Alice’s parents sat her down to tell her that they were going to get a divorce. She expected it long before they spoke. Recently their fighting escalating into no communication at all and the tension in the house was unbearable. Even though she was only a pre-teen, Alice was already worried about what the divorce would look like. Her best friend’s parents divorced the year earlier and they were regularly using their children to communicate simple exchanges.
Allen was an adult by the time his parents decided to divorce. But he still had some of the same worries as Alice. Not wanting to take sides between his parents, Allen was confused by his parents continual confiding in him details that he would rather not know. His parents thought that because he was older, he did not need to hear the same things a child needed. But they were wrong.
Regardless of the age, a child of divorced parents needs to hear these seven things. More importantly, they need to see the statements reinforced by their parent’s behavior. Divorce is hard for a child and sadly many parents make it even harder by doing the opposite of these statements.
- “It’s not your fault.” This statement cannot be said enough to a child. Most kids blame themselves for the divorce. Kids are naturally self-centered so they see all events, especially traumatic ones, as being all about them. Thus, they take on excessive responsibility and make the divorce about how terrible they were. This is why many kids are well-behaved during and immediately after the divorce process. Saying this to the child heals their insecurity and minimizes their feelings of guilt.
- “Both of us still love you.” It is important that a child hears from both parents on a regular basis that their parents still love them. This also means regular and consistent communication (at least one time per day but not more than three times) between the child and parent who is not physically with the child. However, if the divorce means one parent has physically abandoned the marriage and their child, giving the child false hope of a parent returning someday is hurtful. Rather, statements like, “My love for you is so much that it could fill 10 people,” is helpful.
- “You will not be placed in the middle.” It is so sad the number of times a parent selfishly places a child in the middle of their anger over the divorce. This is far more traumatic to a child then the divorce itself. Using a child manipulatively to get back at the other parent is disgusting. The only good part is that when the child becomes an adult, this backfires on the manipulative parent as the child often turns the manipulation back on that parent. The better decision is for both parents to agree not to place the child in the middle of their divorce, anger, grief, sadness, and/or shame.
- “The marriage was not a mistake.” Too often parents try to give a simple explanation for the divorce by saying the marriage was a mistake. They do this to blame the marriage rather than blaming themselves or the other parent. However, if the child is a product of that marriage/relationship, then what they hear is that they are a mistake. Once spoken, these words never leave a child and often generate self-confidence issues throughout adulthood. Instead, parents should take individual responsibility by saying, “I made some mistakes in the marriage.” They should not blame the other parent solely for the breakup of the marriage.
- “We commit to you not to tear the other parent apart.” A child who is the product of a divorce situation is still one half each of their parents. This is even more so when the parent is a biological parent. Tearing the other parent apart in front of the child sets the child up for believing that they will be just like that parent thereby increasing the number of insecurities. By committing to the child that there will be no disparaging remarks, their insecurities will be minimized.
- “You are a priority.” Now that the marriage is over, the child should become the priority. Even when a parent remarries, the child needs to be reassured that they will not be abandoned but instead will remain a primary focus in the life of their parent. Whatever the timesharing agreement, when the child is with the parent, the parent should prioritize the child. However, if a parent fails to do this, regularly pointing this out to the child is cruel. Children are not stupid, they will draw their conclusions and their relationship with the neglectful parent will naturally suffer.
- “We will answer your questions.” Parents incorrectly believe that the child wants to know why the marriage ended. Most kids are observant and already know why. Their parents fight, one parent is never around, they are not kind to each other, or they never talk. It is better for the child to initiate any questions about the cause of the divorce rather than a parent offering the information. However, parents should be careful to answer only the question that the child asked in the purest form possible without any elaboration and with complete honesty. This is a lousy time to lie to a kid as they will eventually discover the truth no matter how well it is hidden.
Fortunately for Alice, her parents said and did all of the seven statements. As a result, she was able to move past the divorce and onto her age appropriate stage of discovering who she was. By contrast, Allen’s parents did just the opposite. This caused him to go into a deep depression which eventually led to hospitalization.