Most parents contemplating a divorce want to know something like: ‘How can we tell our kids without hurting them?’ And the answer is, you probably can’t. It’s going to be upsetting and confusing and destabilising. It’s upsetting and confusing and destabilising for you, right? Even if you’re the one who initiated the divorce!
We can’t protect our kids from pain, we can only give them the tools to bounce back from it.
Let your kids feel their feelings
A study out of University College, London, looked at the effects of different parenting styles. It found the style most likely to lead to poor outcomes for the child is ‘psychological control’ – that is, telling your child what you expect them to feel. Our emotions are never ‘wrong’, but our actions might be. So it’s absolutely appropriate to tell your kid not to yell, but you can’t tell them not to feel angry. You can tell your child to try a bite of mushroom, but don’t say ‘you love mushrooms!’
(Kids are learning emotional literacy, and mislabelling emotions can make them much more confusing and difficult to process.)
It’s important to understand this, because if you feel guilty, you might want to rush them through certain emotions, or tell them they’re fine when they’re not. Resist the urge. Just listen and ask questions.
Get the support you need
You probably already know all the rules about not fighting in front of your child, not complaining about your ex to them, encouraging them to have a bond with their other parent. It’s so important, but it’s also a lot of emotional work! You need a friend (or therapist) who you can vent freely to so you’re not keeping it all bottled up.
If your kids do pick up on the fact that you’re upset, don’t lie about it. It’s an opportunity to model self-soothing techniques. ‘Yes, I am a bit upset, so I’m just going to wait in the car for a little while and take some slow, deep breaths before I go in.’
Let them know what changes they can expect
Kids are often blindsided by divorce. If things can suddenly change so dramatically overnight, what else might suddenly change? You can help them rebuild their sense of security by being open about what changes to expect – who will be moving out and when, for example – and what will not be changing: what school they go to, which friends they see, and of course both their parents’ love and commitment to them.
They’re going to be fine
There are so any different shapes a family can take. Happy, thriving kids are being raised by their grandparents or aunts, with a dozen siblings or none at all, in the old family home or a new rental place every year. Single parent and blended families are just another variety.
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