When things go awry and it turns out that our happily ever after didn’t last until forever, it’s hard not to get sucked into the drama. Far too often, parents become so wrapped up in their own misadventures that they forget about the younger members of the family and how this separation may be affecting their children or, even worse, use them as helpless pawns, to attack their former mate. Being a child is difficult enough; how do we prevent them in sharing in the pain that we feel?
The answer is that we do not. We simply cannot shield a child from what is going on around them. The best that we can hope to do, as parents, is to attempt to help them adjust to the changes, accept what has happened, and to understand that it is not their fault, nor is there anything that they could have done. Sometimes, adults cannot make things work out together. People don’t always get along and sometimes it helps when they don’t see each other as often.
Children realize a lot more than we often give them credit for. Without trying, they are usually privy to whatever arguments and fights that are going on through the house. Sometimes, we forget they are even there and talk over top of them or take it to a nearby room. It doesn’t matter where you do it, however, chances are that your child is up to date on all the juicy details. Children are naturally curious and will do their best to learn what is going on, regardless of the topic.
Even young children feel the changes that are going on around them. Despite what we, as adults, might think, children are acutely aware of the changes between their parents and how they react to one another. Separation can be very traumatizing on a child, especially those who internalize their pain or who wrongly believe that their parents have separated because of something ‘wrong’ that the child, themselves, did.
Children are very honest about what they see and experience. Able to describe how they perceive what is going on around them, most children will wish that their parents were still together but, as time passes, will adapt to separation and accept it as the right decision. Children are capable of realizing that everyone is better off in a happier and healthier, tension-free environment. Having a long heart to heart with your child will often do wonders. Attempt to diffuse any feelings of self-worthlessness or guilt that your child might have; ensure that they understand this had nothing to do with them, that they aren’t to blame.
Regardless of what you say to your child, the questions are always there, whether they are spoken aloud or not. Why doesn’t mommy want to be here with us? Why does daddy have to go away? Is this my fault? If I do better, will they fix it? Does mommy and daddy hate each other? Do they hate me? It is your job to alleviate those fears; to talk to your child, be patient and let them ask all the questions that they wish. Realize that it is normal and common for almost all children to feel responsible for their parent’s splitting up. It is important to explain that the separation is between both parents and, not only is the child not responsible for the separation, but also that they are not going to be able to make the two parents reconcile their differences either.
If it has come to separation, no matter what the age of your child, it is important that you tell them what is going on. If one parent has fulfilled the main parenting role, naturally it makes more sense for that parent to be the one to break the news and lessen the children’s trauma. Equally important is that no blame to be assigned to either parent. You do not want to force your child choose sides and it’s not healthy for them to feel that they have a good parent and a bad parent.
Do not tell your children that you are divorcing unless you and your spouse have discussed this, in length, and both are absolutely certain that the decision is final. When you tell your child of the separation, ensure that you can do it over a long period of time; don’t expect to fit “the talk” in between commercial breaks on your latest soap. Your child needs you; make sure that you tell them when you can spend a lot of quality time with them, and help alleviate their fears. Don’t be afraid to be open and honest; try and give your child an idea of what they will expect in the future. Will they have to change schools? What will their living arrangements be like? When will they see mommy or daddy again?
Always be sure to open lines of communication with your child and to ensure that they remain open. It’s important to ask your child if they have any questions, throughout discussions of separation but, even more important, realize that this is overwhelming information and, while they may not be able to formulate questions at this moment, they are sure to have some later. Make sure that they know they can come to you, at any time, and discuss what has happened, and what is to be expected in the near future.
Children react in different ways to separation and divorce. Some will become extremely sad, showing signs of depression while others show anger. Some children experience sleeplessness or periods of anxiety, suffering fears of abandonment or rejection. Separation often causes feelings of loneliness and low self-worth. No matter what the situation, your child will be affecting in some way by a separation. This can be psychologically scarring to a child or they can be taught to overcome this; much depending on how well the parents are able to handle the situation.
Financial troubles, relocation, and the introduction of step-families are all things that a parent can have little say over, and all can all take their toll on a child. By taking the time to sit down and talk to your child, to explain to them what is going on, you can take positive steps to overcoming the changes that you can have a say in.