Some of the most difficult issues we face in divorce cases involve children. Whether children are toddlers, teens or adults when their parents separate, there is always an adjustment period for children to get used to the idea and the practicality of having divorced parents. Many parents who come in to our office fear the impact that divorce will have on their children. While great care must be taken in broaching the topic of divorce with your children, doing so does not have to be nearly as painful an experience for your children as you might expect.
Seek Direction from a Mental Health Professional Before Telling the Children
Many people find it incredibly helpful, particularly with smaller children, to seek feedback from a mental health professional before even introducing the idea of separation or divorce to their children. The idea of divorce can seem very scary to children, and it is critical to ensure that children are told about divorce in a way that is age-appropriate. Children who are younger may need to hear more about what will be changing in their daily lives whereas older children may be able to better understand the concept of marital status and what the divorce will mean on a less tangible level. It may also be important for parents to have a plan (even if it is only a short term plan) so that when children ask questions about what to expect, mom and dad can provide reasonable assurances about what is going to happen to the family.
While each child is different, and children of different ages understand things differently, children will do better, overall, if mom and dad get professional advice about how to introduce the ideas of separation and divorce. Ideally, parents should broach the subject in a way that shows a unified parental front, no matter how difficult it may seem at the time.
Find Your Child an Independent Support System
There are many resources available for parents going through divorce. Psychologists, therapists and guidance counselors may be able to provide children with neutral outlets for their feelings about divorce. Some schools have created student support groups that consist of other students who are going through similar adjustments in their own families. While it is important to have a certain level of openness with your child in addressing his/her feelings about divorce, many times children need to have an independent source of support – one that is not directly tied to mom or dad. This allows children the ability to truly express feelings about their changing families without worrying about hurting their parents.
Talk to Your Child, But Not Too Much
Children need to know that they can come to you with questions about divorce. The tough part is how to answer their questions. Counselors will often tell parents that it is important to be honest with children. However, it can be just as important to know how much information to share and when your answer should be simply “that’s something that is between your dad and me.” It can be very difficult not to share too much information with children, especially given the emotions surrounding a divorce. However, it can be extremely damaging to children to be privy to dad’s snide remark about mom’s boyfriend, or for them to overhear mom talking to a friend about how dad abandoned her and the children. While we all make mistakes sometimes, it should be the top priority of any separating or divorcing parent to protect children as much as possible from the dispute that exists between mom and dad. Your children will have to get used to the idea that the family will soon be living in two separate households, but they don’t also need to be dragged through the anger and hurt that are often felt between a divorcing husband and wife.
Every child is different. The correct way to guide a child through the process of divorce, and the resulting life adjustments can vary with each child and the unique circumstances of each parent. Parents should avail themselves of every opportunity to increase their knowledge on how to effectively help their child though this difficult process. Your life and that of your child will be better for it.