When getting a divorce, conflict is inevitable. While there’s no getting around that harsh bit of reality, you can take extra steps to protect your children from it. How you inform them of your divorce is the first significant hurdle you need to clear. The tips that follow will help you prepare for that conversation. They might not make it any less awkward or emotionally draining, but you’ll gain some ideas on how to get your kids through it and ready to conquer this new phase of their lives.
If possible, both you and your spouse should tell your children at the same time. Before breaking the news, it is best if you know what you are going to say. You should be sending a unified message. Use the word “we” as often as possible, as in, “we have agreed this is for the best,” and “we will always be a family and love you.” Make sure the children understand that the divorce is not their fault, and their lives will remain unchanged as much as possible.
There is no need to point fingers and allocate blame. The children don’t need to know the details of what went wrong; they need assurance from their parents. Make it clear that even though you two are separating, you will both remain their parents and will be involved in their lives.
It will be helpful if you have a plan in place as to where you will live after the divorce, what school they will be attending, etc.
The initial conversation is only the first step. Even if your children insist they are well and don’t walk to talk, provide opportunities for them to express their feelings and thoughts. Make it easier for them to speak out. It is perfectly okay to admit that you, too, are sad and a bit scared. Exposing your vulnerabilities might help them to reveal their own.
1. Allow the Children to Process their Feelings
Children will go through a myriad of emotions, some reasonable, others not. It’s critical for you and your spouse to understand that all your children’s feelings need expressing. It may not be easy for you to hear your child say, “I hate you,” or “It’s all your fault.” Your first reaction will probably to be to argue or “reason” the child out of these accusations, which may be accompanied by tantrums and tears. But the child is expressing him or herself in the only way they know and should be allowed to do so. Bottling up emotions they fear will hurt your feelings will not speed their recovery time.
Taking one for the team may seem unfair to a parent who has had to deal with infidelity, indifference, or even abuse. But the children hardly are getting a fair deal during a divorce. You can help them cope with their anger, but the emotions need an avenue for expression.
While you may be harboring a lot of grievances toward your ex, perhaps justifiably so, keep in mind that while your ex may make a less-than-stellar spouse, he or she can still be an excellent parent. Making a distinction between these two roles is necessary. Diminishing the other parent in front of the children will only cause greater confusion.
2. Help the Children Deal with the Trauma of You Getting a Divorce
Divorce increases several behavioral and academic risks for children. You need to remain aware of this even while you are dealing with your own trauma. You may be so overwhelmed and confused with your anger and bitterness; you won’t be fully aware of the grief and loss that your children are experiencing. The more intense the conflict, the more your children may be at risk. Your children do not belong in adult arguments. Even if your divorce is hostile, you need to put up a united front for your children’s sake.
When you express anger and contempt for your ex, it will make it more difficult for your children to trust either parent. Demanding that your child take sides or reveal private information about the other parent puts them in the untenable position of making adult decisions which they cannot possibly understand. Your children need to feel safe with both of you, even if you are living apart.
3. Creating Two Households
Post-divorce living arrangements can have a significant effect on children. If the non-custodial parent remains nearby, your child will be able to adapt more readily to having two homes. Both parents can stay equally involved in your child’s life by attending school and sports events and holidays.
If the non-custodial parent moves further away, communication will become more difficult. While parent and child can still communicate through email or Skype, the bond between the non-custodial parent and your child will be more difficult to maintain. That is especially true if your child is angry and makes no effort to remain in touch. In that event, it is up to the non-custodial parent to keep trying. And the custodial parent needs to encourage continuous communication.
The more both of you can remain in your child’s life, the easier he or she will adjust. Children can adapt to different parenting styles. However, if you can agree on the rules in each household, the smoother the transition from one home to the other will be. Regardless of the animosity between you and your ex, you need to remain a parental team. Even young children are smart enough to manipulate parents for their purposes if they sense parents compete for affection rather than work together.
4. Understand What Your Children Are Going Through
While you and your ex-spouse are undergoing a myriad of emotions, it is essential to understand that your children will experience the divorce differently than you. While you may feel a mixture of relief, anger, or betrayal, your children will be overwhelmed by fear and confusion. The questions racing through their minds will be, who will take care of me? Will I be okay? Do Mom and Dad still love me? They will need a great deal of reassurance from both of you to feel safe again.
While you need to help your children express their feelings, be aware that their normal behavior may also change. They may become withdrawn, rebellious, clingy, or aloof. Keeping to old, familiar routines can help them adjust more quickly. If they are used to going out for breakfast on the weekends or participating in sports or other activities, maintaining these habits will help them keep a sense of continuity. To children, routine equates with safety. Following separation or divorce, some parents try to ease the divorce process by permitting behavior they ordinarily would not. After all, your kids are going through enough. They will likely act up, but you should continue to insist on appropriate behavior, like getting homework and chores done. This is a part of maintaining old and familiar habits.
As a parent, you may, even subconsciously, be hoping that by not enforcing discipline, you will become the “nice” parent. But regulation is a part of the children’s routine. They may argue, but they will feel much more secure if they know what is expected of them.
5. Working Together as Parents
Your marital situation has changed, but your role as parents remains the same. You need regular communication regarding the children. The custodial parent should be keeping the absent parent advised of what is happening in the children’s lives.
Keep to the topic at hand. Don’t revisit old issues and conflicts. If your ex-spouse were perfect, you would still be married. So, there is no need to rehash old arguments when he or she is late picking up the children or forgets to come to an important event. If this is how your ex-partner acted before the divorce, there is no reason to expect him or her to have changed.
There is no easy way through getting a divorce. It will take considerable effort to smooth the way for your children. But as parents, you owe it to them to keep their world as secure as possible. You are the parent, and they depend on you.
Deborah Bankhead is an Attorney at VS Family Law Group. Deborah believes compassion and patience are required of family law attorneys and she is a relentless advocate for families in crisis. In her spare time, Deborah volunteers to help teens interested in the legal field pursue their dreams and likes to hang out with her cat. www.familytexas.com