Research shows that outcomes for children whose parents divorce are dismal, with several variables determining the future failure or success of the children within a divorced family. The levels of conflict, ages of the children, economic factors, prevalence of domestic violence and substance abuse, and a myriad of other factors make it difficult to know the definite influences on a child. Instead of studying the statistics, it may be more beneficial to look at what children actually need regardless of their parents’ marital status, and try to understand why divorced and separated parents sometimes have a difficult time tending those needs.
The short answer is that divorce and separation are hard—emotions run high. In most situations, it is hard for parents to see past their own feelings and emotional needs. Sadly, the needs of their children end up coming second. If you are experiencing a separation or possible divorce, don’t let your children fall victim to some of the all too common situations described below. Use the following advice as guidance to help make your child feel secure and loved during this difficult time.
Situation 1: Divorced parents often want to control their child’s feelings about the other parent
It is important to honor a child’s feelings about their other parent, even if those feelings are negative. Children should have the right to determine their own relationship with a parent. When a child shares positive or negative feelings about their other parent, it is the listening parent who has the responsibility to affirm those feelings.
If your child comes back to your home and proclaims, “I had a great time with dad on Tuesday,” the best response from you would be, “Good! I’m glad you are enjoying your time with your dad.” This lets them know you are not threatened by their love for someone else, especially their other parent. However, caution against discounting negative feelings about a parent.
Even when they are hurt, honesty is best. “I’m sorry your mom lied to you on Tuesday. It hurts when people lie to us doesn’t it?” is a much better response to a disappointed child than, “I don’t know why your mom lied, but I’m sure she still loves you,” which signals to the child that lying and love go together.
Sometimes our attempts to sugarcoat or defend the other parent can actually hurt the child because it messes with the child’s feeling mechanism—the one responsible for wise decision making in adulthood. We want to build sound instincts in our children by promoting trust in their own feelings—negative or positive. If we speak to the feeling, rather than the person (“it hurts when people lie to us, doesn’t it?”), we teach children their feelings are justified for the situation. When they encounter future relationships or circumstances, they will use past reinforcements as confidence their feelings are trustworthy, which is the best insurance policy for their ability to make decisions in the future.
Get into the habit of saying, “I would feel that way, too, if I were you,” instead of commenting on the other parent’s behavior, which you can’t control. A defense or commentary causes the child to stay stuck between the two parents’ conflicting stories. Affirming feelings, not facts, should be the main goal of your response to your child’s comments regarding the other parent.
Situation 2: Divorced parents tear down their child’s self-esteem
Most parents know that it is not a good idea to speak negatively about their former spouse in front of their child, to their child or within earshot of their child. Yet, divorced parents do it all the time because of their emotional pain.
If parents really knew the damage― sometimes permanent―it causes, they might think twice. Because children view themselves as 50 percent dad and 50 percent mom, and because children by nature are self-focused, anything they hear about their other parent gets filtered through their “me” identity. If you insult a parent, you in turn, insult the child—at least that’s how their perception radars. The commentary then can cause them to question themselves and can reduce their self-esteem.
Children will naturally come into the knowing of who their parents really are in their own time, when their protective self-esteem barriers are ready to absorb it,” said J. Kimbrough Benson, Baton Rouge marriage and family therapist. “Children watch television and have a social life, and they already anticipate the reasons for the divorce since they live in the home and have witnessed the symptoms which precede separation and divorce. Therefore, it is wise to limit information about the other parent and let kids come to their own opinions in their own time frame.”
This time frame is not for either parent to determine. Some children learn early and some cannot accept a difficult truth until they enter adulthood. Disrupting this development period can result in the child turning on himself rather than against their other parent.
Situation 3: Divorced parents reverse roles with their children
Children need to be children, and parents need to be parents, not anything else. Divorced parents are vulnerable to requiring their children to be their friends, therapists or mediators. When children are put in a role other than the child role, they will fail, simply because they do not have the capacity to be adults. Therefore, clear boundaries need to be set between the adult world and the child world.
For children, divorce is a 1,000-piece-jigsaw puzzle and the adults can only give them 20 pieces. When they ask tough questions or feel put in the middle of the adult conflict, they might get another 10 or 20 pieces, but it will never be enough to understand the complexities of adult relationships. Instead of forcing children to take sides or making them understand a position, parents do well to understand children’s anger and confusion. Parents should tell their children to leave the adult worries up to the adults. Children’s primary concerns need to be their friends, schoolwork, activities and chores.
Children, just like their parents, seek stability and consistency, Benson said. “Adults are better equipped to provide and meet children’s needs, so they need to assume that responsibility,” he said.
The message is simply to be a parent, which includes giving children discipline, physical and emotional safety, security, stability and love, regardless of the parents’ marital status. What all children need is simple. When parents provide it, children will thrive.