No, a divorce will not screw up your kids. Neither will a death of a loved one or a move to another state or flunking first grade. Clearly they are all significant life events.
None of these things, in themselves, have any power at all to either help or hurt your children. Their thoughts and beliefs determine how they will respond to a trauma or a significant life change. It depends largely on how you communicate information. How you respond or react have a huge impact on your children, not necessarily the event itself. Children learn more from what they observe in you than you will ever know.
Having said that, let’s take a moment to look at what healthy attitudes and communication look like.
Yes, you are quite possible reeling, shocked, devastated, hurt, angry. OR maybe you have a sense of a new lease on life, freedom, relief, exhilaration. Neither of these ranges of emotions should impact how you communicate the news of a divorce to your children. Your focus, above all else should be…the children. Believe it or not, this is not really about you. It’s about them.
You can quite safely assume that your kid is puzzled, confused, angry at one of you or both of you. He/she is scared, feeling unstable, sad, worried and probably wondering what’s wrong with him/her? Your child is quite possibly wondering what he did to cause the divorce or why she wasn’t strong enough to prevent it. Even if you child states that he is glad you are not fighting anymore and even feels a bit of relief at that, chances are the afore-mentioned feelings are swirling around in there big time!
The first order of business is to put your own feelings, however justified they might be, on the shelf for the moment and focus on communicating to your child that he/she is loved.
That hasn’t changed and will never change. He must be reassured that it was not his fault and nothing she did or didn’t do could have changed the outcome. This was a decision made by mom and dad, about mom and dad. They should know that you are sorry that they are hurting and you are very sorry that you could not have figured things out without hurting them. But they are safe and will be taken care of, that will not change.
Here Are Some Important Pointers:
Do not use your child to transport money back and forth between you. Do not complain that you have no money now that your spouse has decided to “tear apart the family.” Always assure them that you will figure it out and they will always have what they need.
Never talk badly or disrespectfully about your former spouse. They are still your child’s parent and your child wants to love them and believe in them and have a stress free relationship with them. Under no circumstances expect or try to make your child choose sides. Do not use your kids to communicate for you. You and your former spouse must be able to communicate in a kind way over the welfare of the children. If necessary, get help with this from a therapist or mediator.
Keep your end of the bargain about time spent with the other parent. Be flexible and be fair. Remember it’s not about you; it’s about your kids.
4. Significant Others
In time, if not already, there will likely be other love interests in your ex’s life. They are not your competition. There is more than enough love to go around. They will not and cannot replace you, so do not fret about that and do not try to over-compensate. It is not a contest.
Chances are there may be something that your ex does that you don’t approve of. They might even not keep up their end of the bargain to help with homework or not allow a certain activity that you disapprove of; they might feed your kid an unhealthy diet or let them drink soda before bedtime. They might not take them to church or they might be late for school. They might not read to them before bed or let them watch scary movies. Unless the child is truly in danger or at risk, you are going to have to let it slide. Your spouse is free to run his/her household as he/she wishes. All you can do is assure your child of your love, your consistency, your values. All you can do is the best you can do. And that should be enough.
Probably the most important thing you can do is listen to your children. Listen to their feelings and thoughts. Do not shut them down because you are uncomfortable. This is not to say that you should accept disrespect or abuse. Teach them to express strong feelings in a kind and respectful way. Do not feel like you need to agree. Maybe they feel like you do; maybe they don’t. That’s not only OK, but it’s normal.
They need to be able to express their feelings and thoughts in a healthy way. They should know that you are not afraid or ashamed of their tears or anger or confusion. They should feel safe communicating to you, knowing that you will reflect back what you hear without judgment, and that you’ll assure them of your love and their safety.
You can suggest healthy outlets for their strong emotions: running outside, playing with friends, reading, drawing, dancing, jumping on a re-bounder, writing stories, talking with you, or if necessary talking with a therapist. If your child is expressing thoughts of depression, self harm or doing dangerous things, get in touch with a therapist immediately.
Take the high road. Be the grown up. Love your child. Remember, you don’t have to approve of your ex in order to forgive him/her. Forgiveness releases you of thoughts of revenge and anger and hatred and helps you use all your energy focusing on loving your kids with all that you’ve got. And that’s not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.