When parents separate, kids need to talk… and you need to listen
Kids need to be heard when parents separate
Divorce is not necessarily bad for children. Unresolved conflict, and not divorce, is what harms children and compromises their healthy development. But make no mistake, divorce is tough on children. Plain and simple. Parents need to be aware of, and sensitive to, this fact when moving through the divorce process. Communication makes a big difference for children whose parents are separating and divorcing.
Talk to your kids. When you and your spouse decide to separate, consider when and how you will tell the children. Don’t let them find out for themselves. If you are not confident about how to tell the kids, talk to a counsellor about how to share the information and what they need to know. Make sure the children know that the divorce is not going to cost them one of their parents and that it is not their fault.
The amount and nature of information shared will depend on the children’s ages and maturity level. Don’t make the mistake of hoping they will figure it out. Studies have shown that children of divorce want honesty from their parents. Key information is worth sharing, but be sensitive to the fact that there is such a thing as too much information – which can depend on age and maturity. And don’t give the children the wrong information, such as providing false hopes of reconciliation, bad mouthing the other parent or treating the child like your best friend/therapist.
Don’t stop talking once that initial conversation is over. This is a process. The children will feel different things and have different questions at different times. Make sure the lines of communication are always open. Keeping asking them about their feelings and concerns over time. Don’t expect the children to have the same perspective you do, nor should you assume that their “recovery time” will be the same as yours. The kids need to feel safe and able to talk about their feelings with their parents throughout the process, not just at the beginning, regardless of how long the process takes. If the children are having a hard time talking to you, or vise versa, you might want the kids to know that they could talk to a counsellor or trusted adult.
Divorce is the end of life as the children know it. The two people they love most in the world are not going to be together anymore. Their parents will not live in the same place, nor will they (in all likelihood) spend time together as a family anymore. Connections to extended family can be strained or broken. The future is unclear.
For the children, divorce is a sad thing. You may be thrilled to be rid of your spouse, but the kids are not likely to feel the same way. They will feel the loss of going from one household to two. As one boy poignantly told me: “I just want everyone I love to live in the same place.” Similarly, the loss of the family home can be painful. It may be the only home the child has ever known. Even if it isn’t, it will be the last place their parents reside together.
Leaving the home is significant. Don’t brush it under the carpet. Once the decision is made to sell the house, and not before, talk to the children. Again, it comes back to communication. Ask the children how they feel about it. Ask them what makes them sad about leaving. You will certainly want to ask about, and role model, what might be good about living somewhere else, but don’t deny what are very real feelings of loss for the children. I heard of a creative co-parenting team who held a “goodbye to the house” ceremony for the whole family. Both parents and the children attended at the house the day before its sale closed. They shared fond memories, walked through the place one last time and talked about the feelings that come up. Obviously, this kind of ceremony requires a somewhat amicable relationship with your spouse. You and your spouse will be in the same place at the same time, dealing with the children’s (and your own) emotions. Most parents should be able to suck it up and be kind to each other for the few hours a goodbye ceremony might require.
Again, listening to your children and dealing with their feelings will make this loss and adjustment easier.