"Mommy and daddy are getting divorced," These are the dreaded words all parents hope they will never have to utter. But, the reality is 40% to 50% of married couples in the United States get divorced.
And while divorce can be traumatic for you, one of the hardest aspects is also how it affects your kids. Of course you want to shield them from any pain and suffering, but some degree of pain is always inevitable.
The key is communication—the way you communicate with your children about your divorce will be etched in their memory forever.
Research shows that three factors help children of any age adjust after divorce. First, having a strong relationship with both parents. Second, good parenting (no shocker there!), and third, minimal exposure to conflict.
Mamas, here are some helpful tips on how to survive this turbulent and trying time:
Timing is everything
If you and your spouse are considering a separation or divorce, keep it to yourselves until you know for sure. Your kids are on a need-to-know basis and they do not need to know until your decision is final. Children do not flourish in uncertain circumstances. They flourish in knowing exactly what their future holds, so hold tight.
Obviously there is never a "good" time to break the divorce news, but make sure that when you do, you have plenty of time afterwards to stay near to your children. You will need to offer plenty of hugs and reassurances and not rush off to a sports practice or birthday party.
Tell your children together
Even if you are disagreeing about everything, try to agree on what to tell your children. Ideally, parents should break the news as a team. Telling your children together avoids confusion—they will hear only one version of the story, which demonstrates that it was a mutual decision.
Children prefer a message that avoids parents blaming each other. Instead, ensure you both take ownership of the marriage ending. This united front will protect your children from feeling that they may have caused the divorce, or that they must align with one parent and reject the other.
Keep communication simple, and speak in terms your children will understand. Be as honest and straightforward as you can, while taking into consideration your child's age and emotional maturity.
After you finish, be prepared for a lot of questions or none at all. Questions could range from “Where will I live and go to school?," “Which parent will be moving out?," or “Who will look after me and how often will I see you both?". Kids just want to know how their life will be affected, so be supportive, compassionate, and prepared with concrete answers.
Avoid the blame game
However angry you might be, don't blame your spouse for the breakup, and avoid arguing in front of your children. Also keep to yourself any details about any extramarital affair or financial problems.
You may feel so upset that you want to tell your children about your spouse's “behavior," but they will take this as a betrayal—or worse, criticism of them. Your ex is your child's best friend (other than you) so be conscious of what you say because your children are on high alert.
Spare your children the details
Don't make your kitchen table divorce central. Keep divorce papers out of sight—especially from a child who can read — and don't discuss legal issues, even on the phone, when your children could overhear you.
If there's a custody evaluation—which entails home visits by a mental health professional to observe and interview the children and family—minimize the impact by not building it up too much or coaching your children on what to say.
Look out for unusual behavior
Don't be surprised if your children show signs of unusual behavior. For example, insecurity, regression with sleep or potty training, anger or naughtiness, clinginess or attention seeking. Remember, divorce is scary for children. Some kids will be openly sad or angry, while others may deny they have any feelings at all about it. And all of these emotions and more can flare at any time, and swing from minute to minute.
There will be good days and bad days. Take each a day at a time. You'll also be experiencing these emotions so be sure to surround yourself with a strong village of family and friends!
Take care of YOU
Take care of you mom. Many states require both parents to attend court ordered parenting classes. Parents attend lectures or complete the course online in order to build their confidence in handling the stress of the divorce. To find classes, check with your lawyer or mediator, doctor or therapist.
And if you're thinking you can handle this life-changing chapter alone I urge you to re-think and seek assistance. By giving yourself permission to talk and grieve your marriage, you'll be better able to care of your children. Keep your parenting simple and don't over extend during this trying time.
If your only parents goals are to spend as much time with your kids as you can sanely handle, and get them to bed and fed on a consistent schedule, then you are still providing crucial elements to raising healthy children.
No matter how the conversation goes and the divorce proceedings unfold, always remind yourself you are NOT a bad parent for getting a divorce. Life after divorce is possible!