After you’ve told your children about your divorce plans, you must act in a way that reflects the promises you made to your children about what life would be like for them in the future.
Watching your own behavior around your children
Monitor your own behavior around your children. What you choose to do (or not do, as the following list will tell you) can help reassure them that things will be okay or can add to their anxiety about the future.
Remaining sensitive to your children’s feelings
When you get divorced, you and your spouse aren’t the only ones affected by the change in your marital status. Your divorce means the end of family life as your children know it, which is something that has been important to them and they’ve probably always taken for granted.
Your divorce may also mean that your children must experience a change in economic circumstances or they may have to move out of their home and neighborhood, attend a new school, and make all new friends. Therefore, unless you’re aware of what to do and what not to do in regard to your children while keeping an eye on their moods and behaviors, your divorce can be emotionally devastating for them, even if it is a good thing for you.
Remember: When parents divorce, children often fear that they will lose one of their parents or that their parents will abandon them and they’ll have to fend for themselves. Therefore, both parents need to convey in their words and deeds that they will always be there for them. For example, if you promise your children that you’ll do something for them, do it. Also let your children know that you love and appreciate them, and make plans with them to do something in the future — maybe a trip to the beach. Also, if your children are nearing college age, start talking with them about which colleges they want to attend and make plans to visit some of those schools with them.
If you don’t tend to your children’s needs during your divorce (and afterward), you risk making them the innocent victims of your marital breakup. Studies have shown that children whose parents divorce are more likely to have trouble in school and with the law, which means that you may end up spending money later for therapists, tutors, and attorneys’ fees.
Warning: Research also shows that parents who openly express their hatred, anger, feelings of betrayal, or desire for vengeance — feelings that many couples have toward one another during divorce and sometimes long after — unwittingly program their kids to be unhappy adults with troubled marriages of their own. Parents also harm their children by manipulating them in order to gain the upper hand in custody negotiations or to get back at the other spouse. Couples who use their children as pawns in their divorce games put their children in a terribly difficult position because most children love both of their parents equally.
If your children have gone through a divorce before, don’t assume that it’s easier for them the second time around. The second divorce may trigger the very same emotions that they experienced during your first divorce. Their lives are again being disrupted by changes in their lifestyle and the discomfort of living with two adults who are preoccupied with the end of their marriage. Furthermore, because they will be older than they were when you got divorced the first time, their emotions may be more intense, and they may experience new emotions and/or respond to your second divorce in ways that they didn’t the last time your marriage ended.
To help monitor how well your children are dealing with the news of your divorce, spend some extra time with them (but not in an interfering way). It may simply require being in the same room with them more than you usually are so you can watch their behavior or being more attuned to them when they’re in the car with you. The time you spend together gives your kids the opportunity to express their feelings and concerns about their daily lives.
Warning: Although your children may appear to be coping well, don’t assume that they’re not having trouble in school or at play or won’t have trouble later on. Watch for any mood swings or changes in behavior that may signal emotional problems. Touch base periodically with their teachers and caregivers to find out whether they’ve noticed any problems.
What your kids may be fearing (and not telling you)
During and after their parents’ divorce, children (especially the younger ones) often become fearful that terrible things will happen to them or believe that they’re responsible for the breakup of their parents’ marriage. Some of the most common fears and misconceptions kids have about divorce include
Understanding the thoughts that may be going through your children’s minds can keep you alert to any signs that your kids are having trouble coping with your divorce.
Being prepared for your children’s initial reactions
After your children find out about your divorce plans, they may begin to feel isolated and cut off from their friends. They may feel as though they’re the only children whose parents ever got divorced and may be embarrassed about what’s happening to them. On the other hand, if you and your spouse fought openly and often during your marriage or if violence or substance abuse colored your relationship, your divorce may be a relief to your children and it may represent a positive change in their lives.
For a sensitive and comprehensive overview of the stresses that children commonly feel when their parents are going through a divorce, and detailed advice on what parents can do to help their kids, head to the University of Missouri Extension website at muextension.missouri.edu/xplor/hesguide/humanrel/gh6600.htm.
If your children are having trouble coping with the news of your divorce, all you may need to turn their frowns into smiles is to cuddle them more and give them a little extra attention. But sometimes it’s not that simple. When your children need more than what you can give them, consider involving a school counselor, mental health professional, social worker, relative, or another adult who’s especially close to your children. Participating in a support group may also be helpful to your older children.
Tip: Tell your children’s teachers, babysitters, other caregivers, the parents of their close friends, and any other adults who they see regularly about your divorce plans. Your heads-up will help them stay attuned to any significant changes in the ways your children behave. Ask these adults to keep you informed of any changes.
Another option is to contact your state’s family law court, your divorce attorney, mental-health professional, or a social worker who works with children and families to find out about any public or private resources (such as classes, workshops, and support groups) that may be available in your area to help your kids cope with your divorce. Some of these same resources may also offer counseling for divorcing parents.
John Ventura is a bestselling author, attorney, and a national authority on consumer financial and legal problems. Mary Reed is the founder of Mary Reed Public Relations. This answer has been excerpted from their book Divorce for Dummies (Second Edition, Wiley Publishing). This material is used by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. The book is available at Amazon.com or www.wiley.com.