Divorce is undeniably a tumultuous experience for any couple, regardless of how amicable the dissolution may be. It is very easy to get caught up in our own roller coaster of emotions, as well as with the challenges of navigating the divorce process itself. It is important to remember there are innocent bystanders sitting on the sidelines, watching and listening. Regardless of age, careful attention must be paid to the children of divorce, minimizing the fallout as they interpret it. Here are a few words of advice to offer children that may help guide them through this difficult period and ease their adjustment.
1. It is not your fault. Whether a child is three or 30, it is a natural response to look for reasons why parents divorce. As children search for answers, one place they may look is inward. How children perceive a situation is altogether unpredictable, and may be based on something as seemingly insignificant as a passing glance or an off-the-cuff comment. During my separation, my then six year-old, overhearing an argument between my ex husband and myself about when things first became bad in our marriage, associated that same time with his own birth. Of course, our issues had nothing to do with him, and I still remind him of that often.
2. There is no wrong way to feel. When adults go through a divorce, emotions run the gamut. The same holds true for children. Children of all ages need to know that on some days they may feel sad, angry, hurt, or even happy about the change in their family’s situation. All of these feelings are natural, and may fluctuate throughout the day and over time.
3. There is outside support if you need or want it. As a caveat to the above, if children’s perceptions about divorce become irrational to the point of being self-destructive, it is advisable to seek help from a qualified mental health professional. Even if a child’s response is not threatening, turning to an outside party such as a therapist, support group, clergyman, trusted relative, or family friend for added support can be beneficial. Help is out there. It is only a matter of asking for it.
4. Both of your parents love you. It is extremely important to reassure children that divorce is a relational matter between two parents, and not between parents and their children. Yes, living arrangements will likely change, but the love between a parent and a child is not affected by geography.
5. Parents show love in different ways. Children often question how much each of their parents love them in the wake of a divorce. In doing so, they tend to quantify, measuring the actions of one parent against those of the other. A wide range of situations may dictate that one parent spends more time with children than the other parent, spends more money, or engages in more enjoyable activities together. Reminding children that none of these scenarios indicate how much love a parent has for a child, and may be merely logistical and unavoidable consequences of divorce, is critical.
6. Your parents’ divorce does not define you. Children need to remember that just because their parents are divorcing, they are still the same person they were before. Hopes, dreams, and goals remain the same, and their parents’ divorce is no reflection on them.
7. Your relationship with each of your parents is independent of the other. It is important for children to maintain a separate and private relationship with each parent. As tempting as it may be to play the game of he said, she said with your children, kids must feel safe and secure in their relationships with each parent in order to have consistently healthy interactions on both sides. I stopped prying long ago. If my children have something to discuss with me, they will.
8. It is not your responsibility to fix your parents’ marriage. The factors leading up to a couple’s divorce likely existed for a long time before coming to a head. Marriage is a private affair between two individuals, individuals who were once closest in the world to one another. Children are not privy, nor should they be, to what goes on between a husband and wife.
9. Marriage can be wonderful. For many years, I loved being married. Children should understand that just because their parents’ marriage may not have worked out in the end, it doesn’t mean all marriages fail. Marriage is a sacred union between two people who love and respect one another, and they will know the time, if and when, it will be right for them. Of course, there are no guarantees for a successful marriage. But no two situations are ever the same, and history does not have to repeat itself.
10. Life goes on. Children will survive divorce, as will their parents. Change is difficult, but also inevitable. Divorce can ultimately be a positive experience for everyone involved, affording a second chance at a new and better life. As parents, we would never hope for or accept anything less.
This article appeared on The Huffington Post April 2, 2014.