Though divorce can be a challenging and emotional time for parents, it can be an even more turbulent experience for the children. Some children may not fully understand what is happening, or what their life in the months ahead may look like. It is important for parents to put aside their emotions and challenges during their divorce proceedings and speak with their children about the process in an age appropriate manner.
More important than what you should do is what you should NOT do – while these may seem obvious, they are all worth mentioning as important reminders:
- Sharing personal and controversial issues with the children which they have no business knowing about.
- Fighting in front of the children.
- Speaking negatively to the children about the other parent, or speaking to others about the other parent when the children can hear you (intentionally or mistakenly).
- Asking your children pick sides, but more importantly, asking them what schedule they prefer, where they want to live, which home they like more, etc. Do not ask your children anything in the nature of placing them in the middle.
- Grilling your children about the other parent.
- Most important: Not listening to your children’s thoughts and feelings during the divorce process which they may express to you.
The divorce is between the parents – please do all you can to not make the children feel it is also between them. So what can you discuss with them? While it depends on your children’s age and emotional intelligence, here are some considerations:
- It is important to ask the children how they are feeling and make the children feel like they are being heard. Children, at any age, can have different reactions to being told their parents are getting divorced. Some children may begin to show concerning behaviors or different signs of stress. It is important to be aware of changes in mood, behavior, or diet after telling your children about your pending divorce.
- If your children are acting out or showing unusual signs of stress, do not immediately respond with anger or disappointment. Children at any age may be struggling with how to emotionally process the divorce and are showing unexpected reactions. This is a time where communication with both parents and the children is most important.
- Depending on the age and situation, parents can talk to the children together; allowing the children to see that the parents are still a united front.
- Ask your children which holiday traditions are most important to them. That gives you some background on addressing a split of holidays with them in mind, and also keep in mind it is important to create new traditions. It gives the children something to look forward to from the past, while maintaining old traditions, but something to be excited about with their new future.
It is important to maintain your children’s voice and individuality while going through a turbulent time in their life. Open communication and understanding will be the best ways to navigate these uncharted waters. Everyone has different reactions to difficult news, and being comforting and understanding will guide each parent to a better future with their children. Also consider whether a therapist may be helpful for your child to have a safe space while the parents go through the separation process. I frequently refer parents and children to therapists for individual work, co-parenting therapy, communications counseling, to name a few. Making the separation process as healthy as possible for the family is of utmost importance.