Every year there are a significant number of divorces between couples. For example, there are over 20,000 petitions for divorce a year in Hong Kong, over 90,000 in the UK, and over 780,000 in the USA. For those cases involving children produced within the marriage or a long term relationship, parents are usually concerned about the impact a divorce or splitting up may have on their child. As a counsellor helping individuals responding to divorce, I would like to highlight the following guidelines regarding how to best inform children and how to minimize the impact of your divorce on the mental well-being of your child.
How to tell your children about your decision to divorce.
- Tell the child together as a couple rather than separately, if possible. Children often fear that divorce may mean that they will lose a parent. Telling the child together reinforces your intention that both parents remain dedicated to the child.
- Consider telling your child at home rather than outside of the home. Inside their own home children can respond in an authentic and real manner.
- If possible, tell the child in a neutral area of your home such as the lounge or kitchen. Do not tell the child in their bedroom. That room needs to remain an impartial safe zone where they are entitled to retreat.
- Tell your child at a time when the household is quite calm, not just before bed, or after a long day out or when they must yet complete their homework.
- Try to be as calm as you can – explain that the marriage is over, but the family is not. You both remain parents to your child.
- Remind you child that you love them.
- Make sure you reinforce that the divorce is not their fault. Do not assume they will know this automatically.
- Children will undoubtedly have many questions. Answer these as fully as you can. It may be better for you and your partner to discuss, and agree, interim living arrangements, before telling your children.
- If you cannot answer every question when it is asked, communicate that you will intend to answer that question as soon as you can. Some ambiguity is to be expected. At the time that you are informing children of a potential split, your obligation is to help them see that the future will still be positive.
- Do not allow emotionally hurtful descriptions to be presented by one partner. For example “Daddy is leaving us”, can heighten the pain of abandonment. If your partner paints the scenario in this way, simply correct without judgement. For example, “Mummy is a bit confused. We are splitting up and I am going to live somewhere else, but I’m still your Dad and I am not leaving you”
- Offer access to counsellors or support networks to allow your child to express their feelings to other people. Whilst they may have many questions for you, they may not initially feel comfortable asking YOU those questions at the beginning.
Building positive practices whilst the divorce is in progress.
It is not a matter of if your divorce will impact your child, the question is how much it will impact your child. Here are my recommendations as to what you can DO, and DO NOT DO, to best support your child.
- Do understand divorce from the perspective of your child. From their perspective this is a big change so that there may be feelings of grief and fear, and anger, involved. These feelings come in waves rather than all at once. You may have offered counselling at the time when you announced a split. Offer counselling or support options repeatedly over the next year or two.
- Don’t fight in front of your kids. The divorce should be the END of their experience of parents fighting in front of them.
- Collaboratively co-parent – working and agreeing together how to respect, negotiate, organise and stay well boundaried when you split, it a superior model of parenting during a divorce. You may need to utilise a mediator or counsellor to help exercise your arrangements.
- Build an honesty-based, collaborative relationship that resolves conflict, including managing emotions, showing mutual respect, and entering healthy negotiations
- Be the best version of a parent that you can be for your child. Your divorce need to both rise to meet the needs of your child. You might consider reading a few books about parenting during divorce or attend a parenting effectiveness course.
- Remember that a clear structure is important to children. They need to know when they are going to see each parent, and what their weekly schedule might look like. If one of the parents refuses to be transparent about the time that they will turn up for your child, allocate them sometimes and move on. Tell the child of the times that have been offered. If one parent does not turn up, it will hurt. Be mindful of this.
- Avoid alienating your child from their other parent. There may be deep hurt between the two of you, but your child should not be cut off from their parent because of your reaction to this pain. Limiting their access to a parent that they want to see may backfire on you in the long run as children sometimes grow to resent this parent during teen and later years. Do not set yourself up.
- Believe in your child. You may fear losing your child’s love. Perhaps your ex-spouse has gone into “super-parenting” practice. You kids might love this. After all who wouldn’t? Let them get all the love they can get. Kids know who looks after them in a crisis.
- If one parent wants to play Santa-Dad or Santa-Mum let it happen. Most of this behaviour can not be sustained so utilise these moments. If one parent is being very generous, remind your child to ask for that new computer for school, or to ask them to volunteer to run the school bake stall this year. It will not last, so enjoy it.
- Hold the line on positive healthy practices when the child is with you. Agree on a limit for the ipad, bedtime, and guidelines around junk food. That said,
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. The occasional muffin is not going to kill the child. Have some perspective on when rules could be bent. If rules become habitually bent, then they are no longer rules.
- Keep your ex in check. If your child is constantly late picking up or returning the child keep a record and take this up with them, either one to one, or with a mediator. This data may help you negotiate subsequent childcare arrangements.
- Don’t be fooled by labels. Too many times I have encountered parents who are labelled ‘bad parents’ by their ex, when they are clearly not bad parents. Remember judges have seen these cases countless times, they will ask for proof. Your ex’s opinion of you as a parent is not a fact, or proof. Additionally if your ex tells you that experts say “x,y,z” look this up. I have read some painfully misinformed claims – often cited to frighten, or even bully one partner, Get the facts.
- Do not use your child as a messenger between yourself and your ex. They are not part of your interpersonal conflicts.
- Do not ask your child to spy on their parent for you. This is extremely destructive.
- Avoid badmouthing the other parent to your child. Do now harm your child by trying to paint your hurt image of your spouse over their image of their parent. Children often feel that they have to choose sides. Do not encourage this. Over time, applying this pressure, often backfires on the person trying to force the child to choose. .
- Do not guilt or blame your child for the divorce as a means to manage their behavior. If you could have just gone to bed on time, I would have been less stressed and Dad probably wouldn’t have left us.”
Remember, be kind to yourself, and your kids when you are going through divorce. The process of divorce will undoubtedly reshape you, so make this as positive as possible.