However your feelings about Jon & Kate Plus 8 my concerns are with their kids. It’s obvious that all is not well the Gosselin marriage. And both partners readily admit that their relationship is at a crossroads. While viewers sense their tension they may be unaware of how it is trickling down to the kids.
I spoke with Matt Lauer on the Today show this morning who asked me what advice I’d give to these two parents. Here are a few of those tips:
One of the most stressful events in a child’s life is the news that mom and dad are breaking up– only the death of a parent is ranked higher. Add being a multiple, camera crews invading your home 24-7, and the paparazzi (or “p people” as Kate calls them) camped outside your doorstep following your every move, and we can imagine the stress on these eight little faces.
So what are some ways parents in turmoil can help their kids? Research shows ongoing positive involvement[i] is the best way to help kids adjust. Here are some ways to help kids cope:
Get a handle on their life. The best predictor of how kids cope with the stress of a family breakup is the way their parents handle it. In a crisis, kids take cues from their parents so it’s essential that Jon and Kate take care of themselves so they can better able to take care of their kids.
Keep the kids as the main focus. In any crisis, parents must be emotionally and physically available and offer their kids lots of cuddles, attention and reassurance. I’d strongly recommend cutting those book signings, extra speeches and any media ops. These kids need their parents present and accountable.
Clue the kids into what’s going on. Children are always more perceptive than we give them credit for. These kids know something is up and deserve to hear from their parents what is happening and not to do so only fuels a child’s anxiety. That explanation should be delivered by jointly by Jon and Kate in a calm manner tailored to their children’s ages. “We know you’ve heard Mommy and Daddy fighting so let’s talk about what’s happening.” “We love you very much and will help you get through this together.” Too much information is confusing for younger children. If they’ve decided to separate than just a simple, “Mommy and Daddy are going to live in different houses so we don’t fight so much.” Or if parents are uncertain of their decision: “We don’t know what will happen, but Daddy and Mommy are trying to work things out. So if you have questions, come and ask.” The goal is to keep the emphasis on “we.” “We will always be there for you.” “We love you very much.”
Reassure the kids that they are not to blame. Children often assume that they are to blame for a breakup and usually need repeated assurance. Kate and Jon must be clear that the children are not responsible for their conflicts and that there is nothing the kids can do to “fix” things.
Keep an eye on the children. There is no predicting how a child will respond to a family breakup, but here are common symptoms to watch for in their children: Five year olds often have difficult time expressing concerns about parental conflict divorce so they may be confused and anxious. They sometimes feel responsible and may believe that if they are really good (or stop “misbehaving”) their parents will stop fighting. Nightmares, behavioral regressions, anger, or defiance are common. Slightly older children may respond with sorrow, embarrassment, resentment, regression, or anger and may act out, display regression, clinginess, insecurity or seek a lot of attention. How divorce will impacts a child depends on many factors including: age and gender, if there are other disruptions such as changes in home or school, the degree they were brought into the conflict, the quality of the relationship they had with each parent, the child’s temperament, and the degree of parental conflict before and after the divorce.
Emphasize stability and warmth. The American Psychological Association combed dozens of studies and found that key factors that contribute to healthier adjustment[ii] for children during and after a family breakup include appropriate parenting, disciplining authoritatively, providing emotional support, monitoring children’s activities, and maintaining age-appropriate expectations. So whatever the outcome of Jon and Kate’s marriage, their focus needs now needs to be in creating a home environment of warmth, structure and consistency for their children–regardless of whether two or one parent live in that home.
Stay civil! Bickering is always difficult on kids–especially when there are cameras watching your every move and your house has been turned into a movie set. The best advice for any parents with marital troubles is to avoid arguing in front of the kid and not bad mouth the other parent.
Connect with grandparents. Find support systems for the children. A famous 25-year study of children of divorce found that a key factor[iii] that helped them fare better before, during and after the family breakup was if their grandparents provided support and stability.
Remember, most research finds it’s the quality of the parents’ relationship with the children that matters most in how kids fare — not the quality of the parents relationship with each other.
[i] Ongoing positive involvement in the best way to create a healthy adjustment: Robert Bauserman, “Child Adjustment in Joint-Custody Versus Sole-Custody Arrangements: A Meta-Analytic Review, Journal of Family Psychology, 2002, Vol 16, No1, 11, 102.
[ii] Key factors for healthier kid adjustment: American Psychological Association: “Briefing Sheet: An Overview of the Psychological Literature on the Effects of Divorce on Children,” Washington, D.C. May 2004 http;//www.apa.org/ppo/ssues/divorcechild.html
[iii] Critical role of grandparents during the divorce and years to follow: Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study, New York: Hyperion, 2001.
Dr. Michele Borba is the author of over 22 books including the upcoming Big Book of Parenting Solutions which is available this September.