As you go about the process of talking with your kids about divorce, here are some general guidelines to ensure these discussions go smoothly and provide children with the comfort they need:
Discussing divorce with children
Talking with children about divorce is not a one-discussion topic. It’s an ongoing process. As Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. 111) point out, “any explanation of divorce needs to be told and retold in accord with the child’s unfolding capacity to understand as she grows up. There is no quick way to accomplish this.”
When children first heard the news, their head was likely spinning at a thousand miles a minute. Some may have been frozen into silence. It may take several hours, several days or even several weeks before they can express themselves effectively. Once this happens, they may ask the same questions several times in their quest to integrate this information. Just as new facts don’t always take the first time, kids may need several discussions before they can effectively grasp the ideas and explanations you give them. As the divorce process unfolds, children may have new worries or questions arise. As they grow up and develop, this increased intellect may cause ideas to be jostled and lead to new questions that need to be addressed. Understand that you will be talking about this throughout the rest of their childhood (and probably adulthood as well). Parents need to be patient, understanding, and accommodating throughout it all; and just as responsive the 20th time kids want to talk as they are the first.
Allow children their emotions, and empathize with what they are going through
You should explicitly tell children that it’s okay to feel sad, angry, upset, betrayed, or anything else they might feel. That it’s normal to miss the other parent, or to want both parents to stay together. Let them know that divorce is upsetting to everyone involved, and that you are feeling many of the same things yourself. When a child expresses anger, you need to do your best to react in an understanding way without getting angry yourself. Never be dismissive of a child’s emotions or concerns, no matter how irrational and/or hurtful they may seem to you.
The first step in offering comfort is to acknowledge what they feel and sympathize with their emotions. Only after that can your words or reassurances help. The worst thing you could do – the thing that will shut down communication the quickest and ensure that these wounds go unaddressed and uncomforted – is to get upset about what they honestly feel or to be dismissive of their emotions.
When a child says something upsetting, respond by saying that you understand how disturbing this process can be. But stress that making each other feel worse about it all doesn’t help anyone, and that while you want to know what they honestly feel, they need to find a way to express themselves without attacking others.
Understand that kids may hold back, too
Keep in mind that as much as you’re worried about them, kids will also be worried about you, too, and this may affect what they express. It’s quite common for kids to try and protect their parents from information that might be upsetting. They may lie about what they feel if they think it will comfort you. They may suppress their true feelings and instead tell you precisely what they think you want to hear. They may see how upset you are already, and thus refrain from expressing things that might pile on the negative emotions and cause you further distress.
Those kids who are highly sensitive (about one in every 5) are most likely to do this. Unfortunately, they are also the kids most likely to be seriously injured by divorce. So it’s important for parents to look for signs that their child may be holding back on their behalf.
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