It’s no secret that divorce is hard on children. Depending on the age, the process of divorce can affect how children perceive their parents and their roles in the family structure. The film Split is a documentary that focuses on the kids’ perspectives on divorce and how it affected them personally.
Ellen Bruno successfully creates a warm and open environment upon which the children are able to talk openly about a variety of topics regarding how divorce has affected them personally and their families. Split is a must watch film for parents going through divorce.
Jason Levoy, a divorce attorney who teaches people who can’t afford an attorney how to represent themselves in their divorce along with freelance writer and divorced mom Beth Cone Kramer discuss some of the main themes of the film.
Divorce And Family
Jason: Family means different things to different people. The traditional, or conventional family structure has dissolved and children are adaptable to many family structures. Divorce upsets whatever family structure exists for that family. It takes the child’s parents and splits them into two separate parts. This is hard for a child to interpret. If they are young, they won’t have the emotional maturity to understand why their parents are getting divorced and want to live in separate houses. All they know is their parents fight a lot, but don’t know exactly why, or what is causing the fighting. It was interesting to see the children in SPLIT call their families “special” or “different.”
Beth: I was especially touched when one child mentioned his family was still a family – but he wondered what would happen if his mom remarried. My children were 9 and 13 at the time of my divorce. I remember my older daughter saying something similar. We made an effort to create new traditions and to travel together. We were still a family – just in a different form. Many children nowadays have families that don’t resemble the traditional nuclear family.
Change And Divorce
Beth: Divorce is change and change is scary for all of us. Parents should be honest with kids and explain at their level of comprehension. When parents just sweep everything under the rug, kids will think they’re responsible. It’s a tough line to explain without turning the explanation into a “he said/she said” scenario but on some level, honesty is important. Seeing a therapist or even reading books about the topic with kids are both helpful. Books can be a jumping off point. Kids may not be ready to talk to you about their feelings but at some point, hopefully once they sit with what happened, they will be open to dialogue.
Kids are resilient. Facing challenges while growing up can help kids become even more resilient – as well as watching you adjust to a new life. Some sense of expectation or stability is important. A schedule is helpful, as is creating new traditions or expectations. Perhaps every Friday night, someone gets to choose the dinner or maybe you watch Netflix together.
Jason: There is no doubt that divorce is scary for kids. Mainly, because they don’t understand what is going on and why it is happening? That’s why, in my opinion, counseling for children during a divorce is crucial. Even if the parents are amicable, the children can benefit from an objective counselor guiding them through their emotions and what is changing around them.
Children are amazingly adaptable, much more than adults and parents. In my experience as a divorce attorney, parents who go from seeing their kids every day whenever they want to adhere to a parenting time schedule that consists of 2-3 days during the week and every other weekend can have a hard time adapting. Kids not so much, although it’s definitely a change for them.
What To Tell The Kids
Jason: Kids are very perceptive. They know when parents are fighting and arguing using “code.” When possible, parents need to fight outside the presence of the kids. It doesn’t take much for a young child to think they are the subject of an argument and feel like they’re caught in the middle. Parents need to openly communicate what is going on to their children.
If possible, this should be done together as a united front. I think children appreciate transparency and honesty. They don’t judge like adults do. They just want to understand. When parents don’t communicate what is going on, that’s when kids internalize the divorce and think it’s their fault. Parents have to make sure this does not happen.
When the decision to get divorced is made, I think the parents should find a good counselor for the child and ask what is the best way to tell the child about the divorce. There is no need to guess or get into fights about how to tell the kids. The worst thing is to not do anything because kids will see what’s going on and if nobody talks to them, might internalize it, which is not good. If the parents can communicate and act civil with each other, they should approach this together and sit with the child together and discuss the divorce
Beth: I agree with Jason that kids get what’s going on, no matter what their age at the time of divorce. Even babies can sense tension between parents. Conventional advice is to never criticize another parent to the kids but I think sometimes it’s important to be honest about what’s happening, especially when one of the parents is abusive or disrespectful. Kids are aware of every word, every door slam, everything that happens. They need to know name calling and other behaviors aren’t acceptable or they will see that as the norm.
As for explaining divorce, it’s crucial to let kids know at their level of comprehension. Ideally, parents can explain together but typically, parents who are divorcing are at the end of the line emotionally. When one parent is abusive, the stakes are even higher. There are no easy answers, but I think being honest and straightforward is probably the best way to handle this.
It’s hard for parents to separate their emotions out when explaining, especially when there is anger or hurt. Transparency is crucial, but the reality is, kids will also come to their own conclusions about what they’ve witnessed – along with what you say.
A neutral therapist can be a good resource, as can books. It is crucial not to leave kids in the dark about what’s happening or they will internalize. I think it’s important to note that no matter how horrible the relationship was between the parents, kids feel sad about their parents splitting up. It’s the loss of an expectation and depending on age, kids see it as though they will be different from everyone else. When kids realize they aren’t the only ones who have gone through this, I think it’s comforting on some level.
Kids in the Middle
Beth: It’s unfortunate, really, that kids are put in the position of being peacemaker. I think most parents who have been through dysfunctional relationships probably regret arguing in front of their kids or even behind closed doors but loud enough for kids to hear. Maybe if we channel those experiences into something positive – like Jason did – we can create some meaning for the child. I think our experiences mold whom we are as adults. If kids or adult children can be aware of the role they played – and put things in perspective, they can move forward.
Jason: When children act as peacemakers that puts them in tenuous position. That’s not their role. I am the peacemaker in my family. It just came naturally to me, but I probably was forced into this role because my brothers did not do it and I didn’t want to see my parents fight with each other. Maybe that’s why I became a lawyer.
Jason: Divorce is so popular that kids will know other kids whose parents are divorced or getting divorced. This can be a good support network. I think the lead support has to come from a professional counselor though who can manage what the child deals with at home and through friends. It might be good to tell the kid’s teacher, in case the child acts out in school and the teacher has no idea why.
Beth: When kids feel okay to talk with friends about that, it’s helpful. I think telling the teacher could be a good idea. There are other issues like report cards, communication with teacher that might be impacted as well. Perhaps tell the teacher to be discreet and to not share with the child unless the child wants to talk about it.
Jason: In a divorce, the kids get thrust into a new form of parenting. They switch houses frequently due to the parenting time schedule. They often carry bags of clothes to/from each house. They still have their parents, but it’s different. I think it’s OK to have different house rules, but both parents have to support this. In other words, when little Johnny is at mom’s house, dad should tell Johnny to follow what mom says. The parents need to support each other for the benefit of the child.
Beth: Switching houses is a challenge for kids, especially keeping track of belonging. I thought it was poignant when the one girl mentioned she takes showers at her mom’s and baths at her dad’s. Establishing some sort of special time or tradition at each house is helpful. Discipline and rules are a challenge. Many times, one issue of contention between battling spouses was about how to raise children. There will be times when you aren’t on the same page. The best way to handle that is to tell kids that your rules apply when they’re at your house – without a disparaging or judgemental tone. Easier said than done!
But Dad Says I Can Stay Up Till 11…
Beth: In the best case scenario, parents are on the same page about discipline, chores, etc. but I agree with Jason that parenting styles may be one point of contention between divorcing parents. When I’ve interviewed a therapist, she suggested being open with kids about the differences. “We don’t watch TV while we eat when you’re at Mommy’s.” Again, though, it’s challenging to say that without a disparaging tone.
Jason: Children would benefit best if both parents could agree on how they will “parent” while the kids are with them. For example, will they do their homework before watching TV? Will they have to do chores? Will they travel with a bag of clothes to each house, or have two sets of clothes? Unfortunately, these types of parenting differences are probably what fueled the fighting during the marriage.
Mom or Dad’s New Partner
Jason: When one parent introduces a new boyfriend/girlfriend to the children, that creates more confusion and emotions about what the family structure looks like. Who is this new person and how do they fit into their lives? Does mommy’s new boyfriend replace my daddy?
Divorce introduces many challenges to children that a non-divorce household never has to deal with. It all depends on how the parents deal with these situations. Hopefully, they are on the same page and reinforce the same lessons to their children. But, if the parents still have hostility toward each other, they tend to use the children as pawns to disparage or worse, alienate the child from the other parent. This should not be tolerated at all.
Beth: I’ve always tried to keep my personal life as far as dating separate from my kids. I’ve watched many children of divorce go through a stream of potential “steps” and I think it’s confusing for kids. I am not really sure how I’d handle it if a stepparent or even significant other attempted to discipline my kids. There may already be two different views on parenting between the parents. Adding others into the mix seems complicated.
Beth: Although this can vary, in many marriages, mothers take the role of supporting the kids by helping with homework, etc. I have seen fathers become more involved with kids after divorce but there may still be that perception that daddy never helps with homework or projects. I think sometimes that’s driven by the kids and sometimes just as a matter of logistics. It’s important for the mother, in this case, to plan fun activities with the kids. They don’t have to be expensive. They can be as simple as putting music on and dancing together after dinner, playing a board game, or watching a movie. As kids get older and spend more time with friends, it’s more challenging because time is now split in many more ways. But, as with married parents, divorced parents need to carve out family time.
Jason: The Disney Dad stereotype comes from a situation where parents are not communicating well with each other and not on the same page as far as parenting. If mom has primary custody of the child and dad only sees the child on the weekend, he does things that are fun.
He doesn’t have to worry about homework, or chores because he only has a limited time with the child, so it’s all “fun time.” This pisses off mom and builds animosity and resentment. This may have an effect on younger children, but as they get older, I don’t think it works as well.
Life Goes On
Jason: I don’t believe divorce sets kids up for future divorce. I think a bad divorce can be a model for a child, but it can also be motivation not to be like their parents when they grow up. I think that’s what happened with me. My parents aren’t divorced, but they should have been a long time ago. I grew up and don’t want that type of marriage for my life.
It all depends on what the child is exposed to and how he/she processes those events. Not to sound like a broken record, but this can be managed through counseling. A divorce only happens once during a child’s life, but it is a vital time and can have long lasting effects if it’s a negative experience for the child. Some divorces last 1-2 years. That is a long time for a child to deal with all those emotions and no coaching.
Beth: I think the impact of divorce, as with most challenges we go through, is partially dependent on how we handle the process. If we communicate with transparency in a way they can understand according to their age at the time, we remove some of that stigma and provide clarity. I think on some level, we learn how to argue or disagree from watching our parents.
If the parents’ model was unhealthy, there may be some issues but nothing that can’t be addressed. It’s important to discuss these issues with children as they become older and to discuss the importance of respect within a relationship. Any extra help can be a positive but even without, reading a book or articles and discussing can be beneficial. I think the bottom line is letting kids know that relationships don’t have to be this way. Hopefully, kids will see other couples model healthy relationships.
For more information about Split or to watch, visit the website.
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