Divorce: What about the Children?
From Telling Them to Visitation, Five Tips to Make a Divorce Easier on Children
If you have children, they will no doubt quickly become the focus of your divorce, just as they became the center of the rest of your lives. It can be hard, though, to consider their perspective when your own life seems to be collapsing. Remember that no matter how smoothly a separation goes for adults, there is no easy divorce for the children.
E. Mavis Hetherington, who studied divorce and its effects on families for 30 years, says in her book, For Better or For Worse, Reconsidered, that for a young child psychologically, divorce is the equivalent of lifting a 100-poundweight over the head. Processing all the changes, losing friends, a home, a parent, she says, stretches a child’s emotional abilities to the very limit.
“So, you can expect to see their worst at a time when you may be ill-equipped to deal with it. Most young children become whiny, angry, aggressive, and needy,” Hetherington says, “as they process all the changes in their lives. The more normalcy and structure you can create for them, the easier it will be. Although every family’s decisions and arrangements for their children will be different, here are some things most experts agree can make the divorce process easier for the children.”
Try to tell them about the divorce with your spouse, at home, and with all the siblings together, suggests Loriann Hoff Oberlin in her book, Surviving Separation and Divorce. “Explain things in plain language, without making accusations about the other parent. They don’t need to hear every flaw that drove you to your decision. Tell them as much about future living arrangements as you know. They may have fears they cannot express that both parents will disappear, or that no one will care for them, or that the divorce was caused by something they said or did. This last fear is the most important one to address,” Oberlin says. “Though you can’t make the news painless, you must stress that nothing the children said or did was the cause of your separation, as well as reassuring them that they will always be cared for. Answer their questions honestly.”
1. Don’t criticize or blame your partner to the children.
Your loathsome spouse is still their mommy or daddy. Don’t interfere with that relationship. A child shouldn’t have to feel disloyal or guilty about his attachment to a parent, no matter what that parent may have done to you. Oberlin writes, “Though you might dub your former partner a failed husband, he could be a successful father.” Don’t ever ask the kids to take sides.
Similarly, if you have been for years the primary parent, it may be difficult to accept the way your ex handles things differently. Try not to roll your eyes or criticize everything you hear happened when the children return from a visit. If you feel something could really be harmful to them, discuss it privately. If you have disagreements during the divorce about custody, support, or other parenting issues, don’t deal with them within hearing of the children.
2. If the children’s living arrangements involve two households, try to be as consistent about rules and schedules as possible.
In his book, Getting Divorced Without Ruining Your Life, divorce mediator Sam Margulies, Ph.D., puts it simply: “There is no substitute for fixed schedules. Everyone, particularly the children, needs to know what is going to happen and when.” Remember that children set great store in promises made. Don’t be late for the kids due to anger at the other parent. If you must change plans, explain to them as soon as possible. And if you are the non-custodial parent, don’t leave it to your ex to explain why you’re not coming, talk to the children yourself.
3. Holidays and vacations should be planned as part of the divorce agreement.
Keep in mind that many children fantasize that their parents will reunite. Don’t let animosity prevent the kids from having both parents attend a special birthday, soccer game, or other event. These should be about the children, not the parents. The trick is to maintain civility without creating false hopes for a Hollywood ending.
4. Be sure to give children lots of attention.
“Listen to what they tell you. Don’t be afraid to seek help if you need it,” Oberlin writes. “Although you should not be surprised if you see an increase in anger, aggressive behavior, inattention to school work in the first year after a divorce, children are amazingly resilient and start to rebound after that. But if your child becomes withdrawn, complains of constant headaches or other minor ailments, or seems depressed, you may need to consult a professional to help them deal with their feelings.”
One of three children in this country now lives with divorced, separated, and often remarried parents. Although they looked back on their parent’s divorces as extremely painful, Hetherington found at the end of her study that most become happy, healthy adults. In her book, she writes, “Most of the young men and women from my divorced families looked a lot like their contemporaries from non-divorced homes. Most were successfully going about the chief tasks of young adulthood: establishing careers, creating intimate relationships, building meaningful lives for themselves.”
So remember, it will get better. With your help, your children will get through this.