If you’d told me 25 years ago I’d be writing a post about how to make divorce easier on your kids – as if it were a subject I would actually know anything about, I would have thought you were a new kind of crazy. Honestly, if you’d told me just one year ago that I would be writing it, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Nobody ever expects their marriage to be one that will end in divorce, especially when you’ve been together for 25 years. But many do end in divorce, and even in the most amicable of splits, the stress of a changing family dynamic, and the grief over losing their intact family can be one of the greatest sadnesses of a child’s life.
While there’s no way to protect them from feeling sad at all, there are things you and your soon-to-be-ex can do to help meet your kids’ most basic human need: to feel loved.
Make Your Child Feel Cherished During a Divorce
As a form of your own self-preservation, it may feel easiest to hide in the corner of your new life following a separation and divorce. It’s hard to face your soon-to-be-ex, knowing that raw emotions and hurt feelings are a breeding ground for arguments that continue the cycle of raw emotions and hurt feelings.
But your kids need you to show up. They need to feel that – even though you may no longer love your partner, you still love your kids, and you love them enough to reach out to them with frequent check-ins. Even if it’s just to say, “I’m thinking about you today.”
Make them feel like they’re the most important person in your life.
If you’ve moved on to another partner who has a child, pay special attention to making YOUR child feel like they’re still cherished by you.
There’s almost nothing more devastating to a child of divorce than them feeling like they’ve been replaced with a shinier version, indicated by saying things like, “I feel like he likes her more than he likes me.”
Be careful that you aren’t overcompensating to show your new partner what a great parent you are by being Parent of the Year to their child, all while making your own child feel tossed aside. Your kids don’t get that that’s what you’re doing. They don’t understand that of course you still love them.
Check in with them daily with, “How is your heart feeling today?” or something more specific like, “What did you dream about last night?” Sit next to them and watch a favorite movie or TV show together, and you’ll notice that some conversations may organically come up. Pay attention, because when they do, you have the opportunity to ask questions to help your kids dig a little deeper into what they’re feeling.
Sometimes it’s hard for them to express their thoughts verbally. You can buy a notebook and write notes to each other, which is a great way to check in and let them express themselves in a way that doesn’t feel as intimidating as it might feel to talk face to face.
This is a tool my son’s therapist, Dede Johnson, LCSW, shared with us as my husband and I were divorcing over the course of the last year, and it was just as fun as it was helpful. The notebook is now a keepsake and a reminder of how we worked together to get through the lowest days of our lives.
Keep Fighting Away From The Kids
As much as possible, keep arguments with your spouse behind closed doors. Protecting your kids from conflict when you can, helps them from being privy to the dirty details of your split, and it buffers them a bit from feeling like they need to pick a side.
I’m not suggesting hiding all the angst or any problems from your kids, and pretending everything is rosy, because that isn’t honest and it’s also not real life.
Therapy Through Divorce
I can’t stress enough just how important therapy is for kids whose parents are divorcing. Even well-adjusted children can and do benefit from talking things out with someone who isn’t in their family.
Therapy helps them with so many aspects of mental well-being, even in kids who aren’t involved in a divorcing family. But it’s essential in instances where there is a divorce involved because they learn from a third party – someone who doesn’t have the emotional ties of a family member – that they aren’t to blame for the divorce, and they learn coping techniques to guide them through the challenges of their changing family.
The New Partner
Respect your kids by waiting until the ink is dry (at least) on the divorce before introducing a new partner to your kids. Even longer than that if possible. And if your kids express that they aren’t comfortable being around him/her, respect them enough to prioritize their feelings over your own, or over the feelings of your new significant other, and wait until your kids are ready.
There is no formula for how long this will take. Let your kids be the guide.
This won’t be easy. You’ve been dealing with your impending split from your spouse for a long time, and you’ve found a new love. You’re excited about your new relationship and you want your kids to embrace it, too. But this is all much newer information for your kids, and losing their intact family – no matter how unhealthy it may have been – is still traumatizing for kids, because it’s all they know.
For them, the world as they’ve known it is falling apart and they don’t know what lies ahead for them.
It’s Okay For Them To See You Cry
Heartbreak is part of the human experience. We want to protect our kids from it, like we want to protect them from everything that can hurt them. But pretending our lives are easy, or that we aren’t sad sometimes isn’t healthy.
One of the healthiest things we can do for our kids is show them we can work through our sadness and become happy again. It helps them know that it’s safe to feel emotions, and that feeling sadness doesn’t mean you’ll always feel that way.
Hopefully I’ve given you some insight on how to usher your kids through your divorce in a way that makes them know they’re loved, and that gives them a sense of safety in that the family is still a family; it just looks different than before.