Parents going through a divorce have many emotional, financial and legal matters to attend to. Depending on the situation, the decision to divorce can come as a great relief or as the beginning of a time of great stress. Regardless of parents’ attitudes toward the divorce, children are likely to experience a range of conflicting and confusing emotions.
How can parents act as guides for their children through this very uneven emotional terrain?
Says one dad, “I still get sick to my stomach thinking about the day that we told our son about our divorce. As much as having him was the greatest day of my life, I felt that this day was the worst. We used a book called Mama and Daddy Bear’s Divorce and read it to him. As helpful as this was it still was very upsetting for all of us.”
For parents navigating this rough terrain, Lisane Basquiat of Transition Haven, a wellness organization in Maplewood, encourages putting yourself into the mindset of the child, “Envision that something big is going on around you and you have no control over the outcome or what it will mean for your future. You see the writing on the wall and know that something is awry but you’re not completely clear on what the outcome will be or what it will mean for your future. You have questions, feel uncertain, and are solely reliant upon the people that you trust immensely to provide you with answers … This is what divorce feels like to your child.”
Ellen Gamza, LCSW who works with adolescents at Montclair’s Partners in Counseling, advises parents to, “Reassure kids that even if you are divorcing, nothing is ever going to stop you or your ex from loving them and being their parent. That is a role you will never end.” A large part of helping kids through the transition of divorce is in maintaining routine or building new routines. Kids need structures that will help them feel secure and safe. Says Dr. Nan Josephson, Ph.D., President and CEO of Family Service League in Montclair, “Use consistent discipline from one parent to another – from one home to another.” Gamza and Josephson acknowledge that parents often run into trouble when they put their children in the middle of their communication. Parents should avoid spoiling the visitation experience when the child is with each individual parent.
Parents also need to remember that children are digesting news of the divorce and understanding of the new reality at a pace often very different from that of the parents. Josephson stresses, “No matter how long it takes, children need to understand why there is a divorce and what this means to them. It is best to do this with ALL family members present at the same time.” Parents may assume that children have “gotten it” only to see delayed emotional reactions to the divorce months or even years later. Opening up dialogue and revisiting conversations with the whole family can ensure that kids at least have multiple opportunities to ask questions and express their feelings over time.
Gamza adds that parents should do their best to allow kids to air their feelings, “even if it’s difficult for you to hear.” Kids may fall into the trap of altering their feelings, cued by parents’ own discomfort with what they are saying. This can become a pattern that kids take with them into adulthood.
If parents decide to seek counseling for their children, there is a range of ways to approach it. Family Service League believes in providing complete family therapy. Says Josephson, “Family Therapy can help children discuss their thoughts and feelings, normalize divorce as an occurrence that is experienced by other children, and help children develop appropriate understandings of their position in the process.”
Josephson offers tips on how parents can talk to their children in a way that acknowledges children’s’ needs. A child needs to know:
- That BOTH parents will be involved in the child’s life.
- That parents will stop fighting and try to get along with each other.
- That parents understand that the child loves BOTH parents and wants a relationship with both.
- That the parents understand that sending messages to the other parent through the child is not acceptable.
- That both parents will NOT complain about the other to the child.
Says the dad from above, “My ex and I have been able to put our personal differences aside for the benefit of our son and this has helped tremendously. Although we aren’t friends, we are friendly with one another and we have become excellent co-parents.”
Research often focuses on the way divorce can put children at risk for academic problems and problems with self-esteem or behavior. But in fact, Josephson points out that the effects are not all negative. “Research has consistently shown that children from divorced families exhibit less stereotyped sex behavior, greater maturity, and greater independence.” As with any obstacle in life, parents acting as partners in guiding their children forward will help children best.
Baristaville and surrounding towns offer a variety of support groups and resources for families going through a divorce. Some groups are focused on supporting the children, others are focused on support for adults.
- New Jersey chapter of Rainbows: is an international, not-for-profit organization that fosters emotional healing among children grieving a loss from a life-altering crisis.
- Woman’s Divorce: Helping Women Survive Divorce and Rebuild their Lives
- Montclair Divorce Support group (on Meetup.com) From their site: “We meet twice a month in order to provide each other with support, encouragement, and friendship during this incredibly difficult transition in our lives. We also help and encourage each other to move forward and re-create ourselves.”
Cynthia Darling is a freelance writer whose work appears in “Teaching Music” magazine. She is also a frequent contributor at Barista Kids .