Divorce is a very real – and, unfortunately, common – part of life, but remains one of the most difficult and stressful life changes. This is true not just for adults, but also for kids. Divorce becomes even more complicated once children are involved, and many parents struggle with how to approach this process with their kids. All too often, children end up feeling confused, unloved, and as though they have to “pick a side.”
However, when handled with care and sensitivity, parents can successfully separate while preserving their children’s emotions and sense of family. In fact, for many families, divorce can actually provide a greater sense of love and security for the kids, as their parents are able to co-parent in a healthier way.
Broaching the Subject
Once parents have decided to divorce, they should call a family meeting to talk to everyone together. Explains Carol Hornbeck, a family therapist at Indianapolis’ CenterPoint Counseling, even if the children are different ages, parents should break the news to everyone at the same time. “Children will feel safest if parents can present the message together,” she says.
Lanae Harden, attorney at Harden Jackson LLC, adds that parents should take care to avoid blaming each other, and instead address the divorce in a calm and mature manner. “Parents needs to resist the temptation to re-hash the emotional details of the divorce,” says Harden, adding, “they should state that their differences are adult matters and they are not going to burden their kids with them.”
Above all, parents must make sure to emphasize one critical point: that the divorce is not their kids’ fault. “The parents should make it clear that the divorce has nothing to do with the kids, and that they will both continue to love and support the children,” concludes Harden.
Considering Your Child’s Age/Personality
Divorce affects children differently, depending on where they are developmentally. Hornbeck explains that very young children will primarily be concerned with their own needs: where they will sleep, how they will get to school, who will make breakfast for them, etc. “It will be hard for them to imagine how their lives will change,” she says, “Parents can help by being calm and reassuring.”
Older children will likely have a lot of questions about the reasons for the divorce. As a parent, you may be unsure of how much to share with your kids – but most experts agree that certain boundaries should be set from the beginning.
In fact, while it may be tempting to have a frank discussion with an older child, Stephanie Lowe-Sagebiel, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) with CenterPoint Counseling, stresses that parents should be very careful to not over-share.
“Divorce can be confusing for adults, but it is especially difficult for children to understand because children do not yet have the emotional resources to process the information,” she explains. As a result, Lowe-Sagebiel advises that parents share the basic facts, and not get into the emotional details of the divorce.
For children to heal from their parents’ divorce, the parents need to commit to working on the issues that ended the marriage. This can be done through vehicles such as individual therapy, support groups, and co-parenting counseling. Hornbeck adds that co-parenting counseling is key to a successful divorce, as “parents need to do everything possible to help children maintain good relationships with each other and both sides of their families.”
Children can also be helped through the transition of living in two homes by having a family calendar in each home that shows the schedule of time to be spent with each parent, as well as all of the children’s other activities, says Hornbeck. She suggests kids have two sets of clothes and other important items at each residence to help ease the transition between parents.
Jessie Fogle, a LCSW at Meridian Youth Psychiatric Center, adds that parents should keep as much consistency as possible between the two homes. “It’s helpful to keep routines and structure consistent with how life was prior to the separation,” she explains. “Parents should ask themselves, ‘How would we parent if we were still married?’ and parent that way -- as a united force.”
Finally, divorce attorney Kena Hollingsworth of Hollingsworth & Zivitz says that parents should stay upbeat about the new living situation. “Emphasize how the new changes can be positive for the kids – they now have two bedrooms, two cool places to stay, friends at both places, and new opportunities to spend quality time with each parent,” she says.
With the necessary steps in place (being open with your kids, attending counseling, letting go of anger/resentment), a divorce can ultimately help make a family stronger. Opines Hollingsworth, “The silver lining to divorce is often simply peace. When both parties are in less contentious environments, they are usually happier people -- and most often better parents as a result.”
She concludes, “In fact, as a result of the divorce, kids often get an opportunity (through their parents’ subsequent marriages) to see how marriage is really ‘supposed’ to be: two people loving and respecting one another.”