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Experts' plea to divorced parents: don't spread lockdown tension to your children

30 March 2020 - 12:52 By Tanya Farber
Many divorced parents are stressed by the lockdown rule that forbids children moving from one home to the other. Stock photo.
Many divorced parents are stressed by the lockdown rule that forbids children moving from one home to the other. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/Cathy Yeulet

For many divorced parents, the fallout from last week’s announcement that children cannot move between houses under the 21-day lockdown is a source of anxiety.

However, experts say now is not the time to let your tension and stress rub off on your children.

Instead, be as transparent as possible.

Fouzia Ryklief is the counselling co-ordinator at The Parent Centre in Cape Town. Speaking to TimesLIVE she said: “Help children deal with their negative feelings and their sadness about not seeing the other parent.”

While parents struggle with their own fears and pain about the lockdown rules for divorced parents, it is important they acknowledge children's feelings.

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Ryklief said: “Giving the feeling a name helps them to understand themselves and to feel assured that it is okay to have feelings. Don’t try to make it better by saying ‘don’t be scared or sad'."

She also advised divorced parents to “talk about why they cannot have physical contact with the other parent, and explore with them ways in which they can connect with the other parent. Quality time with the physically absent parent can be enjoyed using social media in its many forms. Lockdown does not mean lockout between children and parents.”

She said parents could also encourage children to write a letter about how they are missing the other parent and what they have been doing during this time.

“The letter can be given to the other parent when lockdown is over,” she said.

Separation anxiety triggered by missing one parent can be compounded by fear of the Covid-19 sickness itself, and children might behave in ways parents will need to recognise as “acting out”.

Ryklief said children might fear becoming ill themselves, or fear the present or absent parent may become sick.

“Children often act out feelings rather than expressing them. We need to be sensitive to this. Young children may be throwing more tantrums than usual. Fighting and arguing among siblings will increase,” she said, adding that parents should recognise children are “acting out underlying feelings of insecurity, fear and sadness”.

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The primary goal is to create a safe atmosphere, she advised.

“We need to create the kind of atmosphere in which our children can ask any questions. Initiate a conversation if they do not ask questions about what is happening. Talk to them openly. Parents may feel very unsure about taking this step because they do not want to burden their children,” she said.

She said that although it is not possible to control the reality the country is facing, “it is possible to make a real difference in how children cope with the lockdown and being apart from one parent for three weeks”.

In Britain and other European countries, children of divorced parents have been able to move between the houses.

Even so, British family lawyer Victoria Walker said on radio platform LBC that the often-acrimonious situation between divorced parents could be exacerbated in the crisis we’re seeing with Covid-19.

She said many parents deciding on a house “had come at this from an emotional lens and had to negotiate with someone with whom they have a lot of history". As a result, “some were struggling to see situations with objectivity and common sense”.

Like Ryklief, she said parents should guard against letting this rub off on the children.