Unfortunately we are divorcing each other at an amazing rate. Though lately the saying “more marriages end in divorce” seems to not be holding up (the divorce rate has fallen in the last 2 years), there are still a good deal of families that are splitting up. I was blessed that my divorce was “easy” with no bitterness or anger (notice I did not say painless) and my ex-husband and I maintain an easy friendship. I work with clients and have friends who are not so lucky.
Divorce on its own is traumatic. Even a divorce as “easy” as mine was still is a trauma. There are always hurts, feelings of abandonment, loss, and at times betrayal. Adding children to this mixture adds another layer of uncertainty, frustration, hurt and fear. Even the best people are able to become monsters around their ex-partner at this time of in-stability. Unfortunately often the children are thrown in to the mix and the trauma can be devastating.
A divorce is traumatic to a child. Children are at a stage in which they are learning if the world is to be trusted, and part of that is based on the stability of their family. If the parents are stable and display consistency children learn that the world is stable and consistent and approach life with optimism. If parents display instability they learn to fear the world and tend to be more pessimistic. Realize, these are generalizations and do not apply in all cases, but overall these themes tend to play out. Divorce adds a new mix to the concept of instability. Childadvocate.net gives a great deal of information on this topic, but generally children generally jump to the following questions :
· What if they both leave me?
· What is it that I did wrong?
· Did I cause the divorce?
- Now what’s going to happen to me?
Divorce is painful. It is a severe trauma that strongly affects both parties in the divorce. Unfortunately, divorce with children is like being sick with children. The kids don’t care that you are hurting, or don’t feel well, that you are angry and feel abandoned. And it is not their responsibility to be your support through this trauma. Let me repeat that, as it is amazingly important. Your children are not supports for your divorce! Just as if you are sick, you need to to continue to be strong, stable, caring and loving. The worst case scenario unfortunately is often the norm today. Children are placed in the middle, asked to pick sides and used as leverage in the fight against the other person. This has drastic results that are life long.
Basic rules to interacting with your children in relationship to your divorce:
Do not burden them with information about reasons for the split. Children will want to know. Children are naturally inquisitive, and they generally feel the same fear, powerlessness and panic that you feel and they know that knowledge is power. The problem is that in the middle of the painful emotions we are unable to be unbiased and we give information based on our own perceptions. I know through my divorce I actually placed more blame on myself than my ex, but often people do the opposite forgetting that it takes two to tango. Children can feel responsible for getting the parents back together, they can be placed in a parent role for their parents, and take on more than necessary. It also puts them in a position to pick sides. When they want to know, switch to a nurturing role. “That’s not stuff you need to worry about, what you need to know is that Daddy / Mommy and I love you, will always love you, and will always be here for you”.
Do not ask them to pick sides. In doing this you will imply that they will loose your love if they don’t pick you. If both parents do this it will cause panic. Children still think in fight or flight, survival and death. This doesn’t make sense to us as adults, but they are still very primitive in their emotions without the ability to rationalize. There is a distinct fear that “If I don’t pick mom, she won’t love me, she will leave me, and I cannot survive without her.” This is very subconscious, and they probably can’t verbalize these fears. We all want validation that we are good people and in divorce we want to know that the reason we are being rejected is because of the faults of the other instead of our own. Using our children for our own validation and to resolve our feelings of loss or fears of being unloved, or just vilifying our past partner is not OK. It creates feelings of abandonment and panic and can lead to behavioral problems, drug use, school difficulties, anxiety and depression.
Do not manipulate the children emotionally. This technically falls under trying to make them pick sides but deserves its own section. Telling kiddo that you can’t make the rent because daddy divorced you causes confusion and hurt. Even if this is the case, kiddo doesn’t need to know until they are older. The kids are struggling to see where they are going to be safe in the world. What they need from both of you is knowledge that the world won’t end, that they will still be loved even with the divorce. Manipulating them in an effort to sway them away from the other parent, or get them to try to manipulate the other parent creates an unsafe situation and will cause a great deal of anxiety. It can actually rebound on you, and make the child resentful toward you. We think kids won’t necessarily see through this behavior, but they aren’t stupid, just young.
Do not fight in front of your children. If you do find yourself fighting in front of your kids, either work to find a resolution then and there (one of the great disservices we do to our children is we do not teach them how to resolve an argument, we fight in front of them, but we never resolve anything in front of them.) or end the discussion until a time when the kids aren’t present (not sent to their rooms, but not present all together). It is too easy to drag the children in to the fight, and that will exacerbate all of their fears instead of reassuring them. Sending them to another room does no good, as yelling travels very well through houses. It will also display that there are weaknesses that kids are amazingly apt at manipulating.
Do not use your children as a tool to manipulate your spouse. This is nothing more than emotional assault both on your children and your ex. There is no excuse or justification for this. Unless your ex is a danger to your child there is no reason to limit their access, and using your child as a manipulative tool is nothing less than child abuse. You are turning your child in to an object to cause pain, while it is not criminal, it should be. If you can’t tell, I feel rather strongly about this. Don’t buy your child the cell phone your ex told them they can’t have just to piss him/her off. Don’t manipulate to get more child support just to hurt your ex. Don’t make it excessively hard to do things like visitation and communication. These behaviors are childish and unacceptable. This hurts more than just your ex, it hurts your child and ultimately it hurts you too. Being a mean and spiteful person is a poison that slowly kills you. But most of all it hurts your children. They learn unhealthy patterns that they carry through their adult relationships. Moral? Do not use your children to get back at your ex.
Don’t tell stories about your ex to your kids. Children don’t need to know who daddy is supposedly sleeping with or that he didn’t pay his child support on time. The don’t need to know that mommy is throwing tantrums and not able to pay her bills. They don’t need to know how horrible mommy is, or how bad her friends are. This is transferring your frustrations and fears on to your children. If your ex really is that horrible, let kiddo find that out on their own.
Do nurture, support and reassure your children. If there is fighting in the home they frequently believe that the fights revolve around them not realizing that their parents are fighting because of their relationship, not them. If that is the case and all of a sudden mom and dad are splitting, it is natural to believe that you are divorcing because you always fight over the kids. Even if they are not aware of the conflict (which is relatively rare) they now know that their world is being thrown about and they are probably terrified. They need all of the support and reassurance you can get. If possible, reassure them together as a team. They need to know that even though you will not be together anymore you still love them and you are still a solid team when it comes to parenting them. They need to know that even with the divorce they are safe.
Do be a united front for your children. As they grow this will be more important than you realize. The one thing you can both still agree on is that your kids are amazing, that you love them, and they come first. Well, put them first. You have to put aside all of the anger, hurts and frustrations.You have to put your differences aside when it comes to your kids. You have to put your differences aside when it comes to your kids! If you do not the fallout is amazing. You will see behavior problems as they seek structure and stability. If you think they split and manipulate you now as a solid couple, wait to see what they can do when they know that you aren’t together in your parenting. Kids will feel unstructured and unsafe. They will seek out their friends for their support instead of their parents. They will resort to drug use, eating disorders, stealing among other things to resolve their hurts and frustrations. It is a loosing battle.They will also turn in to little terrorists, manipulating and scheming to get their way, going to the parent from whom they know they can get want the easiest. They will play you like a violin and turn in to brats that don’t mind either of you.
Do work to resolve your differences in a healthy manner. Just because you are splitting with your partner does not mean that you have to teach hate to your children. I will cover how this effects you as a person in greater detail in another post, but even if you feel hurt and hate right now it is important to teach your children how to resolve hurts and frustrations in a healthy way. This is going to be a difficult time for you. If you hit a point where you don’t feel like you are in control, leave until you are in control again. Remember to always think what you are teaching your children with your behavior.
Being a parent means being responsible. I know throughout my divorce there were days that just keeping myself going took all the energy I had. I know that putting that aside that pain and going about with my daily life was like swimming up a waterfall. I fully understand the hurt and the trauma that this is causing you. I know first hand the feelings of abandonment, hurt, fear, loss and loneliness. Divorce with children is not the same as divorce without. When you have kids you don’t get sick days, you don’t get hurt days, and you don’t get bad divorce days. Because you have children you have to put your big-girl / boy panties on and be a parent. That means putting your child first and your hurts and angers second. Hopefully in doing this you will be better able to pull yourself through your divorce as you force yourself to work with your partner, resolving your hurts and create a healthier world for you and your children.