During my divorce, my eight-year-old daughter and I talked a lot about what was going on. Often she would raise the same concerns over and over and listen to my reassurances again and again in an effort to feel secure. When so much seems to be crumbling, mere repetition can be reassuring. Of course not all children are talkers. Some children clam up and don’t want to talk; they act out their fears instead, adding to the general stress and emotional chaos.
Exert your best efforts to be patient. Listen for the true concern beneath the questioning and negative behavior, recognizing that your child is really asking you to: “Tell me again that we’re going to be all right. Show me that I matter.” After listening to my daughter’s questions and concerns, I wrote her the following letter. Perhaps your own adaptation of this letter could help you explain things to your child.
Dear Aimee, I know it’s hard for you to have your mom and dad apart. Big changes like this can be scary. You might even feel all mixed up inside. I’m sorry that the divorce has caused you pain. I just have to tell you some things, and I hope you will listen.
Parents don’t get divorced from each other easily. We thought a lot about this before we made the choice to get a divorce. Maybe one of us didn’t even want to get a divorce, but sometimes when a choice is made by another person, we just have to go along with it. Sometimes we can’t change other people’s minds. We both knew it would be hard for you, but our problems with each other were big enough that it was too hard for us to live together anymore. We didn’t want to have arguments and feel unhappy. Living apart from each other will help us, in time, to feel happier and more peaceful. And if we are happier and more peaceful, we will be happier people to be around.
We won’t be happy right away, because it takes time to get there. Even though we made the choice to get a divorce, it still makes us both sad inside, just like it probably makes you sad. It’s OK to feel sad and mad – that’s normal. Most families who have a divorce between the parents feel sad about it for a long time.
But many of these families start feeling better about things after time helps them get used to the big changes. One of the big changes for children is having two homes – their mom’s house and their dad’s house. After spending time at both houses, you’ll start feeling comfortable at both places. Aimee, some of the things children learn after their parents’ divorce that you may want to think about are:
The divorce wasn’t the children’s fault. It didn’t happen because they did something wrong, because they weren’t good enough, because they fought with their brothers and sisters, because their report card wasn’t as good as it could have been, because they got mad at someone, or because of anything they did at all.
The parents got a divorce because of problems between the two of them. It had nothing to do with the children.
Realizing this makes children feel better because many of them have spent a lot of time worrying about what they did to make the parents get a divorce. They have also spent a lot of time trying to think of ways to make their parents get back together again. Once they learn that they didn’t do anything to make their parents get a divorce, they realize that there is nothing they can do to get them back together again. When they understand this, they quit worrying about adult things and are able to think about kid things again, like their friends, games, school, and birthdays.
Aimee, do you know that we’re getting a divorce because of us and not because of you? We’re getting a divorce because your dad and mom can’t live happily together anymore. But we both still love you, and we always will.
It might be hard for us to show our happy feelings during these sad days, but that doesn’t mean we love you any less. We love you more than any words can possibly show. And we both hope that you love us even more than that huge heart on top of the Empire State Building!
Love, Mom and Dad.
Show Your Love – the More Often, the Better
Divorce is a passage in your child’s life when you need to find as many ways and occasions as you can to say, “I love you.” Love is no longer something your daughter or son is taking for granted. Don’t be afraid to be silly and expansive in your expressions of love to your child. When it comes to showing your love, the more the better.
Creating a Sense of Security
To help alleviate some of the frightening feelings and increase your child’s sense of security, try to help your child feel as comfortable as possible in both homes. Surround her with familiar things. Keep everyday items available at both houses so the child doesn’t have to be concerned about forgetting things. Here is a suggested list of supplies to help your child feel welcome in her second home:
- Age-appropriate toys or games, including puzzles, crayons, markers, paper, books, balls, stuffed animals, dolls, and sports equipment.
- Clothing, including underwear, socks, shoes, clothes, pajamas, and outfits for special occasions.
- Food, including fruits, vegetables, staples, easy-to-prepare meals, spaghetti, tacos, and soups. Also include emotional boosters like popcorn, snacks, and ice cream.
- Pet supplies, if necessary.
- Photos of all family members.
- Boxes or dressers for keeping the child’s things.
- Toiletries, including toothbrush, hair-care items, deodorant, and other personal hygiene supplies.
- A calendar showing when the child will be at each home.
You can put some sense of control back into your child’s life by allowing him to make small decisions whenever possible. Allow him to choose his own clothing to wear to the park, or the restaurant when you’re eating out. These decisions are not major or life-changing, but will make a difference to the child who feels that his life is out of control.
The “Mom’s House/Dad’s House” Calendar Concept
Keep the child informed about every aspect of his life. To demonstrate to children that you’re in agreement concerning time sharing, both parents should keep identical calendars visible indicating which days the child will spend at which home throughout the month. To begin the “calendar concept” for young children, color code the square for Mom’s days with her favorite color, and use Dad’s favorite color on his days. A dotted line can be used for shared days.
Both parents should agree to implement a daily routine of looking at the calendar with the child, and checking off the day that has passed, and noting when a change to the other parent’s house will occur. Young children don’t understand the concept of time, and will find it reassuring to “see” when they will be with each parent.
For older children, place a “D” on the calendar for days the child will be with Dad, and an “M” on the days the child will spend with Mom. Both you and your children will appreciate the quick reference while making plans throughout the month.
The Long-Distance Parent
Divorce is hard enough under any circumstances, but it is of special concern when one parent must move to another city. The child not only loses the parent from the home, but must also cope with having him/her at a great physical distance. Here are some practical ideas for bridging the gap between parent and child over long distances.
- Send letters, notes, and postcards often. Give the child a stack of stamped, self-addressed envelopes and ask him to write you back. One child sent her father an envelope full of New England color – some fall leaves. It was a “wish you could be here” message that he’ll never forget.
- Write a story for your child. Give the main character in the story the same name as the child. Make it an affectionate and bonding story that shows her how much you care for her.
- Record favorite songs. Sing songs that the child loves, or that you have enjoyed together in the past. Remember that your voice is an expression of you, even if it isn’t opera quality, and that’s what counts to your child.
- Record a message. Hearing your voice does more for your child than a hastily written letter.
- Videotape yourself reading bedtime stories. Your child can play this at bedtime and enjoy the closeness of your almost being there.
- Videotape your new surroundings. Your child needs to feel that he’s still part of your life. Showing him your home and the sights around your new city will help to keep him close to you.
- Exchange photographs. Let the child know that you’re interested in what she’s doing.
- Give the child a memento of you – something simple such as a tie-pin or some earrings. The child will remember you each time he looks at the memento. Being entrusted with something that’s special to you will make him feel important.
This article has been edited and excerpted from Healing Hearts: Helping Children and Adults Recover from Divorce, by Elizabeth Hickey, MSW, and Elizabeth Dalton, JD. A divorced mother who shares custody of her daughter with her former husband, Ms. Hickey has produced two award-winning videos on divorce that are being used by courts throughout the United States, and I Love You More Than…, a children’s book. Written by a counselor and an attorney who have recovered from the trauma of divorce themselves, this guidebook will help parents regain their emotional balance while developing a new way of relating to each other – as co-parents who have their children’s best interests at heart.