As a mother, you inevitably feel a grave sense of concern about how divorce will affect your children. Kids of all ages are deeply impacted by divorce simply because they feel the same sense of disillusionment that you do around the loss of an intact nuclear family. Your instinct will be to protect your children from pain, and you may feel that they are better off not knowing too many details about what’s happening. Talking to your children about divorce is delicate and needs to be age appropriate in nature, but they definitely need a forum and safe opportunity to express their experience and ask questions. Their instinct will be to mind their own business, and to feel unsure about what’s permissible to bring up or discuss.
They look to you as the gatekeeper of what is allowed.
Protection can often come across as guarded or defensive to your kids so you need to be mindful and cautious about your non-verbal communications, and what kind of message you’re sending. You obviously don’t want to expose them to toxic interactions, and you never want to use them as therapists.
What you do want to create is the space for them to feel comfortable asking you pretty much anything.
Getting your children to open up in a healthy way shouldn’t be hard. The one trick you’ll want to use is what I call “going first.” You basically ask them directive questions about their feelings and experience to send a message that questions are helpful and welcome. Avoid general inquiries like “Are you ok?” or “I’m here if you need to talk.” Be specific with questions like “Are you sad about what’s happening?” or “Do you feel scared with what’s going on?” Even if you don’t get answers your children will still know that you’re interested, and that curiosity is a good thing. You can also explicitly tell them that you invite their questions, and that you’ll answer as well as you can. Your goal is to build trust so they are eager to share with you.
If and when they clam up, I have listed 10 questions you can probably assume they are asking in their own heads.
1. Is this my fault?
Children are quick to blame themselves for divorce. It’s too scary for them to blame you because they depend on you and need you for their survival. You can be sure that they are wondering if they are to blame for the divorce so it will be important to address these feelings.
2. Am I allowed to tell my friends?
When and how to tell friends about the divorce is tricky for everyone in the family. This is a good question and you will have to answer it based on your own family values. Whatever you decide make it the same rule for everyone if possible so there is no hypocrisy or misunderstandings.
3. Do I need to pick a side?
Many divorces are riddled with parental alienation and blame. Children get caught in the middle and wonder if they need to protect or take the side of one parent. They are very perceptive and observant so if you don’t address this they will just automatically pick one parent because they feel they need to even though they should never have to.
4. Does this mean I won’t see one of you?
Fear of loss and the reality of less time with each parent is upsetting for kids. They want to know that they will be minimally affected by the divorce so it’s natural for them to wonder whether they will lose time with one or both of their parents. Even if your custody is not yet determined they need to know that the goal is equal time with both parents (barring any unusual circumstances).
5. Will we have to move?
Another loss for children is connected to their home. Worrying about being displaced and feeling anxious about change is prominent for children going through a divorce. You may not have the answer, but what they are really wondering is if they will feel safe. You can always assure them that you will make sure they do.
6. Will you stop fighting now?
Some couples remain in a very toxic marriage for years before getting divorced and kids witness this. There may be a sense of relief in knowing that there will be a peaceful household, but they may also feel guilty for the sense of relief they feel.
7. Will I be able to live with my brother/sister?
Siblings are the saving grace for children going through divorce. It makes sense that they would think each child might go with one parent. Assuring them that they will stay together will ease their anxiety and bring them closer together as allies.
8. Should I be mad at one of you?
In line with the idea of taking sides your children might feel they need to pick one of you to hate. Someone has to be to blame because their limited cognitive ability makes it hard for them to imagine anything else.
9. Will you still love me as much?
The loss of an intact family can easily be grouped with a loss of love for a child. Anything split in half means less of something for them so they will wonder if they will get the same attention and love they always did. Kids don’t like to share and they don’t have a sense of abundance.
10. Can I be angry and upset about this?
Your children will be very confused about their feelings. They may believe that they are supposed to just accept the situation because they have no power over whether it happens or not. Even though they are innocent victims they still need to have and feel the power of emotional expression.
Most importantly you want your children to know that they are loved, safe and protected. You want them to express their feelings, talk to you about everything inside of them, and to feel like they are part of the process without feeling like the problem. You have the power to help them heal, but only if you know how they’re suffering.