Your children are likely going to experience sadness, fear and frustration because of your divorce. As much as you love them, you can’t fix that. But there are things you can do to help them deal with those emotions and even minimize them to some extent.
Consider this post as a starter guide. I’m a divorce lawyer, not a child psychologist, so if you need more advice, I recommend that you speak to a professional counselor. For now, I want to suggest some basic do’s and don’ts.
- Don’t pretend. Don’t try to act as if nothing’s changed. Children are generally extremely sensitive to the realities behind words, and they despise fakery–especially about something that’s going to affect every aspect of their own lives.
- Don’t dump your own confusion, fear, anger and sorrow onto your children. You need to protect them as much as possible.
- Don’t be shocked, and try not to take it personally, if a child lashes out in anger. It’s honest communication; it’s good.
- Don’t be surprised if your children resist talking to you about the divorce, but will talk to other adults about it. They won’t have to avoid emotional landmines with those people that they’d fear triggering with you. And teenage children especially, even in the best of times, feel an inordinate need to guard their privacy with their parents. They may need to gain some clarity into their emotions before they can share them with you.
- Don’t treat your spouse with disrespect, either in person or to when you’re talking to your children. Despite how you feel about your spouse, they are still your child’s Mom or Dad. They shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about loving them.
- Don’t burden your children with financial and legal details that would only worry them. In general, don’t talk to them about the details of the divorce. This can also hurt your case. The courts do not look kindly on it when couples involve their children in adult matters.
- Don’t introduce your children to any new romantic interests. They are going through enough right now. It’s unfair for them to have more people coming into (and out of) their lives. It will also confuse them and the courts don’t like it.
- Tell them that both of their parents love them and that what’s happening is not their fault.
- Talk to your children about impending changes before they happen. Try to have both parents present. Give your children as much information as you can about the things that will affect them directly.
- Give your children power over the personal decisions that are appropriate for them given their age and maturity level. If there are differences of opinion, talk them out. Even more importantly, “listen them out.” Take each child’s preferences and comfort zones into account and respect them.
- Try hard to keep other adults with whom your children have established bonds present in your children’s lives, even if those adults are associated with "the other side." This isn’t only for the comfort of familiar faces and routines, though that’s important. As noted above, initially it may be easier for some children to express their feelings to a trusted adult who is outside the situation than to you.
- Keep your eyes open for signs of depression or withdrawal. Not all children express their anger or fear by lashing out. Make it clear that when they’re ready to talk, you’ll be there. If that doesn’t happen soon, seek outside help.
- Take care of your own emotional needs. Some children will try to make that their own responsibility–out of fear, love for you, and to increase their sense of control. It’s a false sense. If you take care of your emotional needs, your children can focus on their own.
- In terms of that last suggestion: Find time to do the things you love, to be with the people who make you laugh and support you unconditionally, and to maintain familiar structures in your life. If you’re going to help your children heal, you have to begin to heal yourself.
You can help your children realize that the fact that nothing is going to be the same doesn’t mean there won’t be any more love or joy. Consciously creating supportive new patterns, instead of waiting for them to appear out of the blue, is work you and your children can do together.