Navigating divorce: Your needs versus your kids' needsWritten by Catherine Wilson
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When's Daddy coming back?
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When you’re heading for divorce, you can’t stall forever. Sooner or later you’ll have to answer your kids’ pressing questions and explain what’s really going on.
It’s hard – desperately hard. You want to put on a brave face for the kids, even when big issues remain unresolved: when you’re lying awake at night wondering, How will we split custody of the kids? Will we have to sell the house? Will my current income be enough?
It doesn’t help that your emotions are all over the place. Sometimes you’re furious at your spouse; at other moments, you’re devastated that they’ve rejected you. Sometimes you’re relieved; at other moments, terrified.
There are big decisions to be made, yet it’s hard to think straight at all.
Now’s the time to get really solid advice, because you can’t always trust your instincts. In the turmoil of divorce, hurting parents often choose a path that soothes their pain or discomfort. Yet, unknowingly, their choices can be compounding the harm their divorce is already doing to their children.
To help parents make good decisions on behalf of their kids, our counsellors recommend psychologist Archibald Hart’s book Helping Children Survive Divorce.1 Here are a few common compulsions, according to Hart, that you may be feeling right now, but that call for caution for the sake of your kids.
Eager to ensure your kids are alright? Remember they can’t be rushed through this
Parents desperately want to believe that their kids will “get over” the divorce quickly, says Hart. That overwhelming concern can tempt parents into denial. The kids are rushed through the grieving process so the parents can assure themselves – often falsely – that the kids are “doing fine.” Hart sees many parents greatly underestimate how much time and attention their kids will need to heal properly.
It’s common for divorcing couples to lose sight of the fact that they’re always ahead of their children when it comes to adjusting to the divorce, says Hart. That lag in the kids can show up early on, yet quickly be forgotten by the parents.
When it’s “time to tell the kids,” for example, many parents assume their children will already be half-expecting the news of the breakup.
Instead, for the vast majority of kids, it’s a shocking, never-dreamed-of revelation.
Even when there’s obvious conflict in the home, kids remain in denial about the seriousness of the conflict, says Hart. They never suspect that their parents’ separation is imminent. And very few children feel relief that the divorce means less strife. Most are absolutely devastated.
“The reaction is nearly always the same,” says Hart, “. . . shock, followed by denial, then anger, fear, lowered self-esteem and depression.”
Children who are not allowed plenty of time to talk about their feelings and slowly progress through each of these stages – with help from patient, supportive parents – are at high risk of carrying problems with anger, anxiety, low self-esteem or depression far into adulthood.
“Most experts agree that it takes between three and four years for a child to pull himself together again and pick up where the divorce leaves off,” says Hart. “. . . Some believe, and I tend to agree, that in every divorce the reactions of the children need to be carefully reviewed by a trained counsellor or psychotherapist. Parents cannot always trust their own assessment . . . because they usually have too strong a need to believe that everything is OK. . . . About 23 percent of the children of divorce will have a severe enough anger reaction as to warrant some sort of intervention.”
In a hurry to start a new life? Your kids need you to slow down
One of the most serious mistakes divorcing parents make with their kids, says Hart, is that they introduce change too quickly. From the parents’ perspective, there’s often an eagerness to sell up and move, to flee the pain of their unravelling relationship or to be closer to other family members for support.
But for the children, such drastic change intensifies their sense of loss and their anxiety.
The kids are already grieving the loss of the thing a child holds most dear, which is an intact family, says Hart. This is not the time to wrench them away from other things that are familiar.
“The cardinal rule is: Change as little as possible. Keep as much as possible the same,” Hart advises. “A child’s resilience is greatest when he or she can bounce back into a stable and secure environment. . . . This is why I advocate that parents change as little as is absolutely necessary of the child’s environment, home, school, and neighbourhood during and immediately after a divorce. The more a child’s world is changed, the greater the required adjustments will be, and the greater the adjustments demanded, the more likely it is that the child will not succeed in making them.”
For the sake of the kids, think about leaving your neighbourhood at a later stage, when your children have had a chance to process the loss of their second parent.
Don’t want to face your ex? Your kids need him (or her) more than ever
When parents separate, the parent who remains at home is often surprised (and disgruntled too) by the fervour of their children’s pining for the absent parent. The kids don’t just miss him or her; they obsess over the missing parent. They seem to need him or her more than they ever did before.
If you are seeing this in your own child, says Hart, he or she is not just imagining an increased need for the missing parent. Their intense need is real.
When either parent is absent, the children’s long-term emotional health suffers.
Whatever the parents’ intentions may be, children will feel abandoned by the missing parent, says Hart, and that sense of abandonment puts them at risk for lasting problems with anxiety and distrust. “An absent parent creates an exaggerated need for that parent, and the [child’s] anxiety increases when this need is not met.”
Yes, it’s difficult to interact with your ex, but unless you and your kids must keep distant from your ex for safety reasons, try your best to encourage him or her to keep up a relationship with the children. They bring so much crucial healing to the kids by maintaining frequent, in-person contact. “Children who have a lot of contact with both parents are the least likely to be damaged by the divorce,” says Hart. “This double contact keeps development on track.”
Ideally, the parent who leaves the home should connect with the kids at least once a week, and every day in the period right after separation.
There are ways to manage this if you don’t want to meet face to face in the early days of your separation. Arrange to be “out for coffee” while your spouse comes to fix the kids Saturday morning breakfast, or stagger your drop-off and pick-up times from school or from a friend’s house.
Out of love for your kids, you also need to make sure you give your kids full freedom to love their other parent. “We don’t always know what messages we are sending our children,” says Hart. “It is safer, therefore, to be explicit even if it feels redundant. Tell your child specifically that it is OK to love and go on loving his or her father or mother. You’ll be the one your child respects.”
Remember that no other person can ever fully supply what your child receives from their other parent. In the future, if you should marry again, your kids will have a stepdad or stepmom, but their real parent’s presence in their life will still be of profound importance to their emotional health.
Don’t feel like cooperating with your ex? Your kids need you to drop the resentment
Even when couples agree to divorce amicably, good intentions to show good character seldom survive the rigors of divorce. “A strong urge to hurt each other nearly always sets in after the divorce is finalized,” says Hart.
And for the record, he’s including Christian couples in that assessment.
Jealousy, competition for the kids’ love, and resentment over intense hurt will tempt you to get back at your ex in all kinds of ways: withholding payments, showing up late, insisting the requested change in the kids’ drop-off time is inconvenient, even when you know it’s not.
But is it worth it? Is it worth lasting anxiety in your son? Long-term depression in your daughter? That’s the price kids pay for their parents’ hurting games, warns Hart.
Your ex may no longer be in the house, but your kids will sense any lingering hostility on your part, and will feel trapped in never-ending conflict. For them, it creates on-going emotional strain.
“It is imperative for you to resolve your hurt, hate, and need for revenge as soon as possible,” Hart urges. “ . . . Getting rid of your resentment is crucial to the well-being of your children.”
Your child needs to go on loving the other parent, Hart continues. “To sabotage this will create a greater sense of loss and therefore more depression for your child. The child is emotionally the healthiest when there is a minimum of conflict between the divorcing parents.”
Over the long term, kids usually grow to respect a parent who honours the other parent, but will lose respect for a parent who badmouths their ex or is obstructive.
As much as you may feel overwhelmed by all the issues and emotions you are facing right now, you must try to understand what your children are feeling too. “Put ‘understanding my child’ at the top of your list of priorities,” says Hart. “Out of it comes the right attitude as well as the right behaviour. If you really know what your child is feeling, you will always make better plans, and your actions and responses will be right.”
1 Dr. Archibald Hart, Helping Children Survive Divorce. Thomas Nelson, 1996.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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