Divorce is the type of traumatic life experience you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. And while the process unfolds differently for every couple, there’s just no way around the fact that, plain and simple: divorce is a bitch. And it’s particularly challenging if you have children.
No matter how well the process is handled by the parties involved, emotional harm is an unavoidable consequence for children of divorce (the psychological effects are well documented). Here are some thoughts to keep in mind that might help ease the transition for the ones who have no say in the matter; and while you cannot wholly protect them from suffering some damage, you and your ex absolutely have the opportunity to keep first and second degree emotional burns from escalating to irreparable third-degree burns, the effects of which will be anchored to them for the rest of their lives.
Talk to Your Children. This may seem obvious, but having open communication with your children is more important now than ever before. Overemphasize that what is happening is not their fault, even if they say that they know. Don’t use lies or falsely optimistic statements such as, “Nothing is going to change.” Kids are way more intuitive than we give them credit for, possessing the uncanny ability to discern what is really happening, so treat them as such.
Be honest about the future, especially if it means telling them there are some things you just haven’t figure out. Also, be sure to talk to them about things unrelated to your divorce. The divorce does not have to be an all-consuming topic of conversation, even though it must be addressed.
Parents do not always know what their kids are thinking because they are still developing emotionally and it is way easier for them to keep their feelings to themselves. As a result, parents go around believing everything is okay with their child when often it is not. Kids may suppress their emotions for a number of reasons — they don’t want to make their parents upset, they do not know how to express what they feel, or they are simply too absorbed with their own grief.
And choose a comfortable setting for these serious conversations. You do not have to sit down at the kitchen table to have an hour-long talk; this would be weird for any kid. Maybe engage in an activity with them such as taking a walk, preparing a meal or playing a game.
Be Civil. Depending on the nature of your divorce, you may understandably harbor some hateful feelings toward your spouse, but under no circumstances is it a goo idea to express these emotions to your children, or to your spouse when the children are present. Remember, your child loves your spouse every bit as much as he/she loves you, and the divorce hasn’t changed that for them. So whatever hurt you’re hoping on inflicting on your spouse is actually being inflicted ten-fold on your child. While you might enjoy badmouthing him or her to your children, doing so is extremely detrimental to their emotional well-being, and it’s just downright selfish. Saying bad things about the other parent will not make them love you more but rather will make them feel like your love-hate relationship with your spouse is more important than they are.
And for goodness sake do not use your child as a messenger. For example, Mom might say, “Can you remind your father you have soccer practice on Wednesday?” The child passes along the message. Father responds, “Why didn’t your Mother tell me that? Tell her she’s the one who needs to tell me stuff like that.” The result: the child feels caught in the middle, which is likely to lead to heightened anxiety.
Maintain Your Physical and Mental Health. I’ll say it again, divorce is an incredibly stressful process. If you are going to take care of your children, you also need to take care of yourself. Amidst the chaos of work, maybe moving, and the seemingly constant contact with your attorney, budget time to exercise every day. I’m also a big fan of meditation and I recommend you try it. It’s a wonderful way to stay centered at a time when your mind is likely navigating uncharted waters.
You should also admit to yourself that you need to be talking with a therapist on a regular basis. There is zero shame in this. Whether it feels like it or not, you are experiencing legitimate trauma, so find a counselor who specializes in family issues and consider scheduling appointments for your children as well.
Family Time. Your family will look different from now on, but you’re still a family, so keep doing things together. And make every effort to attend your children’s school and sports events. Normalcy will be scarce in the beginning stages of post-divorce life, but they need to know that even though life is busy, stressful and sad right now, you still love them and want to spend as much time together as possible.
And know that for some events such as birthdays, it will be easier for your children if you and your spouse can both be present. Depending on your relationship, that might not be possible, but if you can put up with him or her for a few hours, your children will be very grateful.
As you go through the divorce process, continue to prioritize your children. Be honest with them and know that while the coming months will be hard, you will persevere. Trust yourself and demonstrate your love to them every day.
If you would like to talk about your family law issue with Max or another member of our team, please call our office (601-898-8655) or confidentially submit a basic intake form so our staff can complete a standard conflict check.
Max’s parents divorced when he was a child and now he brings that real life experience to the daily practice of family law. He received his law degree from Mississippi College School of Law, graduating cum laude. During law school, he received multiple American Jurisprudence awards, as well as the Adams & Reese Pro Bono award. Prior to law school, Max was an upper-school Spanish teacher and varsity basketball coach at Jackson Academy.