Time and time again, I’ve been asked, “What do you tell children when you’re getting a divorce? How do you deal with the upset that you know it’s going to cause them and the changes that will take place in their lives; such as having to move to a new home or apartment, changing schools, and losing the presence of one of their parents in the home?” Nor does it end there. They also face the possible loss of their friends and classmates and their custodial parent’s availability because he or she may be forced to work.
There is no doubt that children are hurt by divorce, but you, as a parent, can help them by mitigating the hurt they will experience. To do so, you have to be aware of what their concerns are. It’s readily apparent that the loss of a parent, the sudden change in lifestyle, in terms of where they live and the advantages they’re exposed to, such as summer camp, tutoring and extracurricular activities that won’t be possible, due to financial constraints play a significant part in the future they’re going to have to face. To a great extent, that accounts for why younger children are, in many instances, less affected by a divorce than older children. Youngsters don’t have the capacity to see as far into the future or to extrapolate to the eventualities of a fearful, disturbing and emotionally upsetting nature that might come about.
Smaller children react more on the surface. They show their emotions and hurt openly. They frequently demonstrate regressive behavior by thumb sucking, bed wetting, baby talk and increased dependency needs. They have difficulty in school and demonstrate anger toward classmates and playmates. But, they’re more resilient and bounce back faster. Another explanation is they haven’t been exposed to a toxic, dysfunctional relationship as long as their older siblings. Therefore, their reactions, long-term, are apt to be far less destructive. In fact, if they are later exposed to a healthier relationship, they are better able to cope and benefit from their new role model. Overall, they carry less emotional baggage with them through the rest of their lives.
Conversely, older children who are far more consciously aware of their emotional and physical survival needs feel more because they know more. Paradoxically, however, they don’t necessarily demonstrate what they feel. Why? Because they are generally better able to intellectualize, deny and obscure their emotions. Consequently, they’re apt to say, “I knew it was coming. I just wondered why you two didn’t divorce sooner.” “I’m glad it happened.”, “Daddy was mean”, or “Mommy was drinking.” Whatever the facts may have been. All the while, their own feelings are covered up. Later on, however, they manifest themselves, covertly or overtly, in the form of difficulties in establishing meaningful, close or intimate relationships. They often find it difficult to trust or to believe that a loving relationship can last and are either reluctant to fully commit to a relationship, or to enter one at all.
Note, however: Your behavior during and after your divorce and in later relationships to which your children are exposed can and will significantly affect how they emotionally react later in their lives. Therefore, you need to heed these words: Only husbands and wives get divorced. Mothers and fathers can’t divorce. That being the case, you must be aware that the manner in which you interact with your ex-spouse is as important a factor in determining the effect of divorce on your children as is the manner in which you interacted prior to divorce. If you continue to berate, fight, argue and sustain conflictual and hostile relationships long after your marriage is dissolved, you don’t help yourself, your future relationships or your children. Even more, the role model you present to your children is one that suggests that you are less mature, lacking in strength and emotionally as insecure as they. In effect, you act out of your own fears and insecurities and, because of that, you become a child trying to raise children.
As unpalatable as this may sound, your children’s greatest concern after a divorce, way down deep inside, is a selfish one. They’re scared about their survival. “How will I live? Who will take care of me? Who will pay my way? Who will provide food, shelter and clothing? Will I be able to go to camp, continue in the soccer league, or still attend the health club?” But their greatest concern is their emotional need for security. They can learn to cope with less fulfillment of their pragmatic or situational needs, but lack of emotional support can cause irreversible damage to their psyches. Those are their basic, fundamental concerns. Therefore, if you or your ex-spouse continue to act as children yourselves, you are saying to them by your behavior, “Neither of us are strong enough to be there for you.” Their unconscious conclusion will be, “I’m all alone in the world.” Their reaction will be to either fall apart, or to decide that they will never again lean on or trust anyone. Long-term, neither of these alternatives is positive.
Please, listen to this very carefully. Following divorce, human beings function primarily out of fears and hurts, even if you were the one who wanted the divorce. As a result, your behavior is motivated for the most part by your insecurities. It’s no wonder that you frequently wind up acting inappropriately, hostilely, desperately, resentfully and punitively. Too often, you even go so far as to consciously or unconsciously use your children as pawns in a game designed to hurt your ex-spouse. The result is you wind up not only hurting your ex-spouse, but yourselves and your children, as well.
Having said this, I want you to see that the greatest help you can give your children, should you be faced with a divorce, is your own maturity, sound judgement and emotional health. The amount of time, effort and energy you direct toward demeaning, depreciating and punishing an ex-spouse is the amount of time to which you decrease each of those three qualities. Therefore, to help your children, you need to grow up, become the adult you should have been years ago, and deal with your offspring out of your regard for them, not yourself. If you’re unable to do that on your own, then please seek professional help.