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Johanna's Divorce Counseling Blog
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Will My Children Be Alright?

The number one concern among parents who are contemplating divorce is the effect the divorce will have on their children. In my experience, the primary determiner of how a child copes with divorce rests on how well the parents are able to create a stable, predictable and loving environment during and after divorce. This is challenging, because children frequently respond to divorce by becoming more needy and clingy. This occurs at a time when parents are emotionally distraught and in the midst of a crisis of their own.

Divorce is a literally and emotionally disruptive experience. However, there are many steps parents can take to help children through this difficult time. This article details some of these steps.

First of all, tell your children what is going on. It’s best if you and your spouse decide together what you’re going to say to your children about your plans to divorce. It’s ideal if you can sit down together to talk with your children. While it’s not necessary to go into great detail, you need to say enough so your children understand the “why’s” behind your decision.

Some times I tell parents to create a narrative – that is, a brief story – that accurately describes why they are divorcing. This narrative or story might go something like this: We’ve been fighting an awful lot and we are both unhappy. We’ve tried to work things out but we haven’t been able to. We think it will be better if we live apart. We want you to know that we love you and we will still be your parents, but we are going to live in separate houses. Part of the week you’ll stay with me and part of the week you’ll stay with your mom.  Initially, it’s best not to say much more than this. Stop and let them absorb what you’ve said.

It’s normal for your children to feel shocked, confused or very upset. Don’t try to fix their feelings by smoothing things over – let them be upset. Divorce is upsetting. If they are silent – ask how they feel about what you’ve said. I’m sure they’ll have questions. Try to answer them as simply and completely as you can.  If the plan is for one of you to be the custodial parent, then you’ll need to talk to your children about the visitation schedule. Hopefully you will have worked this out before you sit down with them.

If your situation is one where only one of you wants the divorce or if there’s too much animosity or resentment between you – it may be best to have separate conversations with your children. While you may be tempted to blame your spouse for the divorce, DON’T! Engaging in criticism and making negative comments about your spouse places your children in the middle. This is destructive. Your children need both of you as parents. Also, in my experience, the parent who’s most critical and negative about the other often sacrifices their relationship with their children. Children don’t want to take sides. Asking them to do so usually backfires.

Divorce often results in one or both parents moving to a new residence. If at all possible, try to avoid having your children change schools. Moving homes, having your parents divorce and changing schools all at the same time is a lot of loss for any child to deal with. Do your best to minimize the disruption to their lives.

One of the most important things you can do as a parent is to work out a specific visitation
schedule and stick to it.
In a time of great transition, children need predictability. While it may seem easier or more convenient for you to keep the visitation schedule loose – it’s not a good idea for your children – especially young children. For more information on this topic, see my article: Visitation Do's and Don'ts.

Once you and your spouse have separated and the visitation schedule is in place, talk to your children regularly about the divorce. Parents sometimes think it will be better for their children if they de-emphasize the divorce by avoiding any discussion of it. Occasionally they even discourage their children from talking about it. This is a BIG mistake. Children need to talk about the changes in their lives but they may need help doing this.

Asking young children how they feel or if they’re alright is too vague. One approach is to talk with them about how things are different now than they were when you were all living together. Ask them what they think has changed and which changes they like and don’t like. Don’t be discouraged if your children don’t like anything! Maybe they’re angry. If so – they have a right to be. After all, the divorce wasn’t their idea. You can talk about what you miss from the way things used to be too. This gives them permission to speak openly about their feelings. They won’t feel like they have to protect you by acting like everything is fine when it’s not.

It’s not uncommon for children to develop behavioral symptoms related to divorce. Young children have trouble verbalizing their feelings and may act them out instead. They might become listless in school, have trouble sleeping, complain of stomach aches so they can stay home, become clingy, act aggressive towards playmates, throw tantrums at home, refuse to do their school work, or begin wetting the bed. None of these symptoms are unusual. They are an expression of anger or anxiety.

Again – it’s wise to give your children an opportunity to talk about their anger and upset. Let them know you can accept their anger – it won’t devastate you. But set some limits about how they express it. Talk with them about constructive ways of getting their upset feelings out. Share what you do when you’re upset.

If you are divorcing and your children are teenagers – you may be entering a rocky couple of years. First of all, teenagers can choose who they want to live with. This may mean you have to deal with disappointment if they choose to live with your spouse. If this is the case, you might try to talk with them honestly about why they’re making this choice. It’s important not to appear so fragile that they can’t be open with you. Also, it’s good to see if you can dig a little deeper into why they feel this is best for them. See if their reasons make sense.

If you think your teen is choosing to live with the parent who’s going to provide the least amount of parental oversight – talk with them sincerely about your concerns. While this may seem like an easy ride, reinforce the fact that they will be making decisions during this period of their life that may impact their future. It’s wise to support their independent decision-making, but also express the hope that they’ll feel like they can talk with you about what is in their best interest. It’s difficult and often painful but try to be objective and examine the pluses and minuses of them staying with you versus your spouse. Let them do most of the talking.

It’s often difficult to get teenagers to open up about their feelings. They’re more likely to be open with you if the two of you have had a strong relationship prior to the divorce.

It’s not unusual for teens to act indifferent about the divorce and to say things like, “It’s no big deal. I’m going to be out of here pretty soon anyway.” Don’t buy it! They’re still kids. They still need parents and a stable home.If they become withdrawn, begin staying away from the house more or act angry and hostile towards one or both of you, you need to talk to them. Again – they are expressing their anger and disappointment, though they may not admit it. Kids who aren’t able to talk about their feelings some times resort to self-destructive behaviors as a way to distance themselves from their feelings. This includes drug and alcohol use and promiscuity.

The teen years are difficult for parents and children alike, but divorce in the midst of this period can be especially challenging. Teens are trying to figure out their identity. They are beginning to make choices about their future. They are starting to develop bonds with people outside the family. A teenager’s ability to successfully launch themselves into adulthood has a lot to do with how secure their home base is. You don’t want your teen to leave home prematurely – before their ability to handle independence has been sufficiently developed.

Children, especially young children, often hope their parents will reunite. In fact, many children harbor a fantasy about reunification that lasts for years. Others act-out in school or at home so their parents have to work together to address their behavior problems. This can be an attempt to reunite the parents.

If you sense that your child is holding on to a fantasy of reunification, it’s best to address it. This is a sign that your children are having difficulty coming to terms with and accepting the divorce. Again, the best remedy is open conversation and clear reinforcement that you and your spouse are not getting back together. You need to help your children accept the fact that your divorce is final.

Dating is a challenge for divorced parents with children. If your children are young, they are susceptible to growing attached to your new love interest. This is dangerous. It’s best for parents to keep their dating life separate from their children until they are certain the dating relationship is a substantial one and that it is going to be long term. Your children don’t need to go through another loss. Additionally, young children often feel caught in a loyalty bind between the new romantic partner and the parent of the same sex.

An awkward dynamic occurs when teenagers and their divorced parents are both dating. Teens feel uncomfortable about their parents as sexual people – especially in light of the fact that they are beginning to explore their own sexuality. With teens, it’s important to remember that how you handle your sexuality may impact how they decide to express theirs.

Teens may be slower to accept your new boyfriend or girlfriend than younger children. They may mouth-off and be disparaging about this person or treat the person rudely. This is their way of acting out their anger and disappointment over the divorce. It may also be their way of being loyal to the same sex parent. On the other hand, they may have some legitimate reasons for not liking your new partner. It might be smart to explore what their feelings, attitudes, observations and objections are. You might learn something that could be important.

With adult children who are out of the house, anger and disappointment over your divorce are often related to feelings of betrayal. Your adult children may have a lot of questions about what was going on in your marriage, about why you’re deciding to divorce now, etc. With adult children, it’s easier to be open and honest and to go into a bit more depth about your reasons for divorce. Chances are they will understand your decision to a greater degree because they have a better grasp of who each of you are as people – in addition to being their parents. They will have observed and developed their own attitudes and feelings about each of you, about your flaws and about the shortcomings in your marriage. Still, adult children often feel cheated. They may have an understandable wish to preserve the memory of having had an intact family – regardless of how difficult the circumstances may have been. There may also be a greater likelihood to take sides, because they’ve developed their own attitudes and perspectives on each of you.

In summary, the single best step you can take is to keep the lines of communication open with your children – regardless of their age. You need to place your own feelings about the divorce on the back burner long enough to take an active interest in how you’re children are coping with the divorce.