No matter how you try and protect them, your children will suffer from divorce in ways you wouldn’t foresee. Depending on their age, they will experience self-doubt, anger and an overall sense of insecurity and loss. The world they have always known is forever changed, without warning. Even when leaving your spouse is necessary in cases of abuse or other unavoidable situations, kids always want their parents to stay together. Your role is to anticipate their needs and recognize impending pitfalls you can avoid or at least minimize.
We don’t go into marriage thinking it will end in divorce, so how can a child anticipate a family breakup? It rocks the very foundation upon which they have built their existence. It cannot be overstated; divorce is a seismic shift for a child. The two people most important to them are choosing to live apart. What does this mean for them? Who can they trust? Do they have to take sides? Was it something they did?
Some signs of a child’s stress over divorce are obvious. Their grades plummet, they become short tempered with friends or teachers or they stop participating in extracurricular activities. Younger children may get clingy or angry when you leave their side. They may refuse to sleep alone. If the divorce is particularly nasty, kids may take sides or become sullen with one or both of their parents. In the worst cases, children internalize the breakup, blaming themselves and turning to drugs or other destructive behaviors to self-medicate their psyches. I’ve found that most of the ill effects of divorce on children are more subtle and take time to emerge.
Initially, preteens and older teens’ curiosity takes hold. If they are surrounded by other children of divorce, they gather Intel, finding out that most of their friends have survived the process and seem fine. If your divorce is the first in your family or one of the few in your area, your children may feel isolated and singled out. The stigma of coming from a “broken home” stays with them and some people will chose to judge them for it. While the family is broken, if you’re mindful of providing a steady environment you can recreate a new home that is whole. Achieving equilibrium after parents split requires open communication and setting expectations about the new family unit and how it will function.
Balance becomes a major challenge if like me, you were a stay at home mom returning to the workplace. I went from an active school volunteer to a “working mom who’s unavailable” in a matter of weeks. My kids felt let down. They were used to having me around, transporting them to activities and being present at school events. Adjusting to after care programs and a mom who was often late, frantically pulling up last to the pickup line, was rough for my kids. They tried to understand that mom needed to work, but it wasn’t working for them. As my job consumed more of my time, the kids oscillated between acceptance and annoyance. I too felt angry and annoyed that I “had” to work and spend time away from them, and I struggled not to show it. Managing your feelings in front of your children affects how they react to their stress. If you need to vent, see a professional or call a friend. Don’t use your children as a sounding wall for your frustrations.
The most damaging thing a parent can do is to speak ill of their ex-spouse. While sometimes it feels like you’d like to rip your ex’s head off, he is still deeply important to your child. Many of us are guilty of oversharing the things we didn’t like about Dad or how much happier we are without him. This creates an internal battle from which a child may not soon recover. When you’re talking to your friends listing all your complaints, your children are listening. Children will feel like they need to take sides and the fallout often damages the parent child relationship. I learned the hard way that no matter how much I saw myself as a single mother who could take care of everything, they still needed a strong relationship with their father. As my oldest son once said, “I don’t like it when you criticize each other. I want to believe that both my parents are good people.” Wise words I now strive to follow.
Along with emotional strife, the physical adjustments take their toll. Joint custody brings a plethora of lost items and missed playdates. The shoes, uniform or book “I absolutely need tonight” were left at the other parent’s house. Imagine having to pack your bag every week and take up residence in a different house. Next week, repack, regroup and try to figure out who is picking you up from practice or your friend’s house. “Daddy doesn’t know how to do my bun for ballet,” my daughter would cry. Well, he ultimately figured it out and that’s pretty much how things go. You figure out how to plunge a toilet, they figure out how to fumble through a hairdo.
Leaving one parent to go to another is frightening for a younger child. The fear that they will not see the other parent “in forever” is very real to them. In cases of very young children the best practice is to switch back and forth more often so they only have a few days when they don’t see mommy or daddy. The one thing you must do right is work diligently to provide a reliable, predictable custody plan that strengthens a young child’s physical and psychological security. Ideally your attorney or mediator will settle custody issues before anything else.
Older children may benefit more from switching homes weekly so they can plan a week of clothes, schoolwork and activities, knowing in advance where they’ll be on any given day. Experts now say nesting, when the parents shift homes instead of the kids, is an excellent way to help the kids adjust. I can’t imagine it would have worked for us, but here’s more on how it’s playing out: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2017/07/27/letting-the-kids-stay-in-the-home-while-the-divorcing-parents-move-in-and-out-is-it-realistic/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0a85c4346a89\
As my children have grown into young adults, they’ve managed to find a sense of acceptance and stability. Old wounds sometimes re-open and I’ve learned to apologize for any I may have caused. It’s “been a process”, but I am proud of how my children have managed to rise above the hardships and build their own lives despite them. They’ve seen the best and worst of relationships, which I hope prepares them in better handling their own.
I’d like to hear your input about what you did to help your children through divorce, or struggles you the in your kids adapting to their new family life. Please comment below!
Next week I’ll talk about the financial fallout of divorce.