A version of this article appeared in a 1996 issue of the Ithaca Child.
Divorce? First, I might try to talk you out of it. Counseling really can help. And if you don't work out the problems in this relationship, they just might turn up in the next one. But if it's a done deal, and if you have kids, there are two things you should know: 1) divorce can be hazardous to your child(ren); and 2) it doesn't have to be. It's important to understand what kids go through, so you can keep it from being worse than it has to be.
Kids generally don't like divorce. For one thing, the basics of life change in ways that can feel confusing and out of control. After all, the kids aren't deciding to divorce, it just happens to them. One way kids handle this is by feeling guilty, as if the whole thing was their own fault. It might not make sense, but many kids actually believe that if they had behaved better, their parents would not have been so angry, wouldn't have fought, etc. When a child feels at fault, at least she can feel that she has some control, can affect things. Blaming herself also allows the child to avoid blaming the parents, so she can keep on caring for both of them with minimal conflict.
In the long run, though, self-blame is a very destructive habit. It can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and chronic misbehavior. Parents can help their children to limit the self-blame by putting the responsibility where it actually belongs: with the parents. It's important for both parents to tell the children, again and again, that the parents could not get along for grown-up reasons, nothing to do with the children. This message can be reinforced, oddly enough, by keeping your discipline consistent. How is this connected? Because then your child sees that he can't push you around or control you - that the adults really are in charge of things. This also helps kids to feel more secure, and less likely to cling to irrational guilt.
Why should I lose a parent?
Kids also have a hard time adjusting to the logistics of parental separation. Home used to be where the heart was, and where the house was - all in one place. Now where's home? It's bad enough that you don't know where your bedroom is. But what if Mom and Dad are mad at each other? Who do I love now? Will I hurt one parent's feelings if I love the other one too?
Children can feel torn apart when their parents don't help them with these questions. Unfortunately, some parents do things that make it much worse. It is all too typical for a parent to bad-mouth the ex in front of the children, forgetting that children love and identify with both parents, not just you. Even in the schoolyard, children will not tolerate any insult about their family. How much more it hurts when the insult about one parent comes from the other!
Some parents actually use their children as pawns or weapons in a battle with their ex. For example, one parent might retaliate against the other by cancelling a visit with the child, or by missing child support payments. Parents sometimes ask their children to spy for them, asking about the other parent's new job or romance. And parents may pressure their children to choose one over the other, by saying bad things about the other parent, or by showing excessive need for the child's favoritism.
These tactics might give the "winning" parent fleeting satisfaction, but the child is badly hurt. Whenever you "win" your child from the other parent, the child has lost. Your children need both parents, not just one. Just because you and your ex decided to divorce, you are still parents together. If you need to fight, keep your children out of it. They still need you to cooperate, so that they can continue to feel loved and secure. Children have enough loss and confusion without you making it worse.
Because divorce is such a stressful time for the adults involved, children's needs are often left unnoticed. And the more angry and upset the adults, the higher the risk of children getting hurt in the fray. So it's important to take care of yourself. Try to get enough exercise and good food - this is a cliche because it really is important. And make sure you have other adults to talk to, so you are not tempted to start confiding too much in your children. Other kids can be their friends - they need you to be their parent.
Since divorce is so common, we do know a lot about how to help children and keep them from getting needlessly hurt. Some families seek counseling to help them get through this difficult period. And in several parts of the country, courts actually require divorcing parents to attend workshops to learn how to protect their children. Probably within a few years, these mandated workshops will be much more widespread. Meanwhile, here are the most important guidelines to follow if you are a divorcing parent:
- Tell your children that they did not cause the divorce - that it was between the grown-ups.
- Keep the same rules and expectations as far as possible, to help your children feel secure.
- Take care of yourself. Stay healthy, talk out your problems with other adults.
- Actively support your child's relationship with your ex.
- Don't fight or argue with your ex in front of your kids - it's scary and upsetting.
- Don't blame or badmouth your ex in front of your kids - it makes them choose sides.
- Don't use your child as a weapon, spy or messenger - take care of your own business.
- Don't sabotage or viciously attack your ex - you will be hurting your child's parent.
Of course, you will have to fit these rules to your own situation. For example, if your ex is dangerous to your child and they cannot have contact, you can still support their relationship, simply by acknowledging that your child might still feel affection for that parent. For another example, if you and your ex cannot have contact without explosive arguments, then only communicate in private, or through your lawyers, so that your children do not have to see the fireworks.
Of course, divorce doesn't have to be a tragedy for children. Some children are relieved because their home setting is less stressful. When parents can help children to understand that the kids were not at fault, and that the parents are still the same to their children (if not to each other), then most children will adjust pretty well over time. Children can even learn to enjoy the benefits of the new arrangements - perhaps eventually including new family members.
Like it or not, a divorce only ends the romance and cohabitation. You are still parents together. And the better you are able to cooperate as parents, the less your children stand to lose.