Children of Divorce
Advice from Adults Who Were Once in Your Child’s Shoes
Nearly half of all marriages are projected to end in divorce. Sometimes divorce is inevitable. Sometimes, for whatever reason, adults really are better off going their separate ways. If it is just two adults in the relationship, divorce is tricky enough, but when kids are in the mix, the stakes go up immeasurably.
If you think the stakes aren’t high, think again. A HealthDay article on January 20, 2011, opens with this: “Adults who were children when their parents divorced are more likely to seriously consider suicide than adults who grew up in intact families, according to a new study.” Don’t panic people, the article goes on to end with this, “Our data in no way suggests that children of divorce are destined to become suicidal.” Go to article.
One potential way of bucking the trends for children of divorce is for divorcing parents to remember that they are the adults and are role modeling for their children how to handle conflict and how to behave in less than ideal situations. Another way to buck the trends is to make use of resources out there – from family therapy to self-help tools (Some of which are available online through the National Institutes of Health at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/divorce.html). These are all valuable resources, but what about the perspective of adults whose parents got divorced when they were young? Given that they experienced divorce through a child’s eyes and now have the benefit of being able to see what stuck with them over time, we wanted to hear what they had to say.
Following is a list of do’s and don’ts compiled from their past experiences (good and bad). If some themes seem to come up more than once, it’s because various interviewees touched on them. For obvious reasons, names have been omitted.
Don’t Don’t Don’t
- Don’t say, “I don’t love your mother anymore, but I still love you.” It doesn’t make sense to kids when they are little. They wonder, “How can you just stop loving someone? And if you can stop loving someone else, can’t you stop loving me?”
- Don’t lie to the kids, because those lies last forever. It’s better just to say that there are some things that they don’t need to hear right now and that at the right time, you will talk to them about it more.
- Don’t fight when there is even a remote chance they will hear you. In a divorce, fighting tends to be more heated, and that fighting can be scary and unsettling for kids.
- Don’t talk smack about your spouse. Don’t talk about who was right or who was wrong. You’re just asking your kid to choose sides, which may work for you, but it’s bad for your kid.
- Don’t get mad at your kid for siding with your spouse on something, particularly if you were the party in the wrong (e.g. had an affair). Be supportive. You have to mend fences with your kid if they perceive you as, or you are, the reason for the divorce.
- Don’t underestimate the intelligence or perceptiveness of kids. They may be young, but a lot of times they get it.
- Don’t involve your kids in trying to “trap” your spouse in some way or catch them in bad behavior.
- Don’t make any decisions without thinking first, “What is best for my child?” You are tearing their life out from under them. It is the least you can do. And by the way, staying together for the kids isn’t always what is best for the kids.
- Don’t stick it out for the kids…children are perceptive and the damage could be worse.
- Don’t use your children as a sounding board. They don’t have the skills to handle your garbage, and they aren’t your best friend.
- Don’t have an affair. If you want to be with someone else, get out of the marriage first. You owe your spouse and your children that.
- Don’t let your own problems trump the needs of your children.
- Don’t use your children as pawns or bargaining chips.
Do Do Do
- Do have the parents be a team.
- Do provide an open and supportive environment for your children.
- Do remember that your children are watching you and see you as a role model.
- Do remember that your actions now – for better or worse – will be remembered for decades to come. Sons of bad marriages may mirror their fathers’ poor treatment of women, and I know a lot of daughters of bad marriages who have gone looking for love in all the wrong places. It can be bad.
- Do treat your ex-spouse with respect.
So there you have it – some advice from adults who have been in your kids’ shoes, so to speak. Take it with a grain of salt and do what is best for your family.
And remember, there is no perfect answer for how to tell kids that you’re getting divorced or how to handle the situation in general. There is no magic bullet that will make it easier for children. But you can help them through it by being a good parent first and foremost. Your kids are more than worth it.
And by the by, everyone we interviewed for this article is happily married (so far as we know!), and we would vote every one of them as a couple most likely to last forever if we were putting it in the high school year book. So everyone reading this can take a step back from the ledge and know that children of divorced parents can and do turn out just fine.