I was 10 when my parents told me that they were getting a divorce. It's not like it was a huge surprise or anything. The writing had been on the wall for a long time. But somehow it was still a huge shock to the system when they finally told me the news. I didn't know how I was supposed to feel. I felt guilty – like it was my fault that it had happened. I felt hurt, angry and betrayed. I felt very sad. I was confused. I had so many questions and things that were really worrying me but I couldn't find the words I needed to talk to my parents about any of it.
I wanted to share with you some of the things I really wish I had been able to tell my parents at the time. I hope it helps you have a better understanding of what your kids might be going through and what they need to hear from you.
The thing I remember the most about that time is thinking that it must be my fault. If I'd just tried a bit harder at school…if I'd fought less with my younger brother…if I hadn't answered back so much…if I'd eaten my vegetables...gone to bed on time…the list went on. I came up with so many different and creative reasons that clearly proved it was my fault that my parents were splitting up. Your children need to know unequivocally that your separation is in no way their fault, and that in fact it has nothing to do with them. They need to hear that this is a decision that you have made because of how you feel about each other, not because they didn't do their homework!
Mostly I just wanted my parents to tell me that they loved me very much and that this was something that would never change. Because I was so busy blaming myself for the whole thing, I felt like my parents probably didn't even like me anymore, let alone love me. How could they when I had caused them to get a divorce! What I really needed to hear from both of my parents was that even though we wouldn't be living in the same house anymore, they both still loved me and that this would never change. It's so important for your kids to hear this often when going through a divorce or separation. Children often suffer from separation anxiety during this difficult transition and it's really important that they have the security of knowing that you both love them unconditionally.
Think about the impact that bad mouthing your ex has on your children. Any criticism leveled at the other parent, is also being leveled at your child. They are 50% you and 50% the other parent. Anything negative that you are saying about him or her, you are saying about your children too. Kids can identify characteristics and features in themselves from both parents – this is something they should still get to celebrate and feel good about. However badly the other parent may be behaving, keep the criticisms away from your children.
Also parental alienation can be very damaging to your children and lead to a number of psychological problems for them down the road. So think twice before throwing out a negative comment or withholding visitation. Any attempts to pit your child against the other parent can lead to serious negative effects in your children's life.
We can't help the way we feel and kids have a harder time than we do regulating their emotions. I remember withdrawing into my own world at the time of my parents' divorce – somewhere far away from all the bad stuff that was going on. Other kids misbehave and act out in an attempt to get your attention. This bad behavior is a cry for help – they need you to support them through their grief. Lots of children feel a huge sense of loss when one parent moves out. You can't take this pain away, but it is important to be empathetic to how they are feeling and try to help them process these emotions.
No kid wants to come home to a barrage of questions about the time they spent with their other parent, or even worse, questions about the other parent's new life. I remember cringing on the inside when this happened to me. I also remember feeling really guilty when I forgot to pass on an "important" message from my mum to my dad that ended up with them fighting about it next time. Don't put your kids in this position. They are very busy thinking about their next football game or the homework they haven't done for tomorrow. Let them spend their time daydreaming and dealing with the important business of growing up.
I don't think the term "co-parenting" existed at the time of my parents' divorce and if it did, my parents certainly didn't know about it. Find a way to get along with your ex. This is often easier said than done. If it's not possible to completely bury the hatchet, you need to find a way to be civil to the other parent and do the work you need to do to move past any unresolved negative feelings that you still have. Trust me - your kids will notice and they will thank you for it in the long run.
Most kids want to know that they can contact both parents anytime. When they are at one parent's house, they want to know that they can call or text the other parent whenever they want. Some parents don't encourage open access to the other parent because of the anger or hurt they are feeling. I remember what this felt like when I was a child and it wasn't good!
Do your best to co-parent as a team. You need to put your feelings aside and move forwards. It's not about you anymore – it's about always doing what is in the best interests of your children.
What kids really need from you during and after your divorce or separation is your time, your attention, your compassion and your love. Help them to understand that it is you and the other parent who are splitting up with each other, and that neither of you are splitting up with your children.