Divorce and what leads up to it are not tidy and polite affairs. The children who bear witness to the demise of their parents’ marriage inevitably get wounded – some very deeply and invisibly at first. No matter how old a child is when his/her parents’ divorce occurs, the child learns a life lesson about the shadow side of love and its potential impermanence. Learning this lesson through the end of your parents’ marriage and perhaps the subsequent re-partnering of either or both parents, is confusing at best and life-threatening for young children who are dependent upon their parents for their very survival.
When we fall in love and marry, many of us have stars in our eyes and fantasize about living happily ever after. Then reality sets in and tests our ability to fulfill our vows to love, honor and cherish each other through the trials and triumphs of life. If we lived in a perfect world, love would last and be stronger than all the challenges that tear us apart. In reality, maintaining a loving relationship takes a lot of commitment, honesty, and vulnerability. It’s not for the faint of heart.
As a child of divorce, a life coach, and an interfaith minister who officiates at many weddings, I do not think that divorce, in and of itself, is a bad thing. In fact, I wish my own parents had divorced much earlier than they did which would have spared us from living in a cold war of mixed messages at home that wore a public mask of a perfect family.
When a parent leaves, so does a part of the child – we often hide the vulnerable and innocent parts of ourself to avoid dealing with our feelings and needs. We lack the personal resources to cope and our parents are too busy fighting, so most of us are left with the options of either expressing or repressing our emotions and fears. Hiding them is usually a safer bet.
These days most parents are too busy to be as attentive as their child(ren) need them to be when the family is falling apart and the kids are too often left to fend for themselves. However, this is a crucial time for a child. No matter how young or grown a child of divorce is, he or she has probably internalized some deep lessons that may remain as an unconscious filter through which he or she experience the rest of their life unless and until becoming aware of those messages and developing a realistic and healthy understanding of the matter. The two most dominant messages that kids of divorce internalize are believing that their parents’ divorce is somehow their fault and that love is conditional and might not last. Let’s take a closer look at both of these messages.
Younger children tend to be more susceptible to thinking the divorce is their fault. “If only I hadn’t … then Mommy and Daddy would still be together” is what many kids tell themselves. Some try to “fix” the situation by being on good behavior, imagining that doing so will be all that is needed to bring the parents back together so they can live happily ever after as a family. Even after the parents are officially divorced and are living separately, many children fantasize about what they can do to get their family back together again. For a child who thinks his or her bad behavior is responsible for the parents splitting up, it makes sense that they think their good behavior might reunite them and that their bad behavior might stave off a new suitor.
The second dark message many children of divorce hear is that love is conditional and does not last. ‘You loved my Mommy or Daddy, then he/she did something you didn’t like and now you are divorced. I better be careful or you’ll divorce me too.” We want our children to believe that our love for them is unconditional, but divorcing their other parent gives them a mixed message.
When we internalize the message that love doesn’t last, we learn to protect ourselves from getting hurt by not getting too close to anyone. We may evolve a survival strategy of avoiding intimacy – especially emotional intimacy as a way to avoid the vulnerability of ever feeling so powerless and devastated again. We may keep to ourselves or choose to use other people without actually bonding with them.
What can parents do to help their children thrive rather than hide when the family is breaking apart?
• First, don’t assume that reassuring your child that you love him/her is enough.
• Know that no matter how careful you might have been not to fight in front of the children, they saw and heard and felt their family falling apart and had no personal resources to do anything about it.
• Know that no matter whether they act out or put a smile on their face, their world is falling apart too.
• Take lots of time with them to help them draw out their deeper feelings and needs. Talk to them. Listen deeply. Use forms of creative expression to draw out their deeper truth. Go for counseling together. Reach out to their teachers and guidance counselors to help you watch for signs of distress. Check out books and websites on the topic.
• Keep the lines of communication with each child strong and open on a daily basis and keep a loving connection with them throughout their adulthood. Make a commitment with your X to both do this for each child and to not interfere with each other doing so.
• If the child acts out, make sure that your reaction communicates that your love is not conditional based on their behavior – i.e. “I love you and will always love you, but I will not accept that behavior.”
• Never complain to the child about the other parent.
• Never let them see or hear your judgment of the other parent. For the sake of the children, please play nice with your X when coordinating care and decisions regarding the children.
These days most parents are too busy to be as attentive as their child(ren) need them to be when the family is falling apart and the kids are too often left to fend for themselves. The health and well-being of your children is your responsibility until they are able to take care of themselves. Pay attention and be sure they feel your love no matter what.