Trust for Children of Divorce

Seven ways to revitalize your children’s trust

Posted Oct 30, 2016

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The powerful experience of trust serves as a cornerstone and is pivotal for healthy child development. Children seek opportunities for exploration and rely on a secure foundation from which to seek out the fascinating possibilities of life. However, children often find that this experience comes to a screeching halt in the face of their parents’ divorce. Simply put, divorce jeopardizes trust.

Knowing that whatever I said would be used against the other parent in court has left me never wanting to make a decision or speak up. I would just go along with whatever the parent I was talking to wanted. —Child of Divorce (1)

In time, as children grow into adults, they may seek out more information to better understand what led to their parents’ divorce. Such information should be shared as age-appropriate, and as needed for their well-being, understanding, and growth, but not for the therapeutic benefit of the parents.

For kids to trust their parents during and after a divorce, adults must respect boundaries and walk the walk and be honest with their children, who are quite skillful at discerning deceitful and contradictory behavior. When parents fail to recognize and effectively respond to their children’s needs during divorce, they may have to work much harder to win back the confidence that was lost, as lost trust from a parent constitutes a deep injury. If trust is not reestablished, children can develop trust issues that disable their parental relationships and affect struggles with intimate relationships for the rest of their lives.

Here are seven ways you can reaffirm and revitalize your children’s ability to trust during and after divorce:

1. Commit to your children through your actions, not just your words. Among the most basic and vital things violated by divorce is commitment. Divorce breaks the central tenet of a marital vow. We have come to expect models of modern life to tell you that you can toss marriage and its vows away. The “commitment” of marriage sometimes lasts just months, weeks, or even days. The media focuses a great deal of attention on empty celebrity marriages that end seemingly right after they’ve begun, resulting in a perception of marriage as disposable for children. This, along with children’s firsthand experience of divorce, affects their perception of marriage and trust.

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Parents must rebuild their children’s trust by following through in every way possible, not only through words — as children have learned that words are often meaningless — but also by actions and behaviors.

2. Practice healthy communication. Children from divorced families have probably seen full-length demonstrations of poor communication preceding, during, and following the divorce, both through daily disagreements and the legal ordeal of divorce.

But consider asking yourself:

• When interacting with my ex-spouse, other adults, and my children, do I exhibit good listening skills and sound reasoning, where my words play out fairly and reasonably in my actions?

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• How do my kids feel when I communicate with them?

• Do I intimidate my children? How do they characterize me?

• Are my emotional responses over-reactive and overwhelming for my children?

• Do my children feel comfortable opening up to me about their personal thoughts?

• Do I respond to my children’s needs by paying attention to what they convey through their words and actions?

You may find that the best way to initiate communication — if good rapport is not in place — is to enter into your child’s world (understand what things are like from their perspective) in order to create genuine exchanges, all while responding appropriately. Are you in touch with your child’s world, hopes, dreams, and desires?

3. Help your children process their feelings, when they are ready. In therapy, children of divorce have frequently shared with me that many nights they cried themselves to sleep, because no one was there for them. Conversely, some children did not cry, but cut themselves, because it was the only way for them to feel or to release their feelings.

As the Divorce Study confirmed (2), children are often seriously hurt by divorce. Always be cognizant of your children’s needs, and ask yourself, "Am I there for my children?" You must be able to connect emotionally to your children at times when they need you most. Allow them to share feelings, and acknowledge their concerns. Address your own feelings, and always affirm and express care. Reinforce the belief that your children can depend on you.

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4. Build connections through fun and positive energy. Divorce is not fun or enjoyable. However, this does not change the fact that kids want to be kids. Though it may get an initial rise from them, showering your children with gifts, toys, and trips is not the way to create fun and positive energy and relationships.

Parents must initiate positive experiences and encounters that invite a shared experience. This is an opportunity for bonding and creating a connection with your children. Replace the loss that children feel during divorce by creating a home filled with open exchange and inspiration through laughter, joy, and happiness.

5. Be both physically and emotionally present. If a parent exits a child’s life, a sense of falling into a bottomless pit can foreshadow a child’s concept of relationships. Children in the Divorce Study (3) often expressed that it would have been easier to manage the death of their parent than endure the divorce. The unknown arrangements and potential of losing loved ones are often a child’s greatest fear.

Work to counter that feeling of abandonment by knowing that your children feel your presence. Be there whenever possible. Parents who lose custody may find this is especially easier said than done — and need to generate collaborative efforts (hard as this may be) with their former spouse and children to counter absence.

6. Help your children manage their fears. How can children not feel anxious and cautious after enduring their parents’ divorce? Children of divorce often have their lives interrupted and may be exposed to significant pain and hurt, if not full-blown trauma. Your children have every reason not to let anyone get too close, if they don’t want to feel the pain they observed in a so-called loving relationship. They may be awaiting the other shoe to drop. Work to foster peace activities and experiences for harmony through interactions where you exhibit understanding and create calm.

7. Love your children unconditionally. Most children cannot imagine not loving their parents unconditionally forever. But beware; hate can play out in divorce if children perceive not only their parents’ lack of love for each other, but also their lack of love for themselves, as children. They may lose their trust in love. Following divorce, words will not suffice to repair the damage. Instead, demonstrating care and love helps combat the negativity your children experienced. You can find time to explain how your understanding of commitment, trust, and unconditional love failed in your marriage, but, more important, you need to act in ways that redeem your relationships with your children.

Parents can counteract the negative feelings of others by being honest and compassionate, and by sharing facts that serve the interest of the children, yet do not cross the line of overexposing kids to greater pain.

(1) John T. Chirban, Collateral Damage: Guiding and Protecting Your Child Through the Minefield of Divorce (Harper Collins, 2017).

(2) Ibid.

(2) Ibid.

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a part-time lecturer at Harvard Medical School and author of Collateral Damage: Guiding and Protecting Your Child Through the Minefield of Divorce (Harper Collins, 2017). For more information, visit drchirban.com.