There’s no getting around the fact that divorce shakes life up. To one degree or another guilt, loss, sadness, anger, and disappointment streams through the family. The flood of emotions doesn’t mean that the decision to split-up was a mistake. After divorce, there’s mourning to be done by everyone – you, your spouse, and children – regardless of who initiated the break-up.
These painful emotions are not signs of weakness; this is what divorce feels like. It’s tempting, maybe even automatic, to try to distract your children from their feelings. The wish to protect kids from pain is a wish most parents can identify with. You hate it when they suffer. And it’s even worse if you’ve caused it.
Rather than avoiding the reverberations of divorce be supportive and understanding. “I know this hurts. I’m sorry it’s been so difficult. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
You don’t need to defend or explain yourself or your decision in every conversation. Initially, it’s more important for you to understand your kids and what they’re going through. Your job is to listen and to care about them. “Wow, I didn’t know you felt that way. Tell me more. What else are you thinking? How has this affected you? Is there anything else on your mind that you’ve been afraid to say? I’m really glad we’re talking about this. I don’t know how to answer that question right now, but I will think it over.”
These kinds of statements open the door to meaningful conversations which will help you all work through this difficult experience. Don’t despair if your kids roll their eyes and say that they don’t want to talk. Demonstrating that you’re not afraid to address their complicated and conflicting emotions, and that you can do so without over-reacting or becoming defensive, will be reassuring.
Finally, avoid blaming, criticizing, bad mouthing, or putting your kids in the middle of your arguments. Bitterness between parents becomes a defining childhood experience. Animosity, whether parents are together or separated, leaves children wondering about themselves. They are still part of this person you are fighting with. Hating your ex-spouse leaves kids silently wondering if you could somehow hate a part of them too.
Talking with your kids about their feelings as you practice respect and restraint will help them work through the divorce process. It will teach them that trying times can be managed, and that difficult feelings can be expressed, understood, and managed too.
Loren Buckner, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Tampa, Florida. She is also the author of ParentWise: The Emotional Challenges of Family Life and How to Deal With Them.