by Alex A. Kecskes
Your kids will feel threatened by your divorce. They will think that it’s their fault, that if they behaved better, did their homework on time, or didn’t play Mom against Dad, the marriage would have been okay. They will feel guilt and shame that they could have prevented the divorce.
As a parent who experienced divorce with all its insecurities, confusion, fears and anxieties, Rosalind Sedacca, author of the highly acclaimed new ebook “How Do I Tell the Kids About the Divorce?” advises parents to tell their children that the “divorce is about change, not about blame.”
This is a key point to remember when talking to your kids. They must be made to understand that the unpleasant words, the shouting, or the prolonged periods of silence are not about them, even though these may concern them. It’s simply that Mom and Dad disagree on things and neither person is right or wrong. A popular song by Dave Mason expresses this sentiment with poignancy and power: “There ain't no good guys, there ain't no bad guys. There's only you and me and we just disagree.”
During and after the divorce, parents should never criticize their spouse, call them names or “make them wrong” in front of the kids. Remember, they’re kids, not divorce attorneys. They only want Mom and Dad to get along and stay together—like it used to be.
Assure kids of your unchanging love
Sedacca advises parents to remind their children that they will continue to be loved. “No matter what happens, no matter what changes occur, kids should be continually reminded that Mom and Dad will always love them,” she says. “Impress on them that your love for them will never change. Regardless of where you live, what you do and how old you get.”
After the divorce, children will begin to miss the other parent. They will feel insecure, perhaps even angry with the parent who has primary custody. Teens may even threaten to leave and go live with the other parent.
This is a time to remind them that even though Mom or Dad are not here all the time, that they still love them and want to be with them. Sedacca advises the change-of-life approach. “Divorce is a scary word for kids,” says Sedacca. “But all it really means is that the family form will change.
"But change is okay," she says. "You grow bigger, taller, stronger and smarter every year. You change grades and schools as you grow older. Change just means things will be different in some ways.”
When the parents are separated and the divorce is final, parents should stress the fact that the family will continue. That means Mom and Dad will be there for birthdays, soccer games, award ceremonies, and graduations. Even if they’re not there physically, parents can still use videos, cell phones, emails, Facebook, and photos to convey their interest in what’s happening. The point is, you want to minimize as much as possible any changes that kids see. In many cases, life is actually better after the divorce because the tension is gone.
Don't blame, criticize, or vent
What should you not say during or after the divorce? You don’t want to bad-mouth or attack the other parent in any way, no matter how valid you feel. Even if the other partner was abusive or adulterous, resist the temptation to blame or criticize your partner in front of the children. Never use your children as confidants, or vent to your children.
And don’t make your kids go-between or spies. “Don’t get them involved in back and forth messages.” says Sedacca.
“When your children are grown and you want to take them aside and tell them that Mom or Dad had an affair, that’s a decision you can make. As adults, they’ll be able to understand and properly process the information.” The important point here is to not burden your kids—even late teens—with that kind of information. It robs them of their childhood and changes who they are.
Sedacca also notes that you should use age-appropriate language when talking to kids about your divorce. While younger kids can accept more, they don’t understand as much. For teens, the emotional wounds and scars of a divorce can be much deeper. Teens also tend to take sides more and react more strongly.
“Teens can be very angry at one parent and hold them responsible,” says Sedacca. “It’s important not to engage in Parental Alienation. It’s devastating to kids because it severs their bond with the other parent. When that child becomes an adult, they will look back at how one parent was excluded from their lives and they’ll be angry with the parent who alienated them."
Aimée Vadnais, Psy.D., licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical psychologist, shared some of her expertise on the subject, noting that children should not be parents' sounding boards during a divorce.
“Disparaging comments said about your spouse in the heat of the moment may feel good to get off your chest, but it’s unhealthy for young ears to hear,” says Dr. Vadnais. “Children, especially young children, need to be told only the simple truth about what is going on between mommy and daddy, and to know that they will be safe and loved.”
Dr. Vadnais notes that children can be hurt if they hear a negative comment about one parent, especially if it’s coming from the other parent. She says, “They don’t need to hear about the dramatic details of what went wrong with the relationship, only that a separation has occurred and that they will be loved and cared for in a new, co-parenting arrangement. Even if you have animosity towards your ex, your child does not benefit from hearing it, so spare them the details.”
Keep the lines of communication open
After the divorce, Dr. Vadnais says that children may still have questions about what went wrong, if they caused the divorce, or if their parents will get back together. “Be truthful with them and don't give them false hope if a reconciliation is not going to happen,” says Dr. Vadnais.
"It’s important to make the transition as smooth as possible for your child and keep the lines of communication open. Make sure your child knows it’s okay for him/her to talk with you about your ex and that you will listen without criticism,” she advises.
Parents interested in obtaining more information and guidance should visit Sedacca’s Child-Centered Divorce Network. Her website gives parents the resources they need to understand a child’s emotional needs during a divorce. She also offers a free ebook on her home page: “Post-Divorce Parenting – Success Strategies for Getting It Right!”
Alex A. Kecskes is a freelance writer who covers a variety of topics, including relationship issues.
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