The Impact of Divorce: All Children Only Get One Childhood
How Parents Can Sensitively Navigate Divorce
Posted Aug 15, 2015
Co-Author: Heidi Webb, Ed.M, J.D.
Navigating divorce is an adult problem and responsibility. However, too often children find themselves caught in the crossfire of their parents’ marital conflict.
During a divorce, adults often become self-absorbed. In fact, they can become so focused on their own sadness, anger and worries that they inadvertently miss the needs of their children. Sometimes, divorcing adults can seem more like children themselves than their actual children. I (Heidi) recall a child once saying that he’d had a dream in which all the bad people were wearing good masks, and all the good people bad masks. How confusing and troubling it must have been for him to see the two people he loved most acting in such contrary ways.
Lawyers advocating for their clients can fuel fires and drive bigger wedges between divorcing couples, in turn exacerbating adult behavior that may be damaging for the children involved. Attorneys who act in this way typically do not do so out of ill will, but because they honestly believe it’s in their client’s best interest; perhaps it will result in a better financial settlement, or a more favorable custodial arrangement. However, what they don’t factor into the equation is the fact that many cases drag on for long periods of time, and in the midst of the fray, angry feelings and ill will between parents cause their children to suffer—sometimes in ways that will have a prolonged, if not lifelong, impact on their psychological development and relationships. But eventually the case does end, the attorneys depart, and the parents and children are left with a lifetime of future interactions—birthdays, graduations, weddings—all of which may be riddled with bad feelings originating in the divorce process.
Most lawyers are not trained in psychology and child development, yet are tasked with the extraordinary obligation of securing the future trajectory of children’s lives. Few, if any, law schools have curricula addressing these important issues. As a result, when it comes to how children are perceived during the course of a divorce, it’s often in terms of the tax ramifications of child support, which parent will pay for which share of college, etc.—instead of the impact on the affected children’s emotional and psychological well-being. Meanwhile, the emotional support that children really need during the course of their parents’ divorce is overlooked or minimized in the hope that they will somehow heal themselves—or that a therapist or other mental health professional will be brought in if needed. Parents may sometimes rationalize the war that surrounds their kids by believing that one’s personal victory will ensure a better life for the children—and, sometimes it will. But, many overlook the unexpected damages that can evolve during a bitter and divisive process.
Instead of waiting for the negative fallout that occurs when children’s emotional lives are not on the front burner, we’d like to suggest some tips for adults who believe that children only get one childhood—and that divorce is and should be an adult problem and responsibility.
We’ve coined the following tips ACTCIVIL:
1. Children should never have to hear their parents bad mouth one another, or bear witness to their ACCUSATIONS.
Many divorces are heated, with one parent feeling that the other is at fault, or that he or she is the victim of abuse. While some accusations may be grounded in truth, others are perceptual—and there are usually two sides to every argument. It takes great restraint to refrain from making accusations in front of the kids, to the kids themselves about the partner, or to the partner within earshot of the kids. No child wants to hear harsh things said about a parent; and, such actions usually backfire and instead cast the instigator in a bad light.
2. Children should never be their parent’s CONFIDANT.
It’s tempting to use a child as a sounding board, but please know that this can be damaging. While the child may appear to be a good support, kids need space to achieve their own developmental tasks—academic, creative, athletic and social skills should come first. When a parent uses the child as a confidant, it takes time and emotional focus away from the child’s own needs. Furthermore, kids are like sponges; they absorb your energy, pain and struggles, and often feel guilty if they’re unable to solve your adult problems. No child needs to feel burdened by a parent’s problem—particularly one of divorce.
3. Children should be able to TRUST their parents.
While children should be protected from adult themes that are inappropriate for them to hear, they do need to trust that their parents will ultimately tell them the truth. If you’re depressed, angry, hurt, or strapped financially, let them know—at a level that they can understand. You don’t have to go into tremendous detail, but if you’re stressed, let them know that you’re “out of sorts” and apologize. Or, if you have to be tight with money, let them know that you just can’t afford this or that. If you’re moving, notify them with plenty of notice, and let them ask questions. But by all means, tell them the truth, even if that requires with minimal elaboration. This will earn their trust—and kids need to trust their parents, especially when things are confusing and their normal routines are being changed. If kids can trust that each parent will tell them the truth about their situation, they’ll have less anxiety, and a greater ability to cope. Leaving things unspoken, or worse, spreading lies, only promotes stress and insecurity.
4. Children need to observe that disagreeing parents are CIVIL to each other.
Kids do best during and following a divorce when there is a warm relationship between each parent and child, as well as a harmonious relationship between the partners themselves. While parents may differ in their opinions, kids need to see and understand that we can all treat one another with respect during a conflict. This lesson not only applies to home life; it’s one that kids will carry with them as they withstand conflicts with peers and other adults throughout their lifetimes. The tolerance and acceptance of difference starts at home, and though divorce can be a difficult time for parents to model this principle, it’s probably the most crucial. No child wishes a divorce on his or her parents, but if one does occur, he or she wants to know that those he or she loves and relies on the most can treat one another with civility.
5. Children need to be INFORMED about their parents’ divorce.
When the decision is made to get a divorce (and it may be wise to seek counseling prior to this, either to see about saving the marriage, or conversely, to discuss how to orchestrate the most humane and fair separation), kids need to hear the facts. It’s wise for parents to plan a series of family meetings; the first that springs the news will likely be a shock for some, though some kids may have been expecting it. Nevertheless, plan what you’re going to say, and aim to be concrete. It’s wise to not only explain what’s happening, but to remind them that you love them and that they will be taken care of. Kids need concrete details; they want to know where they’ll live, whom they’ll live with and when the change will take place. They’ll also be thinking of holidays, vacations, birthdays and other important family events. This is why multiple meetings are useful. If you can’t do this on your own, it’s helpful to seek a counselor to facilitate the process. Try to find someone who is trained in child psychiatry, psychology or social work so that he or she will understand the needs of kids at different ages.
6. Children need to have their reality VALIDATED.
While it’s tempting to hide some of the facts surrounding one’s situation from the kids, the reality of the divorce needs to be spelled out clearly to them (however, some facts, such as those with adult themes, should be kept private). Remember when talking to children about the divorce to keep things in a developmental context. An explanation for a 10-year-old is very different than that for a 16-year-old. The 10-year-old may be able to understand, “Sometimes you and a friend just don’t get along anymore,” while a 16-year-old may need to hear, “You know we’ve had a long and stormy relationship. Maybe we got married too young, or maybe we didn’t realize how differently we approached life, personal values and the future. These things happen, and I really hope when you choose a partner, that you’ll keep these things in mind.”
For kids of all ages, ask open-ended questions: “Do you have any questions about the divorce?” “What’s worrying you?” Let them feel safe enough to have a conversation. Again, keep things at an appropriate developmental level. A 10-year-old’s question may be, “Who’s going to take care of me?” On the other hand, a 16-year-old’s may be, “What’s going to be my address?” “How can my friends contact me?”
7. Children’s best INTERESTS always come first.
As noted above, it can be challenging during a contested divorce to keep children’s best interests in mind when a parent feels so much is at stake. As one considers finances, housing, child support, alimony, custody, etc., it’s important to consider what is really best for the children involved—even if that results in a less-than-ideal compromise between parents. If possible, it’s usually best for parents to share legal and physical custody. Ongoing access to parents whom the children love is really the first priority. And for parents, ensuring that they remain part of their kids’ daily lives is important for both parties. While it can be difficult (given the circumstances of your individual situation), remember that YOU need to be the one to make compromises and sacrifices for the sake of your kids—without, of course, putting yourself in jeopardy. Life is a balancing act, and nowhere is this more evident than during a divorce. However, our advice is to let the kids’ interest take priority even if it tilts your scales a bit.
8. Children need to understand that their parents can disagree and still LOVE them.
It’s important for kids to appreciate that conflict is a part of life. Most of all, however, they need to know that despite the divorce, they remain deeply loved by their parents—and that, no matter how difficult life may be for each parent, their ultimate well-being will prevail.
Divorce is tough for both parents and kids—there’s no way around it. But when divorce is going to happen, it may actually be the better situation for all concerned. The key is to make it as productive and growth-promoting as possible for everyone in the family.
This blog was previously posted on The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds along with a podcast including Steve Schlozman, MD, and Heidi Webb, EdM, JD. To hear the podcast, please click on the Clay Center link above.