By: Amy Botwinick
The biggest challenge is to be your children’s rock during a time when you feel like you are about to lose your mind. During the transition, your kids are dealing with their own issues and emotions. There is definitely pain and loss for children; they will need time to grieve and experience their pain before moving on. As their parent, you need to give your children time and space to do this, which will require much of your patience and energy. You have to be in a good place yourself to do this and find the strength to help them get through this difficult time.
It can be a recipe for disaster as they test you and watch to see how you are going to stand up to them and the new reality you all face. What they need from you right now is for you to be a strong parent. Don’t use your children as your emotional support — they are not miniature adults. The last thing you want to do is switch roles where they feel this incredible burden of making sure you are all right. It scares them, and it’s just not their job. It’s an easy trap to fall into so remember to let them be children and keep them out of the adult world of problems. Find the appropriate support system through friends, family and organizations to help get you through this time. Do what you need to get yourself in a good place so you can regain your strength. You can’t give to your children what you don’t have yourself.
It will be very important for your children to express their feelings. Sharing your own feelings (with much editing) will encourage them to share as well. Don’t be afraid to be honest and let them hear that you are sad about the family breaking up. Follow up with some positive thoughts and ideas of how the situation will get better. Some children will require counseling to help them through the adjustment period. It’s important that they express their feelings and deal with their emotions; otherwise, it just comes back to haunt them and you. For those of you with an only child, keep in mind that they have no sibling to commiserate with. Group counseling with children in similar circumstances can be very helpful so they know they are not alone.
The Right Words, the Right Time, the Right Place
Many parents put themselves under a lot of pressure when they think about the talk they need to have with their children about the upcoming separation. They get freaked out that if they say the wrong words, their children will be set on the path to impending doom and misery. It simply requires some common sense and plenty of love.
The most important thing you can do is to break the news with your spouse as a family without assigning blame. Come from the heart with honesty and assure them that their relationship with both parents will continue (if possible). Pick an appropriate time and place they feel safe so there will be plenty of time to answer their questions. Ask them about their fears and concerns and address them the best you can with the constant reassurance you will always love them and that the divorce was not their fault. Don’t fall into the trap of giving them false hope you might get back together again just to make them feel better.
Divorce is confusing for children, so don’t overload them with too much information. Give them basic information so they understand you will continue to take care of them and love them the same way. Remember, “The Talk” will never go exactly how you planned, and your children’s reactions will be painful to see. Allow plenty of time for hugs and kisses and explain again that it was an adult decision that had nothing to do with them.
Information you give your children should always be age appropriate. As the years pass and they grow up, they might ask for more specific details of your breakup. This can be difficult, but you want to remain honest as you try not to bad-mouth their other parent. Kids are very smart. Give them the basics without focusing on the negative, and they will fill in the holes for themselves. Always keep the lines of communication open. Leaving children in the dark can be harmful because their imaginations will likely make up realities that are much worse than what really happened. This can leave children angry and confused which can affect their future relationships and how they see their world.
Books are a great tool to use when talking about divorce. Always read each book from beginning to end to make sure you are comfortable with the information.
Here are some suggestions:
- Three to seven years old: It’s Not Your Fault, KoKo Bear By Vicky Lansky, Book Peddlers
- School-age children: Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families By Laurene Drasney Brown and Marc Brown, Brown and Company
- Older school-age children: How Do I Feel About: My Parents’ Divorce By Julia Cole, Copper Beech Books
- Preteen: Pre-Teen Pressures: Divorce By Debra Goldentyer, Steck Vaughn
There is a great catalog called Child’s Work, Child’s Play that provides great tools such as books and board games to help your children adapt to the change. Showing them that there are other children in similar situations will keep them from feeling alienated.
It’s important to paint a picture for children of how their immediate future will look. Explain their new living arrangements, how much time they will be spending with each parent, and what holidays and vacations will look like. Let them have access to your soon-to-be ex’s extended family. The more people in a child’s life who support and love them, the better off they will be. Don’t ever ask a child to choose who they want to live with; it’s not fair to put them in that position. Prepare them with books and games before the actual separation and try to spend some extra time together. Continue to do the family rituals; make having fun a priority with your kids. Do the best you can to prepare your children for the upcoming changes and don’t forget to check yourself — separating for the first child visitation will be very difficult on all of you.