Helping the Kids with Divorce
Parents who are unhappy together and unable to make things better have a difficult choice to make, To divorce or not to divorce? It is rough on the children either way.
- What is Best for the Kids?
- Making and After the Decision
- Where Do I Go For Help With This?
- Another Ten Commandments
- Does My Child Need To See A Therapist?
What is Best for the Kids?
Is it best for the children for unhappy parents to remain together or to break up?
Let me begin this summary piece on one of the more important things that can happen in the life of a child by answering the question posed above directly. The difficult but truthful answer is that neither solution is, generally speaking, 'best' for most children. That is to say that children are inevitably impacted either way. If they continue to live with parents who remain together though they are miserable in the relationship, fight often and create a warlike ambiance in the home, the children are hurt and, in a certain sense injured by this experience. If, on the other hand, parents decide to call the quits and break up, the child is also hurt and, to one degree or another, traumatized.
This is not, I realize, the answer that many of you who will take the time and trouble to read this article will have wanted to read - but, according to the best long term research currently available, supported by the anecdotal experiences of tens of thousands of parents, children and mental health professionals - that is exactly how it is. So, how does one decide what to do?
Making and After the Decision
Making the Decision:
Because either option in a situation where the marital/adult relationship issues are simply irreconcilable will cause hurt to the child, the decision is best made (again, this is the most generally true situation) based on what makes the most sense to the adults.
To make the decision based on what you think will be 'best' for the child turns out to be, after research going both ways for many years, ultimately bogus. The child loses either way. So, making the most reasonable decision for the adults is really the best way to proceed.
After the Decision:
Because I have said that the child will be hurtfully impacted, in most instances, either way does not mean that there is nothing that caring parents who are either in the process of separating or are actually fully estranged and/or divorced can do to make the situation for their child better and less, ultimately, hurtful and traumatic. Firstly, it is important to talk to the child about what is going on; about what has happened, is happening and will happen.
Like all good conversations between adults and children, the adult must assume the responsibility of 'gearing' what they say to the developmental level and comprehension capacities of the child. For example, when a three year old asks where his baby sister came from, you don't want to launch into a biologically accurate description of intercourse and conception.
A simple statement about a seed from the daddy and an egg from the mommy will usually suffice - and even that may be too much for a three year old! The key idea is something like this: When children ask about matters that are difficult, challenging and complex even for adults to fully understand, it is best to respond with some reduced version of the truth.
When a child asks why his/her parents are breaking up, depending again on his/her age, a perfectly adequate response might be something on the order of "We were fighting too much. We just don't get along very well any more. But we both still love you and will always be your mommy and daddy." These might be the wrong words for your child - but I hope the idea is clear. Be honest in a simplified way. As the child gets older, the answers will need to become more complete and sophisticated to satisfied their need (and right!) to understand what has happened to their family.
Where Do I Go For Help With This?
Help is available in written materials and in person.
There is a veritable plethora of children's books written to be either read to them (when they are younger) on this subject or for them to read themselves when they are older. You will find, in any well stocked bookstore, shelves full of them in the section under Divorce, Families or Children. Likewise in most libraries you will find a broad selection on these subjects. These books will range from the most simple and concrete - best for very young children to more complex, abstract and sophisticated volumes for older children.
Some representative examples with which I have had some personal experience using would include "Two Homes" by Claire Masurel (for toddlers and preschoolers); "Mom and Dad Don't Live Together Any More" by Kathy Stinson , "My Family's Changing" by Pat Thomas, or "Mama and Daddy Bear's Divorce" by Cornelia Maude Spelman (for early primary grade kids); "Snowman: A Kid's Guide To Coming To Terms With Divorce and Separation" by Risa Garon, "Tell Me A Story, Paint Me The Sun" by Roberta Chaplain , "Dinosaurs Divorce" by Laurence Krasny Brown and Marc Brown, "I Don't Want To Talk About It" by Jeanie Franz and "At Daddy's On Saturdays" by Linda Walvoord Girard (for school-age children ages 7-10); leading up to books like Danielle Lowry's "What Can I Do?", written for older elementary and middle school kids to read to themselves, there is no shortage of good literature that can be used to help children understand what has happening and help them access and express, in a healthy way, their own feelings about and reactions to it.
Another Ten Commandments
Parents who are separating need to remember to try to do some basic things to help their children come through the changes in as unscathed a fashion as is possible. In "Dear Mom and Dad: What Kids of Divorce Really Want to Say to Their Parents", Gillian Rothchild includes what is labeled as being the "Ten Commandments for Divorced Parents." The two guiding principles are that Consistency + Discipline = Love, and that Divorce is a Grown Up Matter. Her Ten “Commandments” for divorced parents are then delineated as follows:
I) Thou shall not making derogatory statements about the other parent,
II) Thou shall avoid making your child a best friend to confide in,
III) Thou shall not use the child as a messenger service,
IV) Thou shall not deny either your child's feelings or your own,
V) Thou shall openly give your child permission to love and respect the other parent,
VI) Thou shall not change house rules to compete with the other parent,
VII) Thou shall not unilaterally change visitation arrangements,
VIII) Thou shall never making your child feel 'stuck in the middle,'
IX) Thou shall never blame or indicate that the break up is due to or revolves around the child, and
X) Thou shall always practice loving, positive and consistent parenting and make your child's world a safe and special place to live.
For most parents, some of these are very difficult to do, especially when there are lots of bad feelings between the adults. Each parent is well advised to look this list over, spot the one or two things that are the most difficult for them personally and deliberately work on doing better with those.
This will help your child.
Does My Child Need To See A Therapist?
Maybe, but not automatically or in every instance. You are looking out for change - usually in behavior, that signals you that a child needs help. Children find it often easier and more natural to 'act out' feelings rather than talking them out. I actually know more than a few adults this is the case for as well! If you notice behavioral change that causes you concern that the child is hurting in a way that you cannot help them, a consultation with a mental health professional is certainly not going to be a waste of your time.
The child who needs and can benefit from seeing a therapist is not an indicator that the parent has failed. On the contrary, recognizing that the child has a need that requires some special skill to address is a hallmark of a thoughtful, attentive, concerned and truly loving parent.
Beyond these specific and general ideas and suggestions, I will close this admittedly brief summary of a very important subject by advising all parents involved in separation or divorce where there is a child or children involved to think about how to help them through it - and then to move beyond the thinking and to find a way - with or without professional help - to act.
Ultimately, the most potentially therapeutic people in a child's life are the ones the child cares most about - the parents. Many communities have organizations in place to offer help and support to divorcing parents and these resources need be explored and checked out, too.
Do what is right for you, but don't forget that your child will need some special attention and help to get through it as unhurt as is possible. Hopefully, some of you have found this brief synopsis of an extremely complex matter helpful.