For reasons deeply considered and valid for the adults in a marriage, the decision to divorce has been made. As a result of your decision to divorce, life for your child has changed without their permission. It is imperative that you recognize this fact. Your child is experiencing multiple losses, and with loss, comes the need for grieving.
Your child has already endured marital conflict, confusion, insecurity, uncertainty, fear, anger and many other emotions as a result of their parent’s choices. They may have experienced actual physical loss through relocation out of the family home, changes in schools, activities, friends, and often changes in financial security as a result of the divorce.
Most importantly, they are apart from one of the two people they love most in the world on a regular basis. This loss of the ability to be with both parents at the same time is profound. Regardless of which parent the child is with, or what they are doing, there will always be sadness. At every exchange, one parent is happy and one is sad. There is never a time when they can make both parents happy. This circumstance evokes a strong sense of loss for your child. It needs to be “okay” to be missing their other parent when they are with you.
Parents need to listen to and acknowledge—without judgment—their child’s confusing and conflicting feelings. For small children, this may mean helping the child identify and name their feelings. While you may be feeling relief, or even happiness to have finally made the decision to end your marriage; you must rememberthat your child’s feelings of grief are normal.
There is a wide range of age level reactions that parents can expect from their child as a result of divorce. Small children may regress to an earlier developmental stage, while teens may strongly rebel, take sides, or behave as if they are indifferent to their parent’s divorce. In families with more than one child, parents need to recognize each child as an individual--with their own unique reaction to the divorce. Your teen may be relieved that the household conflict has ended, while your middle schooler is angry that his routine has changed, and your toddler is scared, confused, and acting out.
One aspect of a child’s experience of divorce that often goes unacknowledged by the adults in their lives is the duality of life experiences as a member of two different households. Yes, they may initially be excited about two birthdays or two sets of Christmas gifts. However, they will also experience two bedrooms, two sets of clothes, two sets of friends, two sets of extended families, two sets of household rules, and two sets of parental expectations.
Your child will learn that rules are arbitrary—not absolute truths. “Right” and “wrong” are often defined very differently in each home. The ability to agree on similar rules, chores, expectations, and consequences in both households after the divorce is highly improbable. The good news is that your child can discern these differences. Kids are astute, and if you take the time to explain things to them—they can understand it. For example: “When you are here you will follow Mommy’s rules—which are my choices. When you are at Daddy’s house you will follow Daddy’s rules—which are Daddy’s choices. In the future you’ll get to make your own choices for yourself.”
Feelings of guilt can hinder your ability to talk openly with your child. However, now is the time to talk with them, and continue talking. They can handle truth that is appropriate for their developmental age and stage. Your child will develop their own ideas about why your marriage failed. They have witnessed your conflict and dysfunction. Therefore, if you try to place all the blame on the other parent—you’re likely to get busted! Typically, the older the child, the greater their need for details. Be prepared for pointed questions. Be direct and clear about the changes your child can expect during and after the divorce.
Avoid the temptation to paint a rosier picture of events or circumstances than will likely occur. Many changes will be difficult and unpleasant for your child. Parents need to be honest about that fact, or risk a significant loss of trust with their child. Don’t guess at change. Don’t speculate. Wait for facts. Provide information as soon as you know it, so your child has time to adjust to the expected change. The most comforting thing that you can do for your child is to let them know what’s going to happen and exactly how it’s going to affect them. Lastly, don’t answer for the other parent.
At some point, almost all children think the divorce is their fault. They need repeated reassurances that your problems are adult problems. Your child will worry about you at times. They need permission not to worry about you. They need permission not to feel they have to take care of you. They need permission to be a child. It is your responsibility to mitigate the negative effects of your divorce on your child to the best of your ability. Reassure that you will both always love your child. After all, they will worry: “If Daddy can stop loving Mommy, then maybe he will stop loving me too?”
A child’s experience of their parent’s divorce is a defining moment in their life. Parents need to remember that, for their child, life has changed without their permission. They will certainly have lost some of their innocence. Divorce forces them to cope with very grown-up things earlier than any of us would choose for them. However, they can also learn important lessons through it all that will inform their own future and help them to keenly identify their own choices later on.
Finally, behave with integrity because your child is watching you. They will stand witness to your life and your choices, long after the divorce. They will draw conclusions about how you conducted yourself. Consider how you might like them to describe their experience of you someday? Ask yourself if you are behaving in a manner that you would like to hear them describe to others? Attending to and honoring your child’s experience of your divorce is the healthiest example of appropriate parenting that you can provide during this challenging transition in the life of your family.