No child wants their parents to divorce. I’ve found this fact to be very true after counseling school-aged children of divorce for more than 20 years.
Separation and divorce bring about confusion and misunderstanding for many children because parents feel that it’s better to spare them the truth of what’s happening in the family.
However, children need to be included in the discussions of the changes that are about to occur. At their developmental level, the situation will simplify itself as time goes on.
Pretending that nothing is going to change is simply not true and will not benefit your child.
Respect your children’s emotional health during your divorce.
Children I’ve counseled shared their feelings from when their families were going through a separation or divorce, either in person or in written notes.
I will only share if the sentiment is from a boy or a girl and what grade they were in at that time.
Some of it will touch your heart like it did mine. Some of it will make you feel their sadness the same way I felt it. It was very difficult not to cry with them for the pain they were experiencing.
But, at the same time, I was happy that they were sharing their real thoughts and felt comfortable enough with me to disclose their truth.
It’s much better for their emotional health to not keep their feelings only in their heart without talking about them. This, I also know for sure, to be true.
Here are 8 guidelines for parents who are navigating separation and divorce, per their kids’ feelings.
1. Don’t be disrespectful or fight with your ex in your kids’ presence.
When children hear their parents fighting or being mean and disrespectful to each other, it affects them greatly. They internalize those feelings but often keep them to themselves.
Many children have expressed their sadness to me about hearing the fights and words their parents have exchanged. They know that their parents are sad and often crying.
They feel it best not to share with their parents how they feel or that they’ve heard what was going on, for fear of making them sadder.
So, when they disclose their true feelings to me, I feel great relief for them.
2. Explain that moms and dads sometimes need a “time out” from each other.
One third-grade girl told me, “My dad left me, my mom, and my sister. I can’t forget about it. When I’m with my dad and he drops me off, I’m always crying.”
When children tell me that their parents were fighting and that one of them left the house, I often tell them that sometimes, parents take a “time out” from each other. That doesn’t always mean divorce.
I felt it was a level they could relate to that would also bring them hope.
One fourth-grade girl said, “My parents’ time out has been forever and I’m really worried.”
One third-grade girl wrote me a note asking to see me because “my parents are in a divorce and I can’t stand it without my dad.”
3. Allow your children to feel their sadness.
One third-grade girl said, “I need to see you because my mom and dad are getting a divorce and I am so sad, so very sad.”
It’s very common for children not to express their own sadness of the divorce with their parents because they don’t want to make your sadness any harder for you. It’s also common for them to feel protective of their parents.
One helpful thing to say to your child would be to let them know that it’s sad for all of you, and it’s OK for them to share their feelings, too. Reassure them it won’t make you feel worse or sadder.
4. Don’t keep the situation a secret from your children.
One fifth-grade girl told me, “My parents were going to get a divorce but then they didn’t — but I still can’t get it out of my mind.”
Children can process more than some parents think they can. It’s better for the child to have more of an understanding of the situation. This way, they will feel less confused about the truth.
Parents should be talking with their children about the family situation in order to avoid more confusion than necessary. Your kids know that something is happening.
A fourth-grade girl wrote me a note saying, “I want to talk about my parents getting a divorce because they don’t understand each other.”
By speaking and explaining more to your child, at their level of understanding, it will be truly better for them.
Children often have a profound understanding of what is going on in the family. I’m often amazed at their deep understanding.
5. Ensure that your children feel safe.
A fourth-grade boy told me, “My stepdad left my mom, me, and my brother. My mom is so sad, and we’re about to lose the house.”
This is a heavily weighted thing for a parent to worry about, let alone an eight-year-old child.
To help your child feel safer, it’s much better to try to help the child understand that no matter what happens, you will all be OK and safe. It will just be different.
6. Clarify certain actions with your children.
One fourth-grade girl told me, “My dad is separated from my mom and he gave my mom an insult.”
This might mean verbal or physical abuse, but it’s best to ask children to explain what they meant by “insult” or other similar wording.
Some children regard “insult” as hitting or pushing the other parent. Some regard it as speaking disrespectfully to the other parent. It’s best to ask them directly what they mean.
Miscommunication is one of the major problems in marriage and relationships, so more clarity is needed from the child to find out what certain words mean to them.
7. Do not alienate your children from the other parent.
Unless a parent is abusive, negligent, or otherwise unsafe and unfit, do not alienate your kids from the other parent.
A third-grade boy told me, “My dad does not let me see my mom very often. She just came out of the hospital and I always miss my mom.”
This is not punishing the mother but the child. If you want to do what’s best for a child, you must find a healthy balance between your ego and a child’s best interest.
If parents really want a healthy separation or divorce, it’s possible. However, the child’s needs must be met by a show of respect and consistency from both parents — a united front.
8. Never put your kids in the middle.
A fifth-grade girl told me, “My problem is how my family is breaking apart.”
A fourth-grade boy talked about how, “My mom and dad don’t like passing things person to person, they make me pass things on to them just because they don’t want to see each other.”
Children hate to be put in the middle. It’s a very unfair practice and certainly not in the best interest of the child.
They especially find it difficult to deal with parents asking them to go to court to say who they want to live with.
A fourth-grade girl told me, “My parents are making me go to court because they want me to say who I want to be with more.” I have heard this from many children and they all find it extremely distressing and hurtful.
Protect your children’s emotional well-being through your divorce.
These steps and guidelines are meant to increase your chances that with the family all working together, there will be a better outcome for a very difficult time and situation, especially for your children.
If done with the child’s best interests at heart, then separation or divorce can absolutely be managed successfully.
Mindi Lampert is a licensed mental health counselor and has counseled more than 10,000 children over the years. Her book, Elementary Thoughts, is written especially for parents as a tool of parental enlightenment and awareness into a child’s thoughts, insights, pressures, and fear. For more information, visit her website at mindilampert.com.