Years ago I was a home-visiting case manager who would travel to homes of families with infants and toddlers who were at risk for developmental delays. I would talk to young moms about stages of development, activities to do with their child, and things to expect as their child grew. One such activity was talking to parents about how to teach children about emergencies and scary events, and how children will mirror their reactions to these events from their parents.
One teenage mom confided that she is terrified of storms, so as soon as she hears thunder, she tends to hide and will often shudder in fear or yell out when lightning strikes near her home. She noted that her toddler was starting to pick up on her behavior, and would immediately hide under a blanket and sometimes cry when it appeared that a storm was approaching.
An associate of mine and I talked to this young mom about how her baby was watching everything she did and learning to act based off of her actions. We tried to convince her that this was an opportunity to talk to her child about reasonable precautions for safety; but, that her baby was forming opinions, and even phobias, from her example!
It recently occurred to me that this same method of parenting is a very appropriate tool to use with our kids to help them develop rational cognitive and emotional skills when we divorce.
Think about it. When your child finds out his parents are going to divorce, then watches how they react, he will form his opinion about divorce and what to expect from the event after watching how his parents set the stage! Divorce is not a concept that is readily understood by a child, especially once they first hear of it, and for sure not when it applies to his or her own family; so, every action of ours demonstrates to the child how he should feel about it!
Now consider the variety of ways mom and dad may react to the event, and the message this sends to the children:
Doom and gloom. If mom or dad react to the divorce by falling apart, withdrawing, crying, or acting fearful, this sends a very clear message to the child that he should be extremely upset, fearful for what is about to occur, and deeply concerned for the wellbeing of one or both parents, as well as himself! Clearly divorce must be the most awful thing ever, and the parent’s response indicates that terrible things are about to happen!
Anger. If one or both parents address divorce through yelling, fighting, and going into battle mode, this alerts the child that she should be on guard and prepared for conflict! She may be more inclined to feel that she should take sides, and is very likely to become anxious from a sense of heightened emotions.
Oh well! If a parent’s reaction to divorce is nonchalant and as though they really don’t care (even though they really may and are just trying hard not to show it), the child’s takeaway message might be that divorce, therefore marriage, is no big deal. The truth is that divorce is a big deal, and so is marriage; so, it’s important for a child to understand that a marriage is precious and should be worked hard on to preserve; but, sometimes things happen that necessitate a break-up.
Sad but optimistic. The best approach of all may be to be real with a child about the fact that we are sad that the marriage resulted in divorce, but that everything will work out for the best. Just as one might describe a fire evacuation plan to a child, try to explain in a calm manner what a divorce is, and how it will impact the child’s life. Then, explain that some things will change, but that you will work hard to maintain stability, and your love for them will never change!
An emergency, and certainly a divorce, are scary concepts to children! Anytime we face something new, we are more prone to fear simply because we don’t know what to expect. Parents have an important role in setting the tone for how to handle a new and frightening situation and to educate about what’s coming next.
Our children look to us for clues about new things so that they know how to act. We can either send our kids into panic mode by indicating that the worst possible things has happened, or we can teach them that sometimes unwanted things occur; but, we will survive it together and remain optimistic for the best outcome. Sometimes bad things happen and we are partially to blame. This, too, is an important lesson for children to learn! They need our help to understand that failures are lessons, not the end of the world! Kids need to be aware that life will not always go as planned and they will make mistakes; but, we must always pick up the pieces, learn from what happened, and carry