By Ronit Horowitz Ph D, L.M.F.T
Our children are the most sacred part of our lives.
From the moment they are born, our lifelong mission becomes to protect them, guide them, and fill their lives with infinite joy. During a divorce, however, their joy is—at times—shattered …and their world is completely changed. Our mission, as the parents—and the adults—is to make sure we protect them even more than before.
During a divorce, the world a child trusted and believed to be true is changed. As the parents, it is our responsibility to hold our children’s hand to reassure and remind them of our unconditional love towards them. It is essential to let them know—and make sure they understand—the divorce is not their fault. For our children, so many aspects of their lives become unfamiliar and unknown. Therefore, during our divorce, our children must remain our priority: Our mission is to never let their spirit break.
Even though it might seem like an unrealistic task to shield our children from the pain of divorce, we can absolutely do our part in shielding their hearts from additional and unnecessary hurt.
DIVORCE THROUGH THE EYES OF THE CHILD:
Children might have witnessed or overheard adult conversations and, many times, they fill in the blanks with their own conclusions of what will happen when the separation occurs or is finalized. To decrease anxiety in our children and increase their confidence that—with time—everyone is going to be fine, the following recommendations are listed to help our little ones, the not-so-little ones, and ourselves live through and survive a divorce:
- GIVE KIDS SOME CONTROL OF THEIR ENVIRONMENT: Children are asked to understand and accept the changes happening in their world after a separation; perhaps attending a new school, spending the night with only one parent, moving into a new home…numerous changes occurring without their control. Children SHOULD be asked their opinion or advice, if possible; anything that would make them feel their voice is being heard and respected. Kids could perhaps decide the color of their new room, they could assist a parent in making simple decisions about the move, or even decide what specific toy they want to have in both homes.
- DECREASE FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN: Be as open as possible—respecting age appropriate language parameters—so children will not create erroneous images in their mind of what life will look like. If you are not completely sure of what the new living arrangements will be, include as many details as possible for the child to at least be able to visualize parts of what the future will include regarding changes during the divorce.
- INCREASE OPPORTUNITIES TO MAKE THE CHILD THE EXPERT: A child might feel lost during this process, at times even voiceless. Encourage your child to help you in whichever way you know he or she can. If, for example, a child enjoyed helping with the cooking, the parent living in a new location could ask the child to please assist him or her with dinner: “I’m not so good at this. I would love if you could help me with this recipe; I have seen you cook like a professional chef.”
- REASSURANCE THAT PARENTS WILL BE “OKAY”: Even if we do not feel strong at all times, our children need to believe and know that we will be okay (It is our responsibility as adults and parents to seek the necessary help for us to feel better; it is never okay for our children to incessantly worry about our well-being or listen to us discussing our worries and grief). When our children believe that we can be sad AND still okay, they will decrease worrying for us.
*Children’s loyalty to the love for their parents is heartbreakingly tested during a divorce. A child who was willing to go, for example, to “Daddy’s new house” might now refuse to go sleepover. This child might have seen Mom cry and, in this child’s mind, he or she might think Mom will be extra sad at home by herself. Some children, during sessions, have expressed how they sometimes worry for the parent who stays in the house alone when it’s the other parent’s turn for the child to sleep over. We must FORCE ourselves to be extra mindful of our words and avoid putting the child in the protector’s role.
*Another example of loyalty during a divorce revolves around the sibling relationship: When siblings are experiencing the numerous changes during a divorce, it is not unusual for the oldest child to assume the parental position and become overprotective of the younger siblings’ discomfort in these new situations. It is our responsibility to reinforce how extremely proud and grateful we are for their help with their sibling(s) and let the child know that Mom and Dad are there to help, too.
- CREATE NEW RITUALS: During a separation, numerous family rituals might be lost. Help your child create new joyful moments and experiences in both home locations. Observe your child, see when he or she seems content; recreate those moments and point them out.
- MAKE A LIST OF WHAT WILL STAY THE SAME: In a world where a child might feel he or she has lost so much, focus on what the child will forever have: the CRAZY IMMENSE LOVE AND UNCONDITIONAL SUPPORT from BOTH PARENTS and hopefully some activities that the child enjoyed with each parent before the divorce.
- PARENTS SHOULD WORK AS A TEAM: Even though this might be a time when parents are not communicating as efficiently or as often, it is crucial to provide the child with the SAME story. Create a narrative that your child can understand. When there are no holes or discrepancies in the parents’ story, the child feels more comfortable trusting it. This will also give the child the confidence to retell a story—either to friends or at school if child encounters such situation—that he or she understands.
- AVOID INTRODUCTION OF A NEW PARTNER: The child might still be grieving the loss of what his or her family and home looked like. There might now be two homes, one less person in the child’s first home, the child might see one parent much less than before, or child might even need to start attending a new school in a new community. It is incredibly painful, and somewhat irrational, selfish, or impulsive for a parent to add the introduction of a new relationship to the equation when the child is still processing all the changes occurring in his or her life.
A GLIMPSE INTO MY THERAPY SESSIONS WITH CHILDREN
Children learn through stories. We must connect with them in ways that they understand and feel comfortable with. During sessions, children appreciate hearing about other kids their age going through a similar situation; this validates and normalizes their sadness, anger, and/or fears. A child closely listens to what has worked for other kids, as well as what they detest or appreciate the most. If a child is sad, acting out, or quiet, he or she is learning to adjust to a life not yet familiar. And, since we are unable to give them what they perhaps would love the most—their parents to get back together—we can, without a doubt, create an environment where the child’s feelings are acknowledged and respected.
I encourage children to express what they wish their parents knew about how they are feeling during the parents’ divorce. At times, children ask for me to share with the parents how difficult it is for them to hear and witness how parents express themselves about each other. In almost every case, the sessions will include meeting specifically with the parents (either together or individually) and the conversation will revolve around understanding the children’s emotions and behavior. Many times, we forget children’s comprehension and coping skills are different than ours and, therefore, they should not be expected to understand conversations or topics that should be solely kept between the adults. Although there might not be an absolute way to shield our children’s hearts during a divorce, through reassurance, support, age appropriate conversations, and patience, each child will slowly learn to successfully adjust to their new world. This, as the parents and the adults, is our mission.