help in identifying and naming their emotions please see the links to relevant articles at the bottom of this page for further guidance. Remember not all children verbalise how they feel so have drawing and art materials available incase they prefer to draw or paint about their feelings or do an activity with them such as crafts, cooking, walking, that provides a more indirect or relaxed way of helping the to open up about what is going on for them. Playdough and slime are other effective items to have around the home that can help process feelings as they can be squished, made into shapes or bashed!
Look out for changes in your child’s behaviour which may be an indicator that they are having difficulties in processing their emotions e.g. angry outbursts, becoming withdrawn, regressing (displaying behaviours typically associated with children younger than themselves eg becoming clingy), changes in school performance, change in appetite, trying harder than normal to please you, defiant behaviours etc.
Children may find it difficult to express their true feelings to their parents so you could also consider or discuss with your child the option to find someone else to speak to such as a trusted family member or a mental health professional such as a counsellor who would help the child process their emotions is a safe and contained space.
Speaking to Your Child About the Other Parent
The parent-child relationship is of immense importance in Islam and both children and parents have divinely ordained rights and responsibilities. These rights and responsibilities do not disappear when parents divorce. Parents therefore need to attempt to work together in a co-operative manner so that the child receives the best possible outcome following the divorce. Despite your own feelings towards your ex-spouse, you need to understand that your children have an innate love for both their parents even if they say otherwise.
Despite the differences between them, parents should behave with civility and politeness towards each other for the sake of Allah (swt) and for the sake of their children who they bought into the world. Parents should endeavour to speak about the other parent in respected terms when speaking to their child and help facilitate a loving and respectful relationship between their child and other parent.
Do Not Backbite or Criticse the Other Parent
Sadly in some cases a parent may resort to backbiting and criticising the other parent when speaking to the child. This only serves to cause further harm and distress to your child who may develop feelings of conflict and feel guilty for loving the other parent. Some parents also criticise the other parent via the chid e.g. why does your mother dress you in such awful clothes. This will cause the child themselves to feel criticised and they will most likely internalise feelings of shame and worthlessness about themselves. Children should also not be asked to keep secrets from the other parent …..e.g. don’t tell your father/mother that we went to the beach. And they should not be made to be a messenger between parents e.g. tell your father he hasn’t paid the school fees and needs to.
Children are not objects to be used for you to avoid your responsibilities and they should not be weaponsied and used to attack or demean the other parent. Using children as such could be seen as abusive and demonstrates that the child’s welfare is not being considered.
If it is impossible for both parents to communicate directly then appoint a third person such as a grandparent or aunt or uncle who can help you arrange what needs to be arranged.
Minimise Disruption & Have a Routine
When you first explain to your child you are getting divorced, children will inevitably have many questions (even if they don’t verbalise them). They will want to know how their day-to-day lives will be affected. Where will they be living? Who will they live with? Will they have to move or change school? Will they be able to see both parents? …and many more.
Ideally it would be preferable to have tried to sort these matters out before you speak to your child, however in reality such matters are complex and may take time to before a solution is reached. Do your best to answer your child in an honest way and if you don’t have an answer then explain that this is something you and the other parent are working out, but reassure your child that (where possible) they will still spend time and see both parents.
Where possible, it is important to minimise the disruption caused to the child’s daily routine. Ideally the child should remain in the same house and go to the same school. Try and have a daily routine that you all stick to. This enables a sense of predictability and consistency which helps the child feel secure especially during times of stress.
Let Children Be Children
Children need to be children and should not become a support mechanism for you on an emotional or practical level in place of the other parent. Parents should not offload their emotional difficulties onto their child or turn them into surrogate counsellors. Nor should they turn them into surrogate spouses by burdening them with duties that are the responsibility of the parent. There is nothing wrong with giving children extra responsibilities as they get older, but this is very different from using them to help you or support you in the absence of the other parent and you need to be clear in your mind where the boundary lies. If not, children will become robbed of their childhoods and this will often have detrimental effects that reach into their own adulthoods.
If you need support either emotionally or practically then try to recognise and acknowledge this and seek appropriate help.
Look After Yourself
Divorce is stressful for all involved and it is important that you get the right support you need. Adjusting to life as a single parent or only seeing your child periodically if they don’t live with you involves a period of transition. Even if the split is a welcome relief, you will still likely need time to grieve the loss of a family life as it was or as you hoped it would be.
It can also take time to heal from any distress or trauma you may have experienced and there may be ongoing challenges you encounter as the new situation unfolds. It may help you to process your emotions if you find someone to talk to such as a trusted friend or a counsellor.
By taking responsibility for your feelings and finding a safe space to process them, it will become easier for you to manage your emotions in front of your child and then help your child process theirs. Divorce affects everyone and the more effectively supported you are the better it will be for your children InShaAllah.