Divorce. The mere thought of it can send shivers down the spine of mums and dads. The family is torn apart, finances are depleted and kids get caught in the crossfire between parents who can no longer get along.
Parents often have the misconception that children will be caught by surprise when they find out their parents are getting a divorce. But many kids are intuitive and have an idea that divorce is imminent. What they don’t know is what their future holds as a result of the dissolution.
Dr. Judy Ho, a clinical psychologist, says that when guiding kids through the divorce process it’s important to state over and over that the divorce is not the kids’ fault, and that they’re still loved.
She outlines some suggestions for parents to help guide their children through the divorce process:
1. Check-in with kids regularly regarding how they’re feeling about what’s happening and find out if there’s anything they want to talk about.
“Be open to listening to your kids’ emotions, validating how they feel, and letting them know any emotion they feel is okay,” Ho says.
In many divorces, Ho adds, the kids feel the divorce is their fault and that if they were, somehow, better children things might have turned out differently. It is important to emphasize to kids that divorce is between mum and dad and was not a result of anything they did.
2. For children it’s hard to understand why a divorce is taking place. Dr. Ho says it’s important to convey positive messages such as, “We have decided not to live together anymore, but we still care about each other. We will stay friends, and we will love you the same way.”
Some divorces, however, aren’t as amicable. “Parents who hate each other make things more complicated,” Ho continues. “If the parents can’t stand each other it’s a good idea to write down some key talking points in advance and stick to them.”
Ho suggests reinforcing how much the kids are loved. If the divorce is really ugly, sometimes talking about things with the kids in the context of a therapy session with a therapist moderating the discussion can be helpful.
3. Don’t engage with a difficult parent in front of the kids.
The best thing to do when one parent is more difficult than the other is to disengage from it. Do not get defensive in front of the kids or try to trash other parent. Instead, address issues directly with the other parent and let him or her know that it is best to refrain from speaking badly about the other in front of the kids
4. With older kids, it is important to let them have a say in where they want to live. Set your own ego aside and ask your child how he or she feels about the living arrangements.
“Even though it might hurt to hear the answer that a child would prefer to live with the other parent, it is a good opportunity to give the child a feeling of control because in the divorce process they, very likely, feel very out of control. The child should suffer as little as possible as a result of the divorce, and seeking their input is a way to buffer them from some of the effects,” says Ho.