Divorce and Children a guide to explain and protect children involved in divorce, written especially for married couples who are on the verge of getting divorced.
To be honest divorce in itself is a particularly terrible experience for children of divorce, leaving scars that can affect them all through their lives.
The lingering trauma of divorce can even hurt kids later when they form their own long-term relationships and get married.
Even if they themselves don’t divorce, the memory of their own parents’ breakup can cause great anxiety and fear that harms their own attempts to build a happy marriage and raise a family of their own.
It’s understandable, then, that parents considering a divorce may be terrified themselves about how this experience will hurt their children.
Obviously, some parents even decide to save their marriage and not to get a divorce “to protect the children.”
While sacrificing your own happiness and health for your children’s sake may be a good idea sometimes, there are situations where it’s better to divorce and spare the kid the trauma of living with unhappy, bitter parents who fight constantly.
Those sorts of memories, too, can color children’s family lives when they grow up.
If you’ve decided you're not willing to save your married life and divorce is a step you must take, it’s a good idea to think about how you will explain to your children what’s happening, and how you will do your best to protect them.
#1 DECIDING TO DIVORCE
Parents make many, many sacrifices for their children. You may, in fact, be driven to stay with a spouse who isn’t right for you because you don’t want your children to “grow up in a broken home.”
This is a tough decision to make, because, as you know, a “broken home” can be a home where the parents aren’t divorced, but where they don’t work together to create a successful family.
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Kids growing up in a parental battle zone will be just as scarred, maybe even more so, than those who grow up in two different homes with divorced parents.
Before you decide to get a divorce, you must be very clear with yourself about why you’re doing it. Divorce isn’t just going to be hard on your kids – it’s going to be very hard on you.
Take time to think through your reasons for getting a divorce, and write them down. Make a list of the positive and negative aspects of staying in your marriage, and weigh them carefully.
You will have to decide for yourself whether it’s more important to put your own needs ahead of the needs of your combined family. This is a tricky situation, and one that can lead to a lot of guilt.
The clearer you are from the beginning, the better you will be able to handle the guilt yourself and to explain your situation to your children.
Take some time to get clear on your motivation. Write down your reasons – the positive and negative aspects of your current relationship – every morning for a week at least.
Just scribble your thoughts down on a bit of paper or in a cheap spiral notebook.
You won’t ever show this to anyone, so you can write down everything you feel, honestly. If you can’t even be honest with yourself, it will be difficult to be honest with your children later.
Make sure to list both the positive and negative aspects – that, too, will be important when you have to keep working with your ex to raise your children.
Don’t tell your children you’re getting a divorce until you actually are getting a divorce. That’s one good reason to be very clear and honest with yourself about what’s going on.
Once you’re sure, then you need to get everything straight with your spouse so you two can work together to figure out how to tell your children and protect them.
All the writing and thinking you did ahead of time will really help you be clear both with your spouse and with your children about why this is happening.
#2 WORKING WITH YOUR SPOUSE
Although you and your spouse may not be able to work together on many things – after all, you are getting a divorce – you must, must, must work together to protect your children during the process.
Too many parents get sucked into awful, mudslinging fights worthy of politicians vying for office, and their children suffer for it. Don’t go there.
If you and your spouse can’t speak to each other without fighting, then you need to get a professional referee to help.
A licensed marriage and family therapist is best – this person is trained for exactly what you’re going through.
Don’t balk at the cost of professional therapy – how much is it worth to you to help your children through your divorce?
A therapist will teach both of you how to talk to each other and, more importantly, how to listen to each other.
You’ll be taught how to talk (and listen!) in turns, without interrupting each other or saying, “Yeah, but …”
Those skills will prove helpful both in your negotiations with your spouse about the terms of the divorce, and also in your conversations with your children about what’s going on.
Whether you consult a therapist or not, you must figure out how to work with your spouse to present a unified, consistent message to your children. You both want to send the same message to the kids.
#3 FIGURING OUT WHAT TO SAY
Before you talk to your children, you and your spouse need to figure out what you are going to say. Why are you getting a divorce?
That’s the central question your kids are going to ask, and you need to know your answer and make sure both of you tell your children the same thing.
You’ll want to be honest and clear with your children, but there’s such a thing as too much honesty, especially with young children.
Your written list of reasons why you are getting a divorce will come in handy here. Use what you wrote to craft a reassuring, positive and loving message for your children. Keep it simple and straightforward, without blaming each other.
Explain that sometimes it’s better for two people to stop being married, and that this is a mutual decision you have both decided on (even if that isn’t entirely true).
Although you are certainly very angry with your spouse, don’t express your fury or frustration or disappointment in front of your children. Stick to your simple, straightforward message.
Don’t blame your spouse for the divorce. Share the blame between yourselves equally. Young children, in particular, sometimes think it is their fault that their parents are breaking up. This is something you will want to be very clear about, over and over.
All children, but especially young ones, crave a stable family, and they will be confused to learn that their parents, the center of their world, are getting a divorce.
Make sure you repeatedly remind your children that your divorce is not their fault, and that both parents still love them just as much as before.
If your children already go to school, they are likely to have a few friends or classmates whose parents are divorced, and this may help them realize and accept that children of divorced parents can lead happy lives and be OK.
Be very clear, especially with young children, that although parents sometimes get divorced, parents and children never get a divorce and never stop loving each other.
#4 QUESTION TIME
This is perhaps the most terrifying experience for most parents. Telling your children via a carefully scripted message that you are getting a divorce is one thing, but letting them ask questions about it is completely different. The conversation could go in any direction, and that’s frightening.
Try to answer your children’s questions honestly and from your heart. Tell the truth, but don’t go into excessive details, especially if they are young.
Little kids don’t think like adults – their brains are simply not wired yet for adult thinking and logic.
Decide for yourself and with your spouse in advance if there are certain topics – infidelity, for example, or emotional and physical neglect or abuse – that you won’t discuss with the kids.
If they ask a question about those subjects, decide on a clear answer that reassures them and steers the conversation back to your main message.
You will have to let go and accept their questions. It’s likely, as in many situations in life, that your fears about what they are going to ask you are more terrifying that what really happens.
They may want to know, especially if they have experience with friends whose parents have split up, whether they will have to move to a new home and new school, or how often they will see both of you. They may ask if you hate each other, or don’t love each other anymore.
The more you’ve thought about your reasons for divorce, the easier this will be (though it won’t ever be very easy). Remember to keep a balance of the positive and negative aspects of your family.
Stress that although they may live between two homes now instead of in one, both of their parents will still love them and be involved in their lives.
It’s also possible your children may lapse into uncomfortable silence, with no questions to ask.
That’s OK, too. Don’t try to force them to ask questions. Just be sure you let them know you will answer their questions any time.
#5 FEAR OF FEELINGS
It’s important to realize and accept that your children are not you. They are individual human beings who have their own thoughts and feelings, all of which are out of your control.
If you go into this conversation intending to control their emotions and reactions, you are likely to be very disappointed.
Please take some time before you talk to them to accept that your children are probably going to be frightened, unhappy, angry, confused, ashamed, and even guilty about your divorce.
Those feelings are genuine and normal – if you told your kids you’re getting a divorce and they just shrugged and said “OK,” then that would be something to worry about!
You’ve done your best with your prepared statement to break the news to your children and reassure them that you love them and that isn’t going to change no matter what happens.
You’ve stressed that point, and that’s the best you can do right now. Over the months and years ahead you will get a chance to prove it to them, but for now, telling them is the best you can do.
Don’t deny your children’s feelings. It doesn’t help to tell them they shouldn’t be sad, or shouldn’t be angry. Let them feel what they feel.
If you’re getting a divorce, you probably already have realized that your spouse is not under your control. You don’t have the power to dictate what your spouse thinks and feels and does.
Though you may be angry or disappointed in your spouse’s emotions and actions, accept that these feelings and choices belong to your spouse and not to you.
You’ve already got plenty on your plate in going through this divorce, so don’t burden yourself with responsibility for someone else’s state of mind, too.
The situation is similar with your children. You can’t stop them from feeling whatever they feel. Don’t try. It will exhaust you and frustrate you.
Don’t expect them to be happy, or angry, or guilty, or anything. Just let them feel what they feel and then respond appropriately. If they’re angry, even furious, that’s OK.
Help them find appropriate ways to express anger, ways that don’t endanger them or other people.
Hitting and throwing things are pretty negative ways to express anger, but exercise or crying or punching pillows and mattresses are just fine.
Use your adult experience to help your children handle the feelings that do come up. How do you process your own anger or frustration or sadness?
Tell them that they may feel this way for a while, and that there’s nothing wrong with that.
If your own parents divorced, you may be able to give your children some idea what to expect, though their reaction may be different from yours.
How you handle your own crazy emotions during this divorce will be an example for your children. So do your best to find healthy ways to handle your feelings, whatever they may be.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s OK to be human – your children know you are not perfect – but do your best to show them a healthy path and set a good example.
STAYING ON MESSAGE
In the weeks and months after your initial conversation with your children, you will need to focus on what politicians call “staying on message.” That’s not easy to do if you lose your temper.
And, since you’re going through a tough, exhausting, emotional situation, you aren’t ever going to be at your best. So you need to work at staying on message.
That means keeping to the reasons you gave them for the divorce, and working with your spouse to reinforce that message. Both you and your spouse should always be available to talk to your children and answer their questions about what’s going on.
Both of you need to be on the same page with your children, no matter how heated your battle with each other.
Avoid blaming and public bitterness.
Don’t accuse your spouse of bad behavior in front of the children. If you want to complain about your spouse, call a sympathetic adult friend and tell them all about it.
Don’t get into the messy details of the divorce in front of your children. They do have a right to know about what’s going on, since the divorce directly affects them. But they don’t need to witness a bunch of blaming and mud-slinging.
Remind and reassure your children that both their parents love them and will continue to love them always. Let them know that both parents will welcome them in their homes no matter what happens or where they live.
If you and your spouse need to argue or fight, find a place and time to do it when the children aren’t there.
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