Divorces are stressful and involve a certain amount of pain for everybody. As parents, we all want to protect our children from the negative effects of divorce.
The good news is that it is completely possible to get divorced and raise well-adjusted children. The bad news is that we are all prone to make some of our worst parenting mistakes during the upheaval that is a divorce.
Every child and every divorce is different and it’s impossible to come up with one set of solutions that will fit everybody. However, there are some principles that we can all adapt to help children come out on the other side stronger, happier, and well adjusted.
Be Aware of Maturity Level
Different children, even within the same age level, are each at differing levels of maturity. What can be plainly discussed with one child can be stressful and upsetting for another. While it is extremely important to be open and communicative with your children during a divorce, it’s also important to be aware of their maturity level. This can be hard to determine, especially when you yourself are under a lot of stress.
The best way to know how much to share with your child and what words to use to explain a difficult situation is to take them to a child therapist. Therapists that specialize in working with children will meet with you and your child to assess their maturity level, then will be able to counsel you in the best way to break bad news, as well as how to explain complicated situations.
Even if you feel you know your child better than they know themselves, even just a single consultation with a professional therapist can help you best assess the best methods of communicating a difficult situation.
Maintain Your Relationship as a Parent
Often, kids will take on the role of caretaker to a parent who they see is having a hard time. Sometimes parents unwittingly allow the roles to reverse, relying on emotional support from their children as they navigate the fallout of their divorce.
Remember that they are still children, even if they happen to be older and seem mature enough to handle it. If you don’t have an adequate support system in place, now is a good time to build one. Attend group therapy or support groups. Find grown-ups who can hold your hand during this difficult time.
It’s important to be communicative with your child and honest about the situation, and it’s okay to let them know that you’re stressed or having a hard time, but it is equally important that they don’t come into a position where they feel responsible for your wellbeing.
Hiding the truth from your kids is not the same as protecting them. Children are very intuitive and much more observant than we give them credit for, often hearing conversations we didn’t mean for them to hear and figuring out more than we wanted them to know. Don’t lie to them about the reality of your circumstances.
Talk to them on their level, answer their questions honestly, and help them to confront difficult realities. This is especially important in cases where domestic violence has become an issue. Pretending that everything is fine when it clearly isn’t only creates confusion and uncertainty for your child. While you want to tailor your explanations to their maturity level, don’t lie or withhold the basic truths of the situation.
Letting them know the details of the situation in this way informs them that you yourself are aware of the problem and are taking care of it, giving them a greater sense of certainty. One of the ways you can do this is to allow the child to speak to the family attorney involved in the divorce where appropriate. While the child, depending on their age and maturity, may find the conversation boring, they will appreciate the opportunity to give some input and see the person that is handling the divorce.
Attorneys are able to maintain calm even in the most heated situations, and seeing their calm in the face of the divorce may help your child feel more confident in the success of the proceedings. Again, it is also okay to let your child know that you personally are hurt and upset, as long as it isn’t in a manner that suggests you expect them to do something to fix it.
Letting them know the truth of a situation includes letting them know that you will be there to help them and that you are taking the appropriate steps to take care of yourself as well as them.
No matter how you feel about your ex, that person is still one of the most important people in the world to your child. Talking badly about your ex in front of your child puts them in the unfair position of having to choose sides.
This may seem impossible in situations where abuse or cheating has taken place, but you can still communicate that your ex has done something wrong without forcing your child to choose who they love more.
Ensure that you are in a level-headed position when discussing these events with your child, and if you are unsure how to approach the situation, then it is important to discuss the issue with a child therapist.
Even if your child seems on board with complaining about all of the faults of your ex, this may be a front put on to avoid conflict with you. If your child still has a strong emotional bond with your ex, badmouthing them can cause your child to fear expressing their feelings honestly with you in case you come to associate the child with the ex or think your child doesn’t love you as much because they don’t agree with you.
Also, don’t use your child as a spy or a messenger. It’s not okay to quiz them about what is going on in your ex’s life, nor is it okay to expect them to keep secrets for you. This once again forces children to take sides and can be extremely traumatizing them, causing issues that last the rest of their lives.
It goes without saying that if you are escaping a situation where violence and abuse are an issue, a divorce is much more stressful and complicated. In these situations, it is vital that your child be taken to a child therapist, especially as the abusive spouse may have hurt your child in ways that they have yet had the courage to confess.
In other cases, use your discretion, but consider consulting with a professional when you become uncertain about how to address these difficult topics with your child. In all divorces, however, it is important that you keep your child informed of both the situation and with every important development along the way.
A divorce is very isolating for the child involved, so letting them know that you, and your ex if possible, love them as much as before and aren’t keeping any secrets from them.