Dealing with Divorce
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What do you tell the kids?
If you and your spouse have decided to get a divorce—and you have children—you’re dealing with one of the toughest struggles any parent can face.
No matter how acrimonious the relationship, all couples want to spare their children pain, and experts agree: Being told their parents are splitting up is one of a child’s most painful moments. Some youngsters carry that hurt far into their adult years—and yet some do not. What makes the difference?
In a study of more than 2,500 children of divorce, E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, authors of For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, found 75-80 percent of their subjects showed little or no long-term damage as adults. Although that means a significant percentage did have problems, the good news is this: Many of the factors related to how a child responds to divorce can be influenced by parents—the way they break the news, for example, and their attitudes toward each other. “Divorce is a trauma for kids,” says Dawn Hulme, a marriage and family therapist who founded and is the clinical supervisor at Windows of Hope in Roseville and Sacramento and is licensed in Imago Relationship Therapy. “Parents don’t always realize how difficult it can be.”
Read on as Hulme and Suzette James, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Family Tree Counseling in Folsom, share six ways parents can help kids cope.
Start with counseling. You’re bound to be angry, and seeing a therapist—together, before you talk to the kids—can help you cut through the fury and amicably work out plans for breaking the news and establishing new living arrangements. Parents need to work together without letting their negative feelings get in the way, James says. “The goal is to put the kids’ needs first.”
Tell the truth. Give your children only the facts, James advises. If you’re not sure you’re going to divorce, say nothing. If you’re separating, say something like: We’re not sure we’ll get divorced, but we’re going to live apart to see if we can work things out. If divorce is certain, tell your kids you haven’t been getting along and have decided it’s best not to live together anymore. If possible, parents should talk to the kids together, but, says James, “more important than who delivers the information is how it’s delivered”—truthfully and without rancor.
Understand what “why?” means. When your children ask why you’re getting divorced, what they really want to know, James says, is what will happen to them. Explain the arrangements you’ve made—where they’ll live and whether they’ll have to change schools, for example. Make sure they understand they’ll still see both parents. Acknowledge their hurt and, most importantly, Hulme says, assure them they’re not to blame.
Don’t fight in front of the kids. “Conflict between parents is, hands down, the most damaging thing for kids,” James says. No matter how much you dislike your ex, keep it between the two of you. Never badmouth them, and never bring the kids’ names into an argument, Hulme adds, or they will assume the divorce is their fault. “It sounds easy,” James says, “but it is very hard to do.”
Make the best of new living arrangements. If custody is split, agree on house rules (with counseling, if necessary). Beyond that, don’t make the kids feel guilty for leaving you and don’t pry. Instead, reassure them your ex loves them and will keep them safe. Taking favorite items back and forth, like a blanket or stuffed toy, can be comforting, says Hulme. If drop-off and pick-up times trigger arguments, she adds, meet at a public place or ask someone you trust to help. “Changing homes is inconvenient and annoying,” says James, “but if the parents can get along and be supportive, it doesn’t have to cause trauma.”
- If you’re the “poor” parent, don’t fret about teenage drama. Yes, your spouse’s home may have fancier toys—and your teen may rave—but when they’re adults, James says, it is the attachment you make with your children, the love and nurturing you give them, that prevails. Have confidence that you are their rock.
Carol Greenfield, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Sacramento, suggests Kids’ Turn (kidsturn.org), a nonprofit based in San Francisco that provides a comprehensive program (think workshops, a blog and an online course) for children and family members affected by familial separation.
Meetup (divorcesupport.meetup.com) also offers informal groups with different themes throughout the area.
Local hospitals, including Sutter and Kaiser, sponsor groups, and so do churches and other organizations. Googling turns up a good selection.
Greenfield also recommends the books Shared Parenting: Beyond the Great Divide by Frank Leek, Ph.D., her husband; Mom’s House, Dad’s House by Isolina Ricci, Ph.D.; Dinosaurs Divorce by Laurene Kransy Brown and Marc Brown, a colorful kids’ book. James suggests Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall?, by Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D.