What About the Kids? Minimize your Divorce’s Impact on Your Children
Divorces are for adults. They can be contentious. Messy. Ugly. Your spouse might be stealing money from your family, cheating on you, badmouthing you to your kids, family or friends. The list of wrongs goes on and on, and sometimes the gloves have to come off. This is grown-up stuff.
For couples with children, co-parenting and kids are always top of mind. Often overlooked, however, is the impact that separation and divorce has on children. Specifically, how do children experience the divorce process?
How do children experience their parents’ divorce?
There is a great deal of literature regarding child development and child custody issues. The volume of information can be overwhelming, but one simple starting place for parents is to understand that children have an entirely different perspective from their parents.
Children are egocentric, and they experience their parents’ divorce as it relates to their world, funneled through their own perspective. They process everything through their own, unique lens. As a result, children may have a tendency to internalize their parents’ divorce, and any related conflict, in a deeply personal way. Children can feel guilt or responsibility for their parents' break-up. They may feel their own rejection, sadness, anger, denial.
These emotions are difficult for children to process, and are influenced by a child’s home environment and the information they obtain from their parents and other sources. Parents who understand this, and manage their children’s exposure accordingly, do their children a great service.
What can parents do to make things easier for their children?
While parents cannot control how their children react to the information they receive, they can choose what information to share with children, how they share information, and they can manage a child’s home environment. While there is no comprehensive, one-size-fits-all answer, here are some guidelines which divorcing parents may find useful in interacting with children.
- Talk to your children together with the other parent at the outset. Consider speaking to a mental health professional or researching the best approach prior to communicating with your children. Once your child learns of your separation or divorce, they may need support or an outlet that you cannot provide. Keep a watchful eye on your children, and be open to them seeing a mental health professional.
- Be thoughtful and diligent about a child’s environment. Children are very observant, and they see, hear and feel the conflict between their parents. Parents often have no idea the impact of their words and actions on their kids’ thoughts and feelings. Imagine a pristine glass of water, and then picture a drop food coloring entering that same glass. You have some control over what drops into that glass. Don’t contaminate your child’s experience with negativity.
- Do not ask or tell your children to keep secrets. That is too great a burden to place on children, and forces children to choose between parents. It also doesn’t work; secrets always come out.
- Do not make negative comments about the other parent or their relatives (who are also the child’s relatives). Children are a part of each parent. They have characteristics from each parent. Negative comments about anyone close to a child can make the child feel bad about him or herself.
- Generally speaking, once you’ve had ‘the talk’ with your child at the outset, do not talk to them about the divorce. Children also should not see any papers concerning the divorce.
- Do not discuss adult financial issues with children, or blame the other parent for any financial problems. It doesn’t matter if they deserve it, this shouldn’t be a child’s concern
- Do not interrogate your child about their time with the other parent. Encourage him or her to have positive experiences with each parent. A child’s relationship with their mom or dad will inform their other close relationships, for the rest their life. You don’t want to poison that well for them at a young age.
- Do not refer to your house as the child’s home and the other parent’s house as a place they visit. Allow your children to move forward with the new reality that allows them to feel comfortable and safe in both residences. You may not feel that way, but it is important for kids that they do.
- Do not restrict your child from bringing their possessions, including clothes, between their homes. Forcing a child to carry his or her belongings around from one home to another, and everywhere in between, can make a child feel insecure and unimportant.
- Do not use pets, toys, cell phone, activities or things that are important to a child to buy the child’s favor or punish them for relationship with their other parent. Children want both parents’ love and attention, and no object can replace that. Kids often see right through this tactic, and these items can become another point of conflict during transitions or other times.
Children love both of their parents. Both of their parents love them. Yet, during a divorce, the parents often lose sight of their children. A parent’s need to cope with and process his or her own emotions can cause them to cross boundaries, placing their children in the midst of their divorce. Divorcing parents should be aware of this issue, educate themselves, and take steps to prevent their own experience from overwhelming their child’s life.
Chris Roberts and Donna Van Scoy are divorce attorneys who handle cases involving domestic relations and family law. For more information, contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org or Donna at email@example.com.