I cannot count how many times I’ve been asked, “How should we tell the children about our divorce without hurting them?” My answer is, “You can’t. Divorce hurts children, which is bound to tear at your heartstrings. But, that doesn’t mean that you should stay together solely because of your children. Instead, you need to consider how to minimize that pain. There are two ways. Inform them of your decision in a healthy manner and deal with them and your former spouse by taking the high road. Recognize, however, that, no matter what you do, the majority of them will react emotionally. Tears, anger, denial and hysterics are all normal reactions. The youngsters you should be most concerned about are those who show little or no effect.
Initially, you should hold a family meeting. This meeting must not be an event that provides you with a platform to justify your position, or the opportunity to depict yourself as the victim, or your spouse as the culprit. Instead, make it a time to reassure your children that they can lean on you and that it is not their job to support you. Explain that only husbands and wives divorce. Fathers and mothers don’t divorce their children. All the while, you need to stress that you recognize the pain your decision causes them but, you intend to always be there for them.
In every divorce, one parent leaves the house. If you are that individual, it is important to physically show your children where you will be living. They can even help you carry over some pictures of themselves, which will say, “I want you in my home.” When possible, have them choose the room they’ll be staying in, as well as the way it’s to be decorated. Let me emphasize, however, that the physical space isn’t as important as their knowing there is a place where they are welcome and that they are always in your heart.
Your new residence should be presented as your home. It needn’t, and shouldn’t, be an exotic bachelor pad. Nor should it be a sparse space with only a mattress, a card table and a tv that serves as a testimony to how much you lost and how you’re suffering.
It is essential that you inform your children how they can reach you. Accordingly, I suggest you provide them with your address, cell phone, fax and email numbers, so that they know you’re available to them 24/7.
Most of all, never force them to take sides, to choose which parent they love more, or to recognize how badly your spouse treated you. Further, do not make them messengers whose job it is to take vitriolic, controlling, or manipulative dispatches to the “enemy”. If you ever needed to separate them from your personal conflicts, this is the time.
Unfortunately, no matter what you say or do, they will question whether they were the cause of, or contributed to, your divorce. They need to be told, in no uncertain terms, that these thoughts are erroneous and that they are the victims of your divorce, not the cause.
Expect them to feel and express anger and upset over your decision. More often than not, that anger will be directed toward the custodial parent, which is often surprising to that individual. Typically, they’ll say, “I’m the one who’s taking you to school, feeding and nurturing you. I’m not the one who left. Why are you angry with me?” The answer is, because you’re there. Their other parent isn’t. Consequently, they can’t risk being angry with him/her, because they might lose them forever. Thus, they displace their anger toward the person whose love they’re confident of.
Recognize that divorce takes away a child’s sense of security. It breaks up their family and often causes them to lose their home, their friends and their school. All of which is catastrophic to children, who thrive best when they have the security of a family, the support of two parents and emotional and physical consistency. It is no wonder they feel alone and depressed. But, don’t immediately rush to therapy. More often than not, time and strong, healthy parental support are the best medicine.
Be aware that younger children tend to outwardly react far more than older children. They demonstrate mood changes, dependent and regressive behaviors and sleep problems. They may be reluctant to go to school or to leave you. Some will exhibit sickness, complaining and whining behavior and many will experience problems with their playmates and difficulty at school.
None of these behaviors necessarily indicate pathology. Unless they continue for an excessive period of time, or to an excessive degree, you need to view them as an appropriate response to their situation. If you encounter these behaviors, reassure your children that they’re not bad, and that they’re reacting normally to their hurt. Tell them that, in the near future, they and you will do better, life will go on, and joy will return, all the while assuring that you’re there for them.
Harsh as it sounds, most children are basically selfish and egocentric, in that their primary concern is their own survival. Thus, their reaction to losing the security attached to being a member of a whole family, no matter how destructive or dysfunctional that family was, results in them feeling overwhelming fear. They are afraid of what’s going to happen to them, who will care for them, where they will live, who they will live with and if they will be supported financially. All these and a myriad of other concerns serve to cause children of divorce stress that will affect them during and sometimes long after the divorce. Let me add that, although older children overtly react to a lesser degree, their hurts are no different than younger children’s. Therefore, they all need to know the answers to these questions, whether they verbally ask you outright, or not.
Despite any guilt you may feel regarding your divorce, do not try to compensate by overindulging your children emotionally or financially. You cannot buy love or forgiveness. Overindulgence is, as I wrote in another article, a socially acceptable form of child abuse. It may bring immediate pleasure, but, long-term, it emotionally destroys them.
I’m sure every one of you wants to emotionally help your children. Thus, I charge you with your need to take the high road by not reacting to whatever negative behavior your ex-spouse demonstrates. I’d have you recall that you divorced him/her because of the same behaviors you are now allowing to trigger your upset. Instead, I’d have you recognize that your actions affect and serve as a role model for your children. Accordingly, you must behave and speak, first, in a manner you can be proud of 24 hours after your reaction, and second, which your children can recall in a positive fashion years from now.
During this trying time, you need to network. Use your friends and family for support. Be aware you’re not alone, that there are many others who have gone through a divorce and survived. Some have gone one step further. They’ve made their future lives better than their former and, by doing so, became positive role models for their children. You can do the same.
Lastly, this is only an outline for dealing with children of divorce. Use it as a basic guide. But, if you find yourself needing more help, seek out a professional who can support you and point you in a positive direction.