Few events are as destabilizing, disappointing, painful, and sad as divorce, and when children are involved the potential for real harm to them is great if parents are not careful about what they say and how they behave.
No matter how contentious the parents’ relationship has become, they should strive to do everything possible to spare their children unnecessary exposure to their anger and disappointment. Since every age of childhood requires special understanding relative to the child’s developmental and emotional needs, child development experts should be consulted to assist parents and teachers in helping children cope with the dramatic changes taking place in their family.
Both parents should agree on how and when they explain their divorce to their children and how they will relate to their children following the announcement. It is best when children are told with both parents present.
Parents should never speak ill of each other to the children, as doing so will be emotionally damaging.
When telling their children, I recommend that they say something to this effect:
“We both love you. We will always be your parents. Sadly, we have decided that it would be better for us not to live together or to continue being married. Our decision has nothing to do with you. There is nothing you did that caused us to end our marriage and there is nothing you can do to bring us back together. We know that our divorce is deeply disappointing and distressing to you, as it is to us, and that you are very sad about it, as are we, but we believe that this change will be better for us, and we hope in time that you will understand. We are both here for you. We both love you.”
It is a mistake for parents to share details of what went wrong in their marriage with their children. The children may know that there have been problems, but they do not need to know specifics, for that is the parents’ business and theirs alone.
Parents need to remember that their children are watching them. Everything they say and do affects them, and they will learn to cope with their own life challenges by the example their parents set as they cope with the end of their marriage.
Parents need not be stoic in front of their kids, but neither should they show constantly to them how grieved, angry, pained, and disappointed the parents feel.
Parents should strive to keep the children’s lives as normal as possible, should be open to hearing what their kids think and feel, and should not try and convince their kids that they are wrong to feel as they do, that they should “get over it” before they are ready, or ignore the pain they feel. Parents should accept what their kids say on their terms and affirm that their feelings are legitimate.
Parents should hug their children a lot and tell them how much they love them.
It is important that the children of divorcing parents have the support of close family, friends, clergy, therapists, and teachers. Parents should explain to their children how important it is for their teachers to be aware about the divorce so that they can emotionally support them as needed in the classroom.
The time following divorce, like that following a death, needs a grieving period. Shock, denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance are part of what divorcing parents can anticipate from their children. Children might act out in a variety of ways. Some may not react during the first months, and their reactions will vary according to age and respective relationships with each parent. As parents and children move through this transition together, children should understand that they must speak respectfully to their parents and siblings even if they are furious at their parents for this change that has been imposed on their lives.
It is a mistake for parents to over-compensate in what they allow and give to their children. Parents should not attempt to buy their child’s happiness. Among the most important things parents can do is to agree together on their expectations, privileges and punishments. This is often difficult, but if parents, despite their antagonisms, are willing to communicate and coordinate regarding their children, so that neither home is viewed as a sanctuary from the other home, then the stability and constancy children need will be more likely to occur.
I have written a booklet called “When Jews Divorce” that more completely discusses the Jewish view on divorce and other options for divorcing partners. It can be found on my synagogue’s website at http://www.tioh.org/images/Worship/ClergyStudy/when%20jews%20divorce.pdf.
Note: This is one in a series of blogs I am writing about difficult conversations that come up in families, among friends and in the workplace that we sometimes avoid or do badly. For a complete list, see my blog “More Difficult Conversations – January 17, 2014.”