By Leslie Petruk, Child & Family Therapist
It’s easy for parents to be so overwhelmed with their own emotional stress when going through a separation and divorce that they forget to deal with the emotional impact it is having on their children. Logistically, there is often a lot to work out in terms of living, school, work, and dealing with all of the changes. For both you and your children, your life as you have known it will never be the same. It is understandable that this is an incredibly scary and stressful time—for both you and your children.
As a Child & Family Therapist, I work with families who are in the process of or have gone through separation and divorce, as well as adult clients who are still struggling with the impact of their parents’ divorce from when they were young. One of the most common mistakes parents tend to make is failing to acknowledge and help children talk through the impact of the divorce on their children. Often, this is a result of guilt parents feel because of the divorce. Other times, parents lack awareness of the significant effects their divorce is having on their children.
Some parents don’t know how to talk to their children, so they avoid talking at all, or don’t talk to their children enough. In this article, I’ll show you exactly what you need to do to help your kids through this difficult time.
Children need to know what is happening so that things don’t happen unexpectedly. I have seen children develop severe anxiety disorders as the result of coming home and finding out that one of their parents had moved out. Preparing your child every step of the way helps them gain your trust and provides predictability in a very uncertain and scary situation.
Acknowledge How Your Child is Feeling
The reality is that by naming your feelings about the divorce and the sadness that you have about the family not being together, you are opening the door for your child to feel safe to share their feelings as well.
Guilt is a primary feeling parents experience and you will also find that your guilt will likely be lessened if you have an ongoing dialogue with your children about their feelings and know that they feel safe enough to openly share their fears, thoughts, and questions with you. The best way to establish that communication with your child is to notice when they look sad or upset and say out loud what you think they may be feeling or thinking about.
For example, “You seem like you are feeling sad. I wonder if you are sad or worried about what’s happening with me and dad and if you worry that it may be your fault that we are divorcing”? (Children always think it is their fault to some degree and need to be reassured repeatedly that it has nothing to do with them).
Trust your instinct about what you think your child may be feeling—you’re probably correct. If your interpretation is wrong, they will tell you. But don’t just drop it if you can tell something is off with your child. Let them know that you can tell that they seem upset and wonder if they are worried about something or feeling sad.
If your sense is that your child is experiencing feelings but not opening up, you can open up and share how you are feeling. “I know I’m feeling really sad and there are times that I feel like I just want to cry. I also worry that you are going to think it’s your fault and it’s really important to me that you know that it’s not.”
By sharing your feelings in an appropriate way, you are modeling for your child what you hope they will be comfortable in doing with you. Letting them know it’s understandable if they are feeling angry, sad, or scared may help them feel safe enough to talk to you about what they are thinking and feeling.
It’s important to continue to have ongoing communication. Even if your child seems to get irritated or annoyed when you ask, it’s important to stay connected to them. You do this by continuing to notice and name the feelings you think they are experiencing. If they have become more noticeably irritable, you can say something like, “I have noticed that you have been really short tempered lately. I wonder if you are feeling angry about the divorce and if it would help to talk about it?”
Diffusing Children’s Anger
It’s understandable and normal for children to feel angry when their parents divorce and sometimes they may have a belief that it is one parent’s fault.
Rather then becoming defensive or trying to explain (which isn’t appropriate anyway), it’s important to validate their experience. “It is totally understandable that you would be angry. I know you are really sad that our family isn’t together anymore. Your mom/dad and I decided that we could not be a married couple anymore, but we will always love you and that will never change.”
The Whys Don’t Matter
It’s important to see and understand that you don’t have to reveal any information about why you divorced or what happened in order to address this issue with your child. The important issue to address here is how your child is feeling and the impact it is having on them and to validate their feelings.
Only give your children information that is developmentally appropriate, meaning you talk on the level that they can understand and use words that make sense to them.
It’s also important to explain things as they are happening without providing inappropriate information related to your relationship with your ex-partner. Inviting them to ask questions will help reduce their anxiety and fear of the unknown.
Children often come up with very creative ideas about things and easily misinterpret situations, so the more you talk to them, the better. They will also process things at their own pace and may come up with questions over time.
Often times, oldest children take on the role of becoming a “surrogate spouse” and feel overly responsible for their parent(s). It is important to give your children of any age permission not to worry or take care of you and to assure them that you have friends and family who help you and that you are able to take care of yourself. You want to let them know that your job is to take care of them. This will relieve them of worrying about you and give them a greater sense of security.
You Need Tender Loving Care, Too
Most importantly, take care of yourself during this transitional and stressful time. Use your support system to give you breaks when you need them or to help you out when you need it. This is not the time to be super mom/dad! Give yourself permission to take time for yourself to work through your emotional stress and to rejuvenate so that you can be present for your children to help them with theirs.
Leslie Petruk, MA, LPC, NCC, BCC is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Board Certified Coach. She has been helping children and families for more than 15 years. Leslie is the Founder and Director of SteppingStones Counseling and Consulting in Charlotte, North Carolina and the creator of “4Kids Sake Parenting Programs” and “Leadership For Working Mothers.” Leslie has been married for 19 years and is the mother of three.
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