When you and your spouse are thinking of filing a divorce, it is of utmost importance that you both think of your children’s present and future emotional well-being before anything else. This is often difficult for divorcing parents to do as they commonly let their own feelings toward each other get in the way of doing what is truly in their children’s best interest. The following are a few tips for parents to keep in mind when preparing their children for divorce.
BREAKING THE NEWS
Once you and your spouse are certain of your plans to divorce, you will need to speak with your children about your decision to live apart. There is no easy way to break the news to your children, but there are several steps you can take. First, tell them only when the decision is firm. The more time between telling the children and one parent leaving gives the children time to work much harder to keep the separation from happening.
Next, try to tell the children together, if possible, even if the decision to file for divorce is not a joint decision. It is important to leave out your personal feelings of anger, guilt, or blame toward the other parent. Make sure to practice how you will tell your children so you or your spouse doesn’t become upset or angry during the talk.
This brings us to an important point: don’t improvise. You and your spouse should decide beforehand what to tell the children and don’t deviate. The more parents blunder and surprise each other, the more confused and upset the children will become. It is important that your message provides clarity of the situation so children will not begin efforts at reconciliation. You can let them know that divorce is a solution that has come only after all other options have been explored.
The divorce should be presented as a rationally and sadly realized decision. It is perfectly acceptable to express this sadness to them. This expression gives the children permission to cry and start the mourning process without having to hide their feelings of loss from adults and parents. The children should be told on a non-school day or, if impossible, keep them home from school that day in order to give them time to cry and mourn.
Further, although the discussion about divorce should be tailored to a child’s age, maturity, and temperament, you need to convey one basic message: “What happened is between mom and dad and is not the children’s fault.” Most children will feel that the divorce is their fault even after parents have said that they are not. Thus, it is vital for parents to continuously provide this reassurance for their children. Remind the children that parents and children are tied together for life and that, although kids and parents often don’t agree on things, parents and children never stop loving each other.
When deciding to break the news to your children, try to tell all the children at the same time, even if there is a wide age span. Tell them together and then separately, adopting age appropriate explanations. As previously stated, offer a clear explanation of what is going on, giving age appropriate information. For example, telling a 3 year old, “We’re getting a divorce,” is ineffective when a child of such an age doesn’t even really know what a marriage means, let alone a divorce. For younger children, it is best to keep it the simple. You can say something like: “Mom and dad are going to live in different houses so they don’t fight so much, but we both love you very much.” Older children and teenagers are more in tune with what the parents have been going through and may have more questions based on what they’ve overheard and picked up on from conversations and fights. Regardless of a child’s age, you need to tell them why the divorce is happening as a divorce is a major, if not the major, crisis in their lives. Lastly, infidelity or sexual dysfunction should never be included in the discussion.
HANDLING CHILDREN’S REACTIONS
Children will react in many ways, but there are some main points you want to emphasize with them. First, let the children know that you recognize and care about their feelings. Reassure them that all of their upset feelings are perfectly OK and understandable. You might say: “I know this is very upsetting for you. Can we try to think of something that would make you feel better?” or “We both love you and are sorry that we have to live apart.” Next, as stated above, ensure the children that they are not at fault for the divorce. Lastly, apologize to the children. An apology by the parents helps the children see that it was not the parents’ intention to hurt them. Simply put, parents should (individually and together as ‘parents’) tell the children they are sorry for the hurt they are causing.
Keep in mind that not all children react right away. If this is the case, let them know that that’s OK too and that you will be there to talk whenever they are ready. Some children may try to please their parents by acting as if everything is fine, or they may even try to avoid any difficult feelings altogether by denying that they feel any anger or sadness at the news. Sometimes stress and these other feelings may come out in other ways — at school, or with friends, or in changes to their appetite, behavior or sleep patterns.
Regardless, whether your kids express fear, worry, or relief about your separation and divorce, they will want to know how their own day-to-day lives might change. Parents should prepare children for what lies ahead in as much concrete details as age appropriate. Admit that things will change, (life will be disorganized for a while, routines will be disrupted, house may be sold, one parent will be moving, mother may go to work/school). However, assure them that they will be told of all major developments, (where absent parent will live, when visitation is scheduled). Further, repeatedly tell them that divorce will not weaken the parent-child relationship. A geographical distance does not mean there will be an emotional distance or less love. Give your children permission to love both parents. This is one of the hardest tasks for parents to do during a divorce.
Try to anticipate questions from the children and prepare answers. Careful planning shows the children that the parents are confident in the decision. Make sure to answer their questions as truthfully as possible. Remember that children don’t need to know all the reasons behind a divorce (especially if it involves blaming the other parent). It’s enough for them just to understand what will change in their daily routine, and — just as important — what will not. Be prepared to answer these and other questions:
- Who will I live with?
- Where will I go to school?
- Will I move?
- Where will each parent live?
- Where will we spend holidays such as Thanksgiving?
- Will I still get to see my friends?
- Will I have to go to a different school?
- Can I still go to camp this summer?
- Can I still do my favorite activities?
Make sure to be honest with the children. Being honest is not always easy when you don’t have all the answers, or when the children are feeling scared or guilty about what’s going on. It’s always the right thing to do to tell them what they need to know at that moment.
HELPING CHILDREN COPE
Many children, and even parents, grieve the loss of the kind of family they had hoped for, and children especially miss the presence of a parent and the family life they once had. Therefore, it is common and very natural for some children to hold out hope that their parents will someday get back together, even after the finality of divorce has been explained to them. Mourning the loss of a family is normal; however, over time, both you and your children will come to accept the new situation so reassure them that it’s OK to wish that mom and dad will reunite, but also explain the finality of your decisions.
Here are some ways to help kids cope with the upset of a divorce:
- Encourage honesty. Let your children know that their feelings are important to you and that they’ll be taken seriously.
- Help them put their feelings into words. Various behavior from children can often clue you in to their feelings of sadness or anger. You might say: “It seems as if you’re feeling sad right now. Do you know what’s making you feel so sad?” Be a good listener and don’t interrupt, even if it’s difficult for you to hear what they have to say.
- Legitimize their feelings. Saying “I know you feel sad now,” or “I know it feels lonely without dad here,” lets kids know that their feelings are valid. It is important to encourage children to get it all out before you start offering ways to make it better. Let them know it’s also OK to feel happy or relieved or excited about the future.
- Offer support. Ask, “What do you think will help you feel better?” They might not be able to name something, but you can suggest a few ideas, for example, maybe just to sitting together for a while, taking a walk, or holding a favorite stuffed animal. Younger children might especially appreciate an offer to call the other parent on the phone or to make a picture to give to the other parent when he/she comes at the end of the day.
- Keep yourself healthy. Even for adults, separation and divorce is highly stressful. That pressure may be amplified by custody, property, and financial issues, which can bring out the worst in people. Finding ways to manage your own stress is essential for you and your entire family. Keeping yourself as physically and emotionally healthy as possible can help combat the effects of stress, and by making sure you’re taking care of your own needs, you can ensure that you’ll be in the best possible shape to take care of your kids.
- Keep the details in check. Take care to ensure privacy when discussing the details of the divorce with friends, family, or your lawyer. Try to keep your interactions with your ex as civil as possible, especially when you’re interacting in front of the kids.
If you and your ex have an argument or need to discuss an important issue, don’t do it in front of the children. Although the occasional argument is expected in any family, living in a battleground of continuous hostility and unresolved conflict can place a heavy burden on a child. Screaming, fighting, arguing, or violence can make kids fearful and apprehensive. Further, witnessing parental conflict presents an inappropriate model for children, who are still learning how to deal with their own relationships. Children whose parents maintain anger and hostility are much more likely to have continued emotional and behavioral difficulties that last beyond childhood.
Also, take the high road. Don’t resort to blaming or name-calling, especially within earshot of your children, no matter what the circumstances of the separation. This is especially important in an “at fault” divorce where there have been especially hurtful events, like infidelity. Take care to keep letters, e-mails, and text messages in a secure location as children will be naturally curious if there is a high-conflict situation going on at home.
- Get help. A divorce is not the time to go it alone, regardless of whether it is a parent or child. Find a support group, talk to others who have gone through this, use online resources, or ask your doctor or religious leaders to refer you to other resources. Getting help yourself sets a good example for your children on how to make a healthy adjustment to this major change.
Assistance from a counselor, therapist, or friend will also help maintain healthy boundaries with your children. It’s very important not to lean on your children for support. Older children and those who are eager to please may try to make you feel better by offering a shoulder to cry on. No matter how tempting that is, it’s best not to let them be the provider of your emotional support. Let your children know how touched you are by their caring nature and kindness, but do your venting to a friend or therapist. Using your children as an emotional crutch may put unneeded stress on them.
IMPORTANCE OF CONSISTENCY
Maintaining consistency and a routine can go a long way toward providing comfort and familiarity that can help your family during such a major life change. Whenever possible, parents should minimize unpredictable schedules, transitions, or abrupt separations.
Children will benefit from having one-on-one time with each parent, especially during a divorce. No matter how inconvenient it is for your own schedule, try your best to accommodate your ex-partner as you figure out visitation schedules in order to provide the children with consistent time with both parents.
It is common and natural that a parent be concerned with how a child is coping with changes from a divorce. The best thing you can do is trust your instincts and rely upon what you know about your children. Here are some questions to ask yourself about your children: 1) Do they seem to be acting differently than usual?; 2) Is a child doing things like regressing to younger behaviors, such as thumb-sucking or bedwetting?; and 3) Do emotions seem to be getting in the way of everyday routines, like school and social life? It is important to watch out for such behavioral changes and any new or changing signs of moodiness, sadness, anxiety, school problems, or difficulties with friends, appetite, and sleep, as these can be signs of a problem.
For older children and teens, such changes may make them more vulnerable to risky behaviors such as alcohol and drug use, skipping school, and defiant acts. Regardless of whether such troubles are related to the divorce, they are serious problems that affect a child’s well-being and indicate the need for outside help.
ADJUSTING TO A NEW LIVING SITUATION
Because divorce can be such a big change, adjustments in living arrangements should be handled gradually. There are several living and parenting time situations that can result from a divorce and should be considered: 1) One parent may have sole custody; 2) There may be joint custody in which both legal and physical custody are shared; or 3) There may be joint custody where one parent has “tie breaking” authority in certain medical or educational domains.
Determining which situation is right for your children may be a tough question and often is the one on which the majority of the couples spend most time disagreeing. Although some children can thrive spending half their time with each parent, others seem to need the stability of having one main “home” and then visiting with the other parent. Some parents choose to both remain in the same home, but this only works in the rarest of circumstances and in general should be avoided.
Whatever situation you choose, you need to remember that your child’s needs should come first. Do not get involved in a tug-of-war merely as a way to “win” against your ex-spouse. When deciding how to handle holidays, birthdays, and vacations, stay focused on what’s best for your children. It’s important for parents to resolve these issues themselves and do not ask the children to choose.
When children begin to age, especially during their pre-teen years, they will become more involved with activities apart from their parents. When this happens, children may need different schedules in order to accommodate their changing priorities. Ideally, children benefit most from consistent support from both parents; however, they may resist equal time-sharing if it interrupts school or their social lives. Be prepared for their thoughts on time-sharing, and try to be flexible.
Sometimes children may refuse to share time with you and your spouse equally or may try to take sides. If this occurs, try not to take it personally no matter how difficult it may be. Maintain the visitation schedule and emphasize to the children the importance of the involvement of both parents.
Children sometimes propose to spend an entire summer, semester, or school year with the noncustodial parent. Just because of this proposition, this may not reflect that they actually want to move. Make sure to listen to and explore these options if they are brought up. This kind of arrangement can work well in “friendly” divorces, but is not typical of higher-conflict situations.
PARENTING UNDER PRESSURE
As stated, both parents should work toward maximizing consistency in routine and discipline across both households. Parents should maintain similar expectations regarding bedtimes, rules, and homework. This consistency will help reduce anxiety, especially in younger children. Wherever possible, work with the other parent to maintain consistent rules. Further, even when you can’t enforce consistent rules in your ex-partner’s home, you can stick to them in yours.
It’s important to maintain as much normalcy as possible after a divorce by keeping regular routines, including mealtimes, house rules about behavior, and discipline. Relaxing rules and limits, especially during a time of change, tends to make children insecure and reduces your chances of regaining appropriate parental authority later in the children’s lives.
Resist urges to drop routines and spoil children upset about a divorce by letting them break rules or not enforcing limits. It’s OK for you to lavish affection on them as children don’t get spoiled by too many hugs or comforting words. However, buying things to replace love or allowing children to act any way they want is not in their best interests. If you do this, you could find yourself struggling to reel them back in once the dust of the divorce settles.
Thus, divorce can be a major crisis and life change for a family. However, if you and your former spouse can work together and communicate civilly for the benefit of your children, the original family unit can continue to be a source of strength, even if stepfamilies enter the picture. So remember to:
- Get help dealing with your own painful feelings about the divorce. If you’re able to adjust, your children will be more likely to do so, too.
- Be patient with yourself and with your child. Emotional concerns, loss, and hurt following divorce take time to heal and this often happens in phases.
- Recognize the signs of stress. Consult your children’s teachers, doctors, or a child therapist for guidance on how to handle specific problems you’re concerned about.
Changes of any kind are hard, especially for children, but just remember that you and your children can and will adjust to this one. Finding your inner strength and getting help to learn new coping skills are hard work, but can make a big difference to helping your family get through this difficult time.
If you are thinking about a divorce or have a custody, support or other family law issue, contact Adam S. Lutzke Law Offices at (317) 258-7809, or at [email protected].