Written by Dr. Sidney Langston
Statistics indicate that one out of two marriages ends in divorce. Divorce touches the life of every family member-especially the children. About one million children each year experience divorce in their families.
Divorce shatters their perfect dreams of family life. Their secure foundation collapses about them. While children ultimately suffer less from divorce than from living in a family with ongoing conflict and abuse, divorce can seem like the worst thing that ever happened to them. If you are facing a divorce, the following suggestions may help you get your children past their hurt.
- Be honest with your children. Don't overprotect them by withholding the truth about the divorce. This could be emotionally damaging. Children know something is wrong and will imagine the worst if they aren't told what is happening. Explain to them that even though Mom and Dad are getting a divorce from each other, they are not divorcing the children. Assure them that both parents will always love and provide for them.
- Try to answer their questions. Children will have many questions, and their questions are very important to them. Try to draw them out, and make a sincere effort to answer them as completely as possible.
- Help children express their feelings. Even though children are smaller than adults, their feelings are just as big and real to them. Children are likely to feel anger, fear, confusion, sadness and loneliness. Many will even feel guilty, as if the divorce is their fault. Children lack the ability to directly express their feelings. Rather, they act out, lose interest in school or develop psychosomatic illnesses which manifest psychological pain in a physical manner. Children need parental help to put their feelings into words.
- Share your own feelings. You can encourage children to express their feelings by sharing your own. Let your children know how you are feeling and that you are sad they are hurting. One word of caution here—don't give your children the impression that you expect them to solve your problems. Besides being unrealistic, this places a heavy burden on children already feeling overwhelmed and injured.
- Allow your children to grieve. They will miss the parent that leaves and mourn the loss of what the remaining parent used to be. They will also likely suffer other losses, such as the loss of financial security with radical changes in life style. If a move occurs, they may lose friends. Children differ in the way they work through their grief. Be patient and understanding with your children, and provide them with an abundance of love.
Develop a new family philosophy. Establish that, even though a divorce has occurred, you are still a family, not a broken home. A family is the people who love you just as you are. You need each other and always will.
Establish quality time together. Children experiencing divorce need to be assured that the important adults in their lives aren't going to abandon them. Reassure your children of this by attending their school and sports activities. Make the time to be there for them.
Establish family meetings so working together as a team is easier, and the channels of communication with your children remain open. Be available to talk and listen at most any time. Children seem to share best at odd times - so take advantage of these moments.
- Maintain a respectful relationship with your ex-spouse. Whatever the custody arrangements, the key to the children's adjustment seems to lie in the relationship between the parents. When parents war, the children can be caught in the cross fire and become emotional casualties. Don't criticize your spouse in front of your children. Don't try to get them to take sides or make them compete for affection. Don't put them in the position of "negative message carrier" or "family spy." Don't ask them to lie to cover up for you. Don't take your children hostage, restricting visits with the other parent to get revenge. Don't make them pawns in any negotiations with your ex-spouse.
Do take into account your children's wishes regarding visitation, and keep them informed of decisions. If you have concerns about your children, do discuss those concerns rationally with your former spouse when the children are not present.
Do let your children know they are loved by both parents, and do stay actively involved with them.
- Stay involved with the children. It is especially important for the noncustodial parent to stay involved with the children, assuming there has been no criminal offense. Your children need and want you in their lives always. When the children are with you, give them your complete attention. Schedule your own social activities for other times. Your children need you-not whirlwind shopping sprees, extravagant gifts or trips to the zoo. If possible, create a space in your new home that is exclusively theirs.
- Children should not be involved with an abusive parent. It is injurious to the well-being of children to be involved with a parent who has perpetrated criminal offenses or ongoing abuse of any kind against them. Contact should be resumed only when the parent has been in treatment and is well on the road to recovery.
Divorce is not something we choose for our children, but these suggestions can help create a healthier new beginning for them.
Yehl, Suzy (1991). Parenting after divorce. St Meinard, Indiana: Abbey Press.
©Copyright 1993, El Rophe Center, Inc.