One of the most significant concerns that couples with children face when they are approaching divorce is how to tell their children about the impending divorce. I generally suggest that they consult with a professional counselor for guidance, and I frequently meet and speak with therapists so that I can provide my clients with a reference resource to match their needs. As a result of that experience, there are a few basic principals that I have learned that apply across the board. I will be referencing a Mayo Clinic article as a springboard for this discussion, but there is some very important advice all divorcing couples should consider.
According to the article and EVERY clinician I have consulted with, both parents should tell their children about the divorce together. Of course children react differently, but there are some general responses to the news that I often hear. Some are angry, sad, handling it seemingly well, or internalizing. It could be any child in the birth order, but most commonly I hear that it is the oldest child who is internalizing his or her pain. The article suggests professional counseling when the child displays anger, sadness, fear or is having trouble in school. I would like to add to that list that when the child doesn’t outwardly react at all–the parent should send the child to a counselor to check in and make sure that there isn’t something going on that needs to be pulled out. One last note on seeking professional counseling (for now), please don’t give up if your child doesn’t click with the first counselor you see. This is a very important and personal relationship. Shop. What I mean by that is, if the first counselor you see isn’t a fit, go see a second or third–keep going until you find a good fit. I have a friend who brought her daughter to countless therapists until they found the right one and that therapeutic relationship ended up making all the difference in that child’s life.
One subsection of the article covers a topic I advocate at every opportunity–”keep your child out of the fight.” Don’t speak badly about your spouse in front of your child! Your child represents half of each parent and if you criticize the other parent, your child may interpret your words as personal criticism. The article lists seven important rules about keeping your child out of the middle of your divorce. As a general rule for divorcing couples–keep the adult issues with the adults and don’t use your child as a go between or lean on your child about your painful divorce issues. Every therapist will tell you that children will ask you the questions they are ready to hear the answers to–answer their questions. You shouldn’t expound beyond what they are ready to hear.
Your childrens’ reaction to your divorce is an ongoing one. Watch, listen, be there for them. Children learn more by example than by words that aren’t backed up by actions. Working together to resolve your issues despite your differences is key. According to the article, “during a divorce, interacting with your spouse might be the last thing you want to do — but it’s important. Your child needs both of you. Work out custody arrangements and other details with your child’s best interests in mind. Remember that a bitter or prolonged [court] battle may take a serious, long-term toll on your child’s mental health. Instead, help your child maintain a strong, loving relationship with the other parent as you work toward meeting common parenting goals. For your child, support from both parents may be the best tool for weathering the challenges of divorce.”