Helping Children Through Divorce
Divorce ranks as one of the highest stressors a human being can face over a lifetime. Ever heard the phrase, “Divorce is never over?” It’s true. About half of all marriages in the United States will end by divorce, and the toll on both spouses, in particular their children, can be enormous. Part of my doctoral dissertation for my Ph.D. surrounds this issue. Even with the best of intentions, husbands and wives, often over a period of years, reach the point where they feel there is no turning back, and no options left to them. Four of the primary reasons couples divorce surround money, sex, children, and communication. Each of these normal, very real issues are a central part of our lives, and often couples go into marriage without the skills needed to deal with them effectively, strengthening their marriage instead of eventually destroying it. As a systems-theory marriage and family therapist, I have often said, “When the marriage is destroyed, the family is destroyed. And when the family is destroyed, society itself is destroyed.” Throughout millennia, civilizations flourished with a bedrock foundation of cohesive, thriving marriages and families. We are witnessing today a cataclysmic relational fallout of what is partly the long-range effects of the sexual revolution. Families are stressed, hurried, and over forty percent of babies born in the United States are born to a home without a married mother and father and, often, the presence of a father at all. This statistically poses often-disastrous effects which ultimately results in a crippled economy that is forced to pay for various federal and state social programs to try to heal some of the damage from the effects of the fractured family…a family system that is in desperate need of help and nurturing and respect in a culture that has turned the definition of family and marriage on its head.
There are few other life stressors that equal that of going through a divorce. Anger, hurt, rejection, destroyed finances, loss of security, trust and hope for a marital future, devastated children, loneliness, loss of self-esteem, fractured family relationships, uprooted home, school, and work environments, are often the result of a divorce. Many myths, and outright lies, surround the issue of divorce. Only some of those are “The kids won’t get too badly hurt. I’ll just spend a few hours a week with them and buy them some toys and a new phone, and they’ll eventually be okay…”, or “I’m done with her! She’s hopeless! Boy, next time I’ll find someone much better…” Each of these carry the weight of self-delusion and denial. Children almost instinctively blame themselves for their parents’ marital breakup, believing if they had only earned better grades, or behaved better, their parents would still be together. Children always know, even if they aren’t able to verbalize or explain it, when something is wrong in the home and the marriage.
Children get caught in the middle of a hailstorm of anger, accusations, ego, pride, one-upmanship. Visitation orders are fought over in court for years, with the child caught in the middle. Parents resort to making their child serve as the conduit, the go-between, in carrying verbal and written messages back and forth. One parent refuses visitation when child support isn’t paid, and the one who suffers most is the child. Angry parents sometimes use a long, protracted and expensive custody battle to hurt the other parent. Courtrooms see parents sometimes again and again, as they punish each other, often on the backs of their hapless, innocent children who had little to no say in the matter and who have no autonomy or control over the outcome.
Here are some tips for going through a divorce with children. This involves taking the high road, and putting egoes and pride aside for the sake of the children. They will never forget when you take the high road and they will also never forget when you refused to. Believe it or not, this maelstrom will eventually blow over and quieter times can be had in the foreseeable future. No divorce is ever happy, but it never has to be frought with hatred, unforgiveness, revenge, or hurting innocent children in the process.
- - Divorce is never over. Particularly with children. Try to sit down with your spouse and work out a plan for visitation, expenses, school, vacations, extracurricular activities. Ask your children, if old enough, what kind of visitation schedule they would like. And then honor it. It may need to change over the years as your child’s needs and priorities change; don’t hold a 14 year-old to the same schedule your judge put in place for you when they were 6 because you’re mad at your former spouse. Your children’s lives go on, even if the marriage doesn’t. Keep their lives as consistent, predictable, and calm, as possible. Be as consistent as possible in discipline and limits for the child; children can often start pitting one parent against another if they figure out they can. Children often experience deep guilt, anxiety, even depression, over their parents’ divorce. Do check-ins - - ask them how they are feeling, allow them to be angry, grieving, sad, anxious, worried, lonely. These are feelings that should be expected when a child’s family divides.
- - Be prepared for some regression, acting out, clinginess, attention-seeking, in your child around a divorce. Don’t punish them. Listen. Ask questions. Show patience and empathy. They are trying to express what they don’t know how to express, and they are often using these behaviors as a way to do it. This is a good time to teach them about their emotions…”Sad”. “Hurt”. “Afraid”. “Worried”. “Mad”, and the like.
- - Make sure your child gets lots of calm time, and rest. They probably need more sleep than you think they do. Don’t drag them around Walmart at 9 PM on a school night and wonder why they’re cranky and acting out. They’re stressed and exhausted. Have at least one night a week for Family Time, where you watch movies together, make popcorn and their favorite meal, ride bikes, play games, cuddle. They so need this right now.
- - Don’t restrict your spouse or your child from talking on the phone privately together, or from attending school and social events together. Your child needs this. Even if you hate your former spouse, your child still only knows them as “mom” or “dad”. You divorced. Your children didn’t.
- - It’s usually too soon to start dating. Most therapists advise a minimum of one year before trying to re-enter the social dating scene. Remember that every person you bring into your life romantically, also enters your child’s life. If that relationship ends, your child can experience a loss (and perhaps blame themselves), all over again. I was a divorced, single mother for five years. I used that time in my twenties to develop “me”…I took a couple of classes at night, read a lot of books, decorated, did a lot of DIY, sensing deep inside that the Lord was telling me a loving “No. Not yet.” when I prayed for a good man to come into my life after my divorce. After five years, I got to have that (and we’ve been married nearly 28 years now)…but it was only after I realized that God meant for me to prioritize my young daughter, who needed me more than any man ever could. I wouldn’t take anything for those stressed, often-lonely, hurried, but rewarding, fun, wonderful five years. I learned about parenting, and about being comfortable in my own skin, and not having to have a significant other in my life all the time in order to feel complete. Your child needs you now, more than any romantic partner ever could. Love can come eventually, but if you have small children, it’s their time right now. You won’t get this time with them again.
- - If trying to work with your former spouse isn’t working out, then seek certified family mediation. Ask your court or attorney for details. This is an area as a therapist I have been seriously considering becoming certified in, as I want to help struggling families, coparents, do this with less stress and better outcomes for themselves and for their children over the long haul.
- - Don’t ever let anyone tell you you are a “broken family” now. Even with one spouse / parent, you’re still a family. Keep up traditions and make memories with your child.
- - Divorce is usually a time of loss and endings…but it can be a time of new beginnings, as well. I remember at the young age of 25, walking down the steps of the courthouse in Little Rock with a freshly-executed piece of paper in my hand, sad, but still marveling to myself, “Today is the first day of my new life.” Look within yourself now – what are your hobbies? Don’t have any? Start developing some. Your sanity could depend on it. Would you qualify for a scholarship, even a single parent scholarship? A majority of mothers who are single or divorced are at poverty level and higher education is one of the singly-most important things in hers – and her children’s – lives that can create permanent changes for generations to come. Volunteerism is a great way to make contacts, and build a solid reputation as a hard, responsible worker and earn references. It also is a good model for your children to witness.
- - Can’t afford a vacation? Then plan with your children a fun weekend staycation; there are countless things to do around Arkansas that don’t have to involve overnight travel or hotel costs. Attend a DivorceCare group, and ask your church to start one if one isn’t in your community. Surround yourself with stable, healthy, caring people of both sexes who don’t cost you your sanity, your peace, or anything else in order to have a relationship with them. Use your children’s visitation time with their other parent as your time to replenish yourself….quiet time, naps, long walks, books, time with good friends, overnight travel, and the like.
- - There is a saying, “We usually won’t be treated better than we believe we deserve to be treated.” If you are someone who is willing to negotiate for how you’re treated in exchange for keeping a relationship, then please re-evaluate your value and worth, because if you on some level don’t really believe you’re worth much to yourself, the world, or a relationship, then you will attract people who won’t believe it about you, either. Dr. Brene’ Brown, one of the world’s foremost experts on shame, vulnerability and empathy, says, “You are enough.” Even when you’re the only one who believes it. The more healthy you treat yourself, the more healthy people you will attract to you. If you’re more afraid of being alone than in being in an unhealthy relationship, examine that and consider counseling, because you are going to attract unhealthy people to you (and to your children) who can harm you both.
- - If there is one thing that is routinely ignored surrounding divorce in our culture, it is the issue of grief and loss. Both spouses, as well as their children, usually experience some level of grief and loss about the ending of the marriage and the deep change in the family. Allow these feelings and breathe through them. They are normal. Don’t rush recovery or getting things stable again. But don’t lose hope; take it one day at a time. Keep the lines of communication open with your child’s other parent. And if you’re that other parent, don’t forget for one minute that your children need you – everyday. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. When I was a psychiatric nurse in a residential treatment facility for children, I saw very often children who excitedly packed a bag and sat by the locked door, waiting for hours and hours for a parent who promised to pick them up for the weekend, and never showed up. The sight of a child jumping up to look out the window at every passing headlight for a parent who didn’t call, who lied, who never showed up, will never leave you. Your child will never forget that experience. Be a parent of your word, don’t be late, and show up and be present in their lives. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy once said, “If you bungle raising your children, nothing else much matters.” Mess this chance up, and there won’t be anything you can do to fix it; only apologize for it.
- - Children often have serious questions about the marriage…answer their questions on an age-appropriate level, and do not make your child your confidante, your best friend. This is “adultifying”, or “parentifying” your child. This is not their role. They are not equipped emotionally, developmentally, neurologically, or any other way to serve in that role. Seek out healthy, caring friends and family or professionals to be your sounding board – not your children. Your children need you to listen and empathize with them; not the other way around.
How you handle your divorce today and in the ensuing months and years, will be a powerful example to your children on conflict resolution, grace, forgiveness, marital relationship itself.