In all but rare cases, it is safe to say that a divorce always has a profound impact on the members of a family. For children, being the youngest members of the family, and the ones lacking any decision-making ability that would make much of a difference in the marital relationship, it is a particularly vulnerable time. What they have known as a constant and a given, now feels like shifting sand underfoot. What the kids really need is for their parents to come together and to literally take care of them. This is ironic, of course, and difficult, but some divorcing couples are able to do it.
Divorce is both a static event: “We are divorced”, “My parents are divorced” and a dynamic process: “We are divorcing”, “My parents are getting a divorce”. Your sons and daughters need your help throughout the entire divorce process. It is a sensitive, tricky and touchy time during and after the divorce.
So what is it that your kids need from you? They need you to put them first. That doesn’t mean forgoing pursuing a divorce for the sake of the children. Many miserable families traditionally go that route. It means that regardless of whether or not you decide to divorce, or whether or not you are the one who is pushing for a divorce, your children will be best served by keeping their well-being front and center.
One of the first things a divorcing couple ought to consider is how to come together to present a united front to the kids. “Your father and I are going to get a divorce” is more helpful for the kids to hear than, “Your father has decided to leave me”, or “Your mother has decided to leave us”. With the first statement, the parents are positioned to focus on what the kids think and feel in response to hearing the news. With the later two, the focus shifts to one parent’s hurt feelings and the other parent’s guilt. In this case, the emotional impact on the kids gets lost in the shuffle. This can also set the stage for the beginnings of children becoming alienated from one of their parents.
The first step in presenting a united front is to break the news to the kids as a couple. Both parents reading from the same page to all the kids together is generally the best course of action. This approach reduces the chances for misconceptions and misunderstandings and subtly conveys the message that, “we are your parents, we are adults and strong, and although we are sad that we have come to this decision, we will be there for you”. The parents are positioned to affirm to the children that they will continue to function as parents and that they are going to be fine. Ideally not much else will change in the children’s lives; the schools will remain the same and assurance is given that both parents will be very involved in their day-to-day activities such as sports, music and homework.
The second is listening to what your children are saying and listening for what they are not saying. Remember that divorce is a process. It is awkward for you and your spouse and it is awkward and uncomfortable for your kids. Your job is to do what you have to do to make it easier for your kids. If that means going into counseling to work out some of your feelings of awkwardness and guilt, please do so. If that means going into counseling to address your terrible hurt, feelings of abandonment and believing that you can’t go on, address these issues as well. Unless you are emotionally clear within yourself, you will not be in a position to truly hear your children.
If both parents have told the kids together, that it is a good start, but now comes what amounts to an ongoing dialogue that will likely be comprised of ever so brief conversations on the way to a hockey practice or in the process of the kids going to bed. As long as your approach is informed by a sense of “we” (both parents) and you present yourselves as “okay”, your kids will get the message that they will also get through this and be okay. Please note this does not mean pretending that everything is happy or that everything is fine. You get to acknowledge that it is sad and disappointing that it couldn’t be different, but always end the conversation with assurance that everything is going to be all right and then move on to talking about some activity, assignment or video game that is currently capturing their attention.
If your kids aren’t asking enough questions, or revealing enough of what is going on inside them, it might be useful to have your half of conversations that they are not having with you. What I mean by this is for you to speak to your child as if they just asked a question (Do you hate Mom?) or shared an unsettling sentiment (I think Dad’s a jerk for leaving us). That puts you in a position to respond to what they have not yet articulated. “You know I still love your mother, it’s just that we haven’t been able to make each other happy enough” and “No one is leaving anyone and your Dad certainly is not leaving you. He loves you. I know it is hard but Dad and I have decided to not be married” are examples of what you might say. Other statements you might respond to in advance of them being actually spoken are: “What did I do to make Dad leave?”, “Why did you make Dad leave?”, “Why don’t you guys try to make things better?” and “Is Mom in love with someone else?”. You know your kids better than anyone. Just imagine what they might be feeling and thinking.
Be vigilant so that you can check yourself and avoid asking too many closed-ended questions such as, “You’re feeling alright with Mom and Dad getting divorced, aren’t you?” It would truly be the remarkable child who would say, “Well now that you’ve mentioned it, I am somewhat depressed and I’ve been having restless sleep.” Because kids of all ages tend to answer questions with short response such as “yes”, “no” or “fine”, try to make more statements than questions. Statements like “It’s sad that Dad is moving out.” will likely open the door for conversations that will have some depth. However, it is always important to remember to close the conversations on a positive and optimistic tone such as, “You’re going to be fine.” or “It’s a good thing you’ll be able to go over to his house after school if you want.” or “You’ll be able to spend as much time as you’d like with Mom and Dad. We’re your parents; we’re not going anywhere.”
It is only natural for children to be upset, angry or depressed in reaction to the news that their parents are divorcing. That said, it is important to look for signs that your kids might benefit from talking with a counselor or therapist. While it is important to not be an alarmist and over-reactive, be mindful for any particularly strong reactions such as sleepless nights, decline in school performance and disinterest in friends and activities that have been central to their lives. Give your children space to have their feelings, but note any reactions that are prolonged or profound. You know your kids, so take the actions that seem appropriate given their age and personality. Needless to say any drug use, cutting, or references to killing themselves warrant that both parents bring the child to a counselor.
Divorce is not an easy process, but it is one that kids get through. It is imperative that you take good care of yourself and come together with your spouse to be sensitive parents and listen to your children. If you are okay, your kids will generally be okay.