The Divorced Child
Strengthening Your Family through the First Three Years of Separation
By Joseph Nowinski
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 Joseph Nowinski
All rights reserved.
The Divorced Family
Divorce is not something that happens only to spouses. Whenever there are children involved, divorce is a family matter. It is vital that separated parents keep this in mind. It is not only their own lives that are going through an upheaval, but also their children's lives, as well as the lives of the extended family. Everyone must adjust to a new reality.
Children are not emotionally fragile to the extent that they are not capable of surviving a crisis such as divorce. As discussed earlier, most children do adjust and emerge from divorce emotionally, socially, and academically unscathed. A minority do not. This book aims to help you as a parent ensure that your child will be one of those who survives and thrives.
Robert and Julia
Robert was six and his sister Julia was eight when their mother and father told them that they were getting a divorce. As is typical of children this age, neither one cried. But that did not mean that all was necessarily okay on the inside.
Julia and Robert had an idea of what divorce meant. Julia's best friend Emily's parents had recently divorced. When asked about it Julia replied, "Emily's father moved out. He was hardly ever there anyway. Now I never see him." Asked how she thought Emily felt about her parents' divorce, Julia said, "She's sad. But she said she just doesn't think about it most of the time."
It was true that Emily did not think about her parents' divorce. At the same time, in that school year Emily was out "sick" fifteen days. In prior years she'd been out sick a maximum of three days. Moreover, her progress in reading and other academic subjects slid from near the top of her peer group to somewhere below average.
Although children are reticent to talk to their own parents about divorce, it is a mistake to think that they do not talk to one another about it. In a way this is understandable, since they are reluctant to offend or risk alienating that parent, by expressing anger, for example.
Robert and Julia's parents went through an acrimonious divorce. Their father, Jim, openly blamed their mother, saying that she was "breaking up our family." He did not mention his alcoholism or recurrent gambling debts. For the most part their mother, Susan, refrained from talking about Jim. She tried to keep their communication focused on the children, not on the issues that had led to the divorce. She tried to maintain contact between the children and Jim's family, but discovered that only her soon-to-be ex-mother-in-law was open to this. Neither her father-in-law nor her two brothers-in-law wanted anything to do with Susan.
One month before Julia's ninth birthday, when Susan brought up the issue of a party, Julia said that she didn't want one. At first she would not say why. Susan let the issue drop for the moment, but mentioned it to Julia's teacher, with whom she was in regular contact with. Three days later the teacher called and informed Susan that Julia didn't want a party because she wanted to avoid the tension that now pervaded the house whenever both her parents were there together. She would have wanted to have the party at the house that she and Robert had moved into with Susan, but feared offending her father. Finally, although her extended family had always come to her birthday parties before, she was aware of the alienation that had set in and wasn't sure who would come this time or how they would act.
At age eight, Julia was already on the verge of assuming the role of a peacemaker and a conciliator. If her mother had gone along with Julia's wishes this could well have become a role that Julia embraced for the rest of her life.
This brief story contains several valuable lessons for parents who are in the midst of separation and divorce. The first lesson is that children will quickly learn to edit what they say in order not to offend or alienate a parent. Both Robert and Julia were very uncomfortable, for example, when Jim would openly put down Susan, but neither ever expressed this openly. And Julia resisted telling Susan why she did not want a birthday party. As you will see when we address the issue of talking to children about divorce, parents must understand and respect this reticence. Open and honest communication will only come when children feel it is safe to do so.
A second lesson is this: The business of childhood and adolescence is growing up. Children and teens are quite capable of empathy, thoughtfulness, and generosity (as long as these qualities of character are modeled for them). At the same time, they are necessarily concerned with themselves and their own lives. Childhood and adolescence is fraught with its own challenges and crises. The nitty-gritty of their parents' divorce does not and should not be something that children be asked to digest, much less approve of or take sides on.
Third, children survive the upheaval that divorce creates in their lives to the extent that those who love them, including parents and extended family, are able to set aside issues of loyalty or feelings of resentment and focus instead on the developmental needs of the child. In the above example, that would have meant that the whole family celebrate Julia's birthday. After all, that day is about Julia, not about anyone else. If such a celebration proved impossible, then two separate celebrations might be held, but in neither case should the focus of the day be on anything except Julia.
Research has shown that if separated parents are able to minimize overt conflict between them in the presence of their children, then frequent contact with their "non-residential" parent is associated with better overall adjustment. In contrast, more frequent contact actually has an adverse effect on adjustment when visits are accompanied by a great deal of overt conflict. This is all the more reason for separated parents to cooperate as best they can so as to produce a child-focused divorce.
Staying on Track
Things go awry for the divorced child when the focus of the parents or extended family becomes the divorce itself as opposed to the developmental needs of the children. That is not to say that the divorced child should become a spoiled child; rather, it means that efforts need to be made to preserve things such as attachments that have been formed to adults, the rules and structure of daily life, and friendships that have been established. That is what I mean by a "child-centered divorce." Too often parents and families allow themselves to be led by their emotions in directions that stray from this focus. To the extent that you, the reader, can avoid this, you will also help to insure that your child comes through these three years a stronger and more resilient individual.
Talking to Children about Divorce
The Explanation Trap
Lisa and Bill, who had been married for eighteen years, decided to wait until the end of the school year to tell their two teenage children that they were splitting. They did this because they did not want to disrupt their children's school work. In addition, they agreed to use the word "separation" instead of "divorce," feeling that that word was softer, and to tell the children that it was a "trial," whereas in truth their separation was final.
On the last day of school, Lisa and Bill sat their son and daughter down and broke the news. Their daughter, age twelve, immediately broke down. Then their fourteen-year-old son asked a simple question: "Why?" At that point Lisa proceeded to try to explain how she and Bill had "drifted apart" and had "different priorities and goals." And so on. In less than a minute Lisa realized that she had made a big mistake—there was no way that her two children were going to understand why their parents were splitting. Each of them knew plenty of other kids whose parents were divorced, and both children immediately made it known that none of these kids had anything good to say about it.
The lesson to be learned from this short story is this: Never try to explain to your children why you are getting a divorce. There are three reasons for this:
1. They will try to talk you out of it. Children and teens—and often even adult children—can easily turn the tables and put pressure on parents to justify their decision to separate. Or, they may come up with ideas for how you can stay together.
2. It is virtually impossible to explain your side of the story without seeking to gain support and sympathy. I have never heard a divorcing parent offer a truly objective and unbiased explanation for their decision. This then puts children in the position of having to choose which parent's justification they want to align themselves with.
3. It is important to think about how you want your children to think about the institution of marriage, as they will also likely be married one day. Do you want them to regard marriage as a fundamentally private matter between spouses, or as an open book? Personally I prefer the former.
What children do need to know is how their parents' separation and divorce will affect them on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. For example:
Will I have to move?
Will I stay in the same school?
Will I be rotating between my parents, and, if so, what will that look like?
With whom will I be spending holidays?
Will I be able to maintain contact with friends?
Will I still see my extended family?
What will I do in the summer? (especially important for teens)
Your goal as a separated parent is to help your child cope effectively with the crisis that your divorce represents. If you do this successfully, your child will come through this crisis not just unharmed, but potentially more resilient and able to handle whatever other crises may come along. At the same time, you need to recognize that your child may never fully understand, much less approve of, your decision. You only have to justify your decision to one person: yourself. No matter how good their intentions may be, parents like Lisa and Bill inevitably find themselves in a very uncomfortable position if they try to explain their decision to their children. So, then, what do you do?
Keep It Simple
Regardless of whether your child is eight or eighteen, the first rule to keep in mind when talking about divorce is to let your child that you are getting a divorce, not why you are getting a divorce. If you are asked why, simply say something like "the reasons are too complicated to explain and you don't really need to know them." The bottom line is that the family structure your children have become accustomed to is about to change. What they do need to know is that their parents will no longer be living under the same roof, and how that change in turn will affect their own day-to-day lives.
Toddlers and younger children need to know only the most basic information, as the very concept of divorce is not something they can fully comprehend (similarly, although they may know that Mommy and Daddy are married, they may not comprehend the meaning of that term in the same way that you as an adult do).
An acceptable explanation of divorce to a young child is something like this: "Mommy and Daddy are going to each have their own house to live in and you will be spending time in each place. So you will be having two beds, one at Mommy's and one at Daddy's."
If your child is a preschooler the first thing you need to do is decide where each of you will be living once you separate. If you are the parent who will be moving out, you should be prepared to take your child or children to your new place and give them a tour. Be sure to show your child the room that he or she will be sleeping in. Both parents need to decide together which prized possessions their child will be able to take along to the new house, as well as which ones he or she will be able to take back and forth. Expect young children to want to bring along a bunch of favorite stuffed animals and toys if they will be dividing their time between two households. Your child may well ask about this when you first announce your divorce, so try to be prepared in advance with an answer.
If your child is an adolescent, the explanation of the divorce can be a bit more specific, but you should still refrain from going into the reasons for your decision. You can use any term you like—divorce, separation, trial separation—but be sure to explain clearly where each parent will be living. Teens are particularly concerned about whether divorce means they will have to relocate, make new friends, or change schools. Be sure to address these issues right away. You can defer any discussion of shared parenting (how much time the teen can expect to spend at each parent's home), unless you happen to know exactly what that will be. Generally speaking, adolescents, as opposed to younger children, need to feel that they have at least some say in these arrangements, and that visitation schedules will not mean having to give up their favored activities.
What to Expect: From Denial to Reluctant Acceptance
Parents often express fears that their child will break down and get upset when they announce their decision to divorce. They act as if they somehow believe this would be a terrible thing. Whether they realize this consciously or nor, their goal is to have their child hear this terrible news without having an emotional reaction. This, of course, is unrealistic.
There is nothing to fear from children crying upon learning that their parents are divorcing. They are being told that their life is about to be seriously disrupted, and that whatever relationships they have had with their parents are also about to change. Rather than attempting to minimize or deny those facts—or trying to do everything you can to avoid causing any upset—it is much healthier to expect this upsetting news to upset your child.
The reactions you may get can vary from the pretty bland (among toddlers and very young children) to tears and anxiety (among older children) to stony anger (among teens). You must accept these reactions and even support them. Do not, for example, attempt to talk an angry teen out of that anger. If a child cries, comfort him or her but avoid saying something "It's going to be okay, don't cry."
Here are the stages that you most often see in children and adolescents as they process a traumatic event:
Denial. Children's first reaction to being told that their parents are getting a divorce is simply not to believe it. They may act as if they literally do not hear what is being said to them. They may show no reaction at all, and instead turn their attention to something else.
One father described telling his five-year-old son that he and the boy's mother were getting a divorce. "I asked him if he knew what divorce was, and he nodded. Then he turned away and started playing with his hot wheel cars, just as he was before I told him about the divorce. He didn't miss a beat!"
The mother of a fourteen-year-old girl reported the following reaction from her daughter: "I was positive my daughter knew that my husband and I had been having serious trouble for well over a year, but when I sat her down and told her we were getting a divorce she stood up and shouted at me, 'No, you're not!' Then she turned around and walked out of the house."
Reactions like the above do occur sometimes and they more or less fit into denial. In other words, when faced with a sudden, serious loss, some people initially respond by believing it just didn't happen. If your child responds this way, your best course of action is to simply give reality some time to sink in. You can expect further reactions once it does. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Divorced Child by Joseph Nowinski. Copyright © 2010 Joseph Nowinski. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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