As bad as divorce can be for the couple going through it, that’s nothing compared to how it can negatively impact their children. At least the couple has seen it coming for a while and has had some time to be prepared emotionally. Even if they’ve seen how unhappy their parents are, children may feel blindsided by the news of a divorce.
There’s no way to completely shield your children from the pain of divorce. But you can make things easier for them. You can guide them through the process so that it’s not quite so scary. You can model good relationships by always being respectful to your spouse and refraining from speaking negatively about them in front of them or within earshot. In the process, you will be preparing them to handle challenging situations later on in their lives.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish these ideals in a traditional divorce. A courtroom battle over issues like custody, visitation, and child support does not bring out the best in people. Children can sense the tension between their parents. How you behave during your divorce process will directly impact their sense of security as well as how they handle their new reality of adjusting to life in two homes.
Collaborative Divorce — an out-of-court process where you agree on the important issues that will impact your family together at your own pace and in your own way — can bring out the best in a couple by encouraging calm, rational conversations about the future. By keeping the focus on creating a positive future for yourselves and the children you can help them through one of the most difficult events of their lives.
During a divorce, children are watching you like a hawk. They need to see you at your best, even if you feel your worst. It’s one thing to tell your children that you still care for each other, but it’s another to demonstrate how you feel by being courteous and even friendly with each other. It’s important to show them that conflict can be managed in a respectful way, and that disagreements can be discussed in ways that do not involve losing your temper or raising your voice. If they’re going to trust you through the transition, you’ve got to prove that you are able to handle it together.
I was struck by this quote from Jann Blackstone, co-author of Co-Parenting Through Separation and Divorce. Her mantra is that no matter what is going on between the two of you, you should always put the children first. That means not fighting over things like custody and visitation.
“I often tell parents the only one who loves this child as much as you is the other parent, and your child has the right to be with both of you,” said Blackstone, a former child custody mediator. “So put your heads together and figure it out, and it’s your responsibility to your child to make it as easy as possible.”
How much you share about the divorce process depends on the ages of your children. Don’t keep things a secret until the last minute, because kids need time to process what’s happening. Sit them down together and discuss things as a family. Make sure you use language your children can understand and be prepared to go over the details more than once. How, when and where you tell them sets the tone and narrative for the rest of the divorce. Put some time and energy into this important divorce milestone.
An important thing to remember is not to share information that your child is not asking for and how to set appropriate boundaries when they ask about adult issues, like the “real” reason you two are separating. This is a lot to handle all at once, so don’t overload them with information. Encourage them to come to you with questions they might have at any time in the future. And remember if it’s too personal, you can always say: that’s an adult matter and I’m not going to answer it.
Divorce can be a traumatic experience, even for adult children. Therapist Carol Hughes, author of Home Will Never Be the Same Again, says that adult children of couples who divorce later in life often experience depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation and loneliness. Don’t assume they will just “get over it” because they are grown-ups.
She says that older couples should take care not to urge their adult children to take sides in the divorce.
“It is crucial that divorcing parents avoid disparaging the other parent and using their adult children as their confidants,” Hughes said. “Adult children are entitled to have a different relationship with their other parent.”
One thing you can consider talking about with children of all ages is how the divorce will happen. Even younger kids will probably have friends whose parents have split up. They might have heard stories about fights over custody and stress when they travel from one home to another. Assure them that you intend things to be different.
If you have chosen a Collaborative Divorce, you will discuss everything having to do with your children’s future together. Instead of a judge ruling about visitation rights and other issues, you make those decisions in the safety of the Collaborative container, together. It can be comforting for many children to know that their well-being is being considered by their parents, not by a judge after a court battle.
It goes without saying that you want your divorce to be as easy on your kids as possible. That’s one of the main reasons I was attracted to the idea of Collaborative Divorce in the first place. When you come together to separate with dignity and respect, you can keep your children top of mind.
If you are curious about ways to create a new divorce narrative, check out this short video.