Divorce may be one of the hardest things adults can face and divorce with children is even more challenging. In the midst of all the changes, and the pain and suffering adults are dealing with -- it is still necessary to remember this -- you are still parents. Being a parent doesn’t go away, even if you do.
Each child is unique and the circumstances of divorce are unique in each situation, so there are no rules for how children will respond to parents ending a relationship. But there are some divorce with children guidelines to remember. First, children are not “little adults." They think like children and don’t have the same cognitive reasoning that an adult has.
This is especially true with younger children. Whereas it may be perfectly clear to an adult that it is “not your fault" that mommy and daddy don’t get along, for a young child who sees the world around him through very personal and immediate eyes, this may be a huge leap of understanding. Often children feel that it is “because I was bad," that their parents are splitting up.
Many children will express feelings not through words, as many adults would, but through behavior. Their actions speak louder than their words. If the child is not sleeping, eating, or is unable to concentrate in school, these are signs of stress.
It is very important to speak in simple, but direct and honest terms to children about what is going on between the parents. If the living together part of the relationship is ending, you do need to be honest about this change, and to be as specific as you can as to what the children can expect from this change.
This does not mean turning the kids into confidants or confessors, it doesn’t mean you should air dirty laundry or complaints about the other partner. It means that they have a right and a need to know about changes that will affect their lives. If this is just a trial separation, let them know that. “Mommy and Daddy are going to live separately for awhile to try to work things out."
If it is a definite divorce, and final, and the relationship is ending – at least in the form the children have always known, then children need to know that also. Children, especially young children, tend to hope that the parents will get back together, or believe that they have to do something to make that happen. This can be a terrible burden.
Sometimes down the road after the divorce with children, the non-custodial parent begins to feel like a third wheel, especially if the custodial parent has a new partner. It is still important to maintain regular and frequent visits and contact with the children. They need the continuity. It is not enough to say: “I love you," or give presents on birthdays, if your actions don’t show your love. Ending your relationship with your partner means beginning a new style of parenting.
Sometimes parents with older children or teenagers expect them to become the “man or woman of the house." This is not a good idea. Children have a right to be whatever age they are, and can’t be expected to fill the role of the missing adult. Daughters should not have to be doing all the cooking and cleaning, nor should a son have to become stronger and more responsible than he is ready to be.
Even if you know your relationship is ending, avoid the temptation to criticize the divorced parent in front of the children. And certainly don’t make them spy on the other parent! These kinds of activities split the child’s allegiance and can be terribly devastating. No matter how angry you are at your former spouse, do not let that interfere with the child’s right to still love or care for their other parent.
Remember, divorce with children is a very challenging time of tremendous adjustment for you and your children. You need to get yourself in good shape as soon as possible so that you can be a support for your children.
It is extremely difficult to do this alone. You need support. Friends, other family, church groups etc., are critical to help you to survive this challenging time as your relationship is ending. This is also a time when you may need the services of a capable counselor. There is nothing to be ashamed of in asking for help. Strong people are people who recognize that they need support from time to time.
Divorce with children is a wrenching process. But in time healing occurs. Perhaps it is the first step to a whole new world of sanity and a more fulfilling future, as long as you continue to grow. Divorce hurts...but if you committed to keeping your love for your children healthy and alive, it will get better. Remember these words... “This too shall pass..."