Divorce is far trickier than starting over. While parents may have been anticipating divorce for some time, when it hits children, they feel the razor’s edge shredding their roots. Talking about divorce requires sensitivity to all of its aspects, particularly as it affects your relationship with your child. By the time children learn that their parents are headed for divorce, there is rarely little anyone can do to stop the train that’s barreling down the tracks. However, when parents and children don’t talk openly and supportively during this crisis, the impact of this calamity may have serious and long lasting consequences.
One of the most difficult conversations you will have with your children is the one where you tell them that you and your spouse are getting divorced. Through the answers to the Divorce Survey that I have been conducting of over 10,000 children and parents of divorce, I have learned how parents bungle this difficult encounter. Sometimes children find out that the family is breaking up when one of the parents moves out of the house without an explanation, while other kids are delivered the bad news with no one to console them.
Not communicating sensitively about this major transition and with understanding is devastating to children and sets a poor precedent for family life that follows. Children need to be engaged in changes to their family so that they can process their feelings and parents need help in understanding how to help their children in age-appropriate ways.
The manner parents start the discussion of the divorce often establishes the tone of how they will be present with their children during the uncertainty of what is to unfold. By becoming aware of your kids’ needs and struggles and responding to the impact of divorce from their perspective, parents may even deepen their relationships with their children, through walking with them in the trenches of threatened children. The most important message to communicate with your children is that the failure of your marriage does not mean the family's relationships and the children’s own relationships are doomed. By providing a stable, supportive, healthy relationship, you demonstrate what truly loving relationships are, preparing your child to grow into intimate relationships of his or her own—and with you.
Once parents have had that difficult first conversation announcing their divorce, they may feel that because the cat is now out of the bag they don’t have to follow up with their children through on-going conversations. In fact, the work is just beginning. Children in the Divorce Survey revealed their intensely negative feelings that overshadowed their life after learning about their parent’s divorce, describing life as filled with “agony,” “hurt,” “anger,” “pain,” “heartache,” “shock,” and “sadness.”
Unique children are behind each crying or stoned-face mask that kids put on in response to divorce. As parents, we need to remember that and keep making room for our child’s feelings and unique response. When I discuss with patients the impact of their impending divorce for their family, it’s not unusual to hear them minimize its effect on their children, as if to be reassuring themselves that things are all right, with comments like, “Most families experience divorce;” “all of my kids’ friends have divorced parents;” or “at least my kids will only go through one divorce… hopefully.” Parents struggle to be attend to their kids’ feelings because of their own confusion and guilt—as well as many other factors, such as feeling overwhelmed by this cataclysmic impact of divorce, their unconscious preoccupation with themselves, or feeling the pains of their own loss.
Much of the pain of children stems from the minimizing and emotional abandonment that parents adopt as they cope. Alternatively, parents who accept and work through the reality and pain of the situation return to their children with sensitivity and commitment by appropriately parenting. There’s a tremendous difference from situations when kids are effectively told to deny the impact of divorce and for those who deal with their realities. As children are still in the midst of important developmental tasks such as identifying with parents, bonding, and learning boundaries, we must be available to serve as responsible parents in conjunction with the reality that divorce affects this process or that kids will miss these invaluable life lessons. Therefore, parents who advocate that divorce is not central for the child miss that it is the child’s family that is dissolving; so, it the divorce is very much the business of the child. The challenge and art is to determine how and what information to effectively share with your child.
While not all issues can or should be shared with children in divorce, discussions with your kids about changes that affect them confirm their sense that you understand and care: you “get it.” In response, kids will willingly share more about their experiences and feelings. The huge decision of divorce does not need to be unwieldy; and the additional damage parents may create by not responding to their children is both counterproductive and hurtful.
Through active engagement with your children, you can convey messages to your child to respond to their real loss and fears—modeling, reinforcing, and sharing through your sustaining power an enduring relationship that demonstrates the foundation from which your child will thrive.
Photo credits: huffington post, ehow, susan-ingram, divorced moms.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of True Coming of Age: A Dynamic Process That Leads to Emotional Stability Spritual Growth, and Meaningful Relationships. For more information visit www.drchirban.com and www.sexualproblems.com.