By John Duffy, CNN
Mom said they were splitting up because Dad drank too much. Dad said Mom was having an emotional affair and was spending too much money. Mom said Dad was neglectful at times, bordering on abusive. Dad shared that he felt Mom was emotionally cold and remote with him.
That’s what two siblings, a teenage girl and boy, told me as I worked with them to process the impending divorce of their parents. They were upset, not just because their nuclear family would be forever changed and their future more uncertain, but because their parents were over sharing and trying to pit them against each other.
The kids were overwhelmed and confused. They were unsure where to place their alliances but wanted nothing to do with alliances in the first place.
They wanted to envision their family not as a failure, which many kids of divorce feel. They wanted family time to feel well spent. They wanted to hold onto good memories they experienced and look forward to a future that felt more connected than awkward.
Though they may not always show it, divorce can be traumatizing for kids and affect other areas of their lives including grades, social connections and even the partners they choose and how they treat them.
Difficult as this may be to do, creating positive, post-divorce family culture falls squarely on the shoulders of parents. This is on top of their own processing of feelings around separation, divorce, loss and hope. It’s a lot to have to take on all at once.
Due to hurt feelings, rejection and infidelity, anger, money, or other unresolved issues, divorce is clearly among the most difficult processes anyone can endure. In couples’ sessions it can be so painful to witness a spouse revisit courtship and early marriage wistfully, while their partner, or soon-to-be former partner, looks on dispassionately, sometimes with outright disdain.
Typically, in these sessions, one person has a foot out the door while the other one is trying to close it before their spouse is gone.
At times it’s difficult for parents to place negative feelings for one another aside to tend to the best interests and well-being of their children. We inherently know not to expose our kids to our marital- or divorce-related difficulties, but when we are in the midst of it, far too often we forget.
Sometimes the spiteful gesture is overt, like the father who literally spilled his final child support payment of $800 onto his ex-wife’s lawn, entirely in pennies. Of course, she was not the only one impacted by this gesture. His children bore witness to this offense and were deeply affected.
Negative interactions between divorced parents is often far more subtle and frequent than that example. I’ve worked with kids who have been asked to serve as a go-between, managing the communication of their parents as custody is swapped. Others have acted as emotional barriers between their parents at holidays and other gatherings. In the extreme, some have had to physically slip between their parents in a particularly contentious moment.
Regardless of how you feel about your ex-spouse or how rotten they truly were, there are some truths I see in my practice that both parents should realize going forward.
Your kids identify with you both
We often talk about whether a child looks more like his or her mom or dad, or takes on some of their qualities. But it’s also important to remember that your kids are attentive, sometimes subconsciously, to all of your characteristics, positive or not. So, when they hear that Mom or Dad has treated the other awfully or unfairly, they identify with that awfulness.
I want you to pause on this, because it may help to drive your communication with an ex, or a soon-to-be ex. Your kids identify with you both. If they hear from a loved and trusted parent that the other parent can be awful, kids will internalize this not just as a part of the offending parent, but of themselves. There are plenty of triggers for a kid’s diminishing self-esteem, the last thing you want to be is on the list. So please, be thoughtful in the way you treat your ex.
This alone may be the first step in setting the stage for a less stressful divorce.
Talk to your kids about what will not change
When parents talk to their kids about divorce, those initial discussions tend to revolve around all the things that will change.
“Mom and Dad will live in different homes.”
“You will live in different homes sometimes.”
“We may not be able to spend as much time together as we have in the past.”
“We may have to pay more attention to how much money we’re spending.”
These are all important and relevant points and need to be discussed. But I have found that creating a foundation around what will not change in their lives is just as important, perhaps more so, in maintaining the well-being of your children during and post-divorce.
Highlight the fact that you both love your children unconditionally, and will continue to do so always. Remind them frequently that they are not the cause of the divorce, a concern many kids carry but few share with their parents. Assure them they are good and good enough, and that the driving force behind the divorce lies between the adults. Kids need to hear these things that may seem obvious to parents.
Let the divorce be a process for the kids. I’ve witnessed many parents treating the “divorce talk” an awful lot like the “sex talk.” It’s perfunctory. Mandatory. And hopefully we only have to do it once. We sit down, inform the kids of their new world order — and where they will be sleeping until their 18th birthday — and move on.
That’s not enough. In my experience, kids process these issues at different paces. Some will have questions immediately and want to engage in an ongoing discussion. Others will have thoughts and questions over time. It’s crucial that parents allow for both methods.
Model the perfect breakup
In practice, I have learned that kids can be quite resilient to the idea that their parents were not meant for each other, or at the very least are not meant to be married any longer.
Not only can children work with that idea, but they often prefer situations in which their parents are divorced or separated versus staying together in conflict. Kids frequently express to me that their parents would both be better off apart, or with more suitable partners. Your kids are undoubtedly smart and observant, so this reality will, in all likelihood, not be missed by them.
Modeling becomes so important here. Over time kids tend to mirror the relationship patterns of their parents. The perfect breakup is not possible but increasingly I hear from kids their stories of divorced, sometimes estranged parents chatting with one another in a friendly manner during pick-ups and drop-offs. They can sit together at games, plays, concerts and celebrations in relative peace.
I can tell you with authority that kids greatly appreciate those efforts by their parents.
How your child sees divorce
Pause for a moment and consider divorce from a child’s point of view, perhaps your own child’s point of view.
It is harsh. Even with the best of intentions, divorce is by nature contentious and emotionally taxing. For kids, the family life they have known is changing, perhaps for the better, but change is difficult and this transition is enormous.
Your kids should never witness the harshest of your exchanges. The changes divorce bring already feel harsh to them. They don’t need to hear you say awful things about one another or arguments about money, new significant others, or them.
If they catch you at your worst they may become deeply upset, disempowered and conflicted.
I find in the wake of divorce, kids regress a bit. They need to be taken care of more than they normally might. They need care and attention, unconditional regard and gentleness.
Talking it through will help
As you are a party to your divorce, you will likely find that your children have a difficult time talking to you about it. I urge you to find a therapist your child is comfortable with, even if you feel he or she may not need it.
Divorce for children is tricky, but with the right help, kids can navigate their way through successfully, redefine family in a way they can be at peace with, and enjoy other satisfying relationships for a lifetime.