Getting Comfortable with the Uncomfortable
If there is one word to describe the past year-ish of the COVID-19 pandemic its “change.” Many of us have had to cope with unrelenting anxiety, shifts in work schedules, and changes in relationship statuses. Processing your own emotions and when faced with divorce has many layers, which makes it no surprise that the idea of discussing this news and its implications with our children is heartbreaking to say the least! Despite circumstances which made a couple grow apart, mutual love for the couple’s children is a powerful bond that will help a couple navigate the divorce process and explaining what the family’s “new normal” will look like.
1. Getting on the Same Page – Anger, tears, and resentment are common emotions experienced by those who are navigating the divorce process. It is important to remember that despite how you each feel, it is a top priority to be on the same page on the tone and the takeaway message for explaining the divorce to your kids. Prior to sitting the kids down and breaking the news, ensure that you and your ex-partner have discussed future living arrangements and what this will be like for the kids in the future. The majority of research surrounding divorce has found that most children love both of their parents and want both parents involved in their lives following separation.
2. Modeling Mutual Respect – When children are asked what makes a family and what makes good parents, established research has found feelings of being listened to and respected as universal in children’s answers. Most children recognize that it can be challenging for couples to remain respectful while separating but that making the effort despite the challenge pays off in the long run. Many parents experience feelings of guilt and shame when listening to their children’s emotions about their parents’ divorce. Even though it can be tempting to simply reassure your children that everything will be fine, leave the space open for your children to express their fears while making a commitment to keep this discussion going in the future and therefore keeping trust a part of your relationship with your child.
3. Keep it PG! – One of the natural questions children will ask is, “why are you and mom/dad divorcing? Do you not love each other anymore?” Established research has found that despite feelings of anger and resentment that are present during separation, it is important to keep the information that parents give children at an age-appropriate level. Remember to keep explanations general and not go into details about the sources of conflict between yourself and your ex-partner – however, it is crucial to reassure your children that you and your ex-partner are still their parents, and that the decision to divorce or separate was not because of them.
Talking to your children together reinforces the unity of parenthood and give your children a practical example of mutual respect. Some examples of explanations include –
· “No matter what, your mom/dad and I love you, always. The love that we both have for you will never change. We will both still be your parents and take care of you.”
· “Nothing you did or said made this happen. It’s okay to feel angry and scared and we’re going to be there for each other while we go through these changes.”
· “Mom/Dad and I have adult problems we weren’t able to fix and we find ourselves fighting a lot and that isn’t a good way for adults and for kids to live.”
· “Do you have any questions about anything? Nothing you ask will make me angry or upset.”
4. It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It… – While certain circumstances make it difficult to maintain respectful communication with your ex-partner [such as infidelity], focusing on your ex-partner’s good qualities while speaking with your children is a must. This sets the tone for future communication dynamics between you and your child. Most parents don’t want their child to withhold information such as a fun activity they did at mom/dad’s house for fear of making the parent they’re with feel uncomfortable, sad, or angry. Telling your children about the separation and explaining reasons for the separation should not be used to alienate or damage the child’s relationship with the other parent. Keeping dialogues age appropriate when explaining the reasons for the divorce is crucial in maintaining a respectful tone for these conversations with your children.
5. Just Because it’s Over… – It’s natural that kids will have a multitude of questions when parents begin to explain the divorce process! To name a few, “Why don’t you love my mom/dad anymore? Do I have to pick a side? Where am I going to live?” It’s important to explain to your children that despite parents not being together anymore, that doesn’t mean the family bond is gone. Reassure your kids that they will be able to see both of you and that it will take time for everyone in the family to adjust to all of these changes – which is normal! Making space for your kids’ emotions about the divorce is crucial for making your children feel supported throughout this process. It can be extremely helpful to set aside one-on-one time with each of your kids for “feeling check-ups,” to keep in-tune with their feelings about the divorce and keep your bond strong while navigating the “new normal.”
Adapted from various sources such as publications from Dr. Ann Gold Buscho (Clinical Psychologist, Divorce Counselor) and Dr. Joan B. Kelly (Clinical Child Psychologist)