How to Talk to Your Kids About Divorce (Part Two)

Part two of "How to Talk to Your Kids About Divorce" focuses on the ongoing relationship with your co-parent and children.

By Laura Vogel, Ph.D. Director of Early Childhood Therapy | Feb 10, 2016
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This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common
Parenting Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

Click here to read Part One: Breaking the News.

After your kids have settled into the news of your divorce, it is time to shift your attention to the ongoing experience between the three parties – yourself, your co-parent, and your children.

Here’s the most important takeaway. I’m going to put it in bold because it’s THAT important.

The more cooperative parents can be, the better the experience for the children.

It can be hard to be cooperative. After all, you’re going through your own emotional struggles with the experience. You’re feeling betrayed, or upset, or frustrated, or embarrassed, or angry. It can be even harder if the other person is not being cooperative with you. If you’re hearing rumors that he’s saying mean things about you, or if he’s treating you poorly. It can be hard. Very hard.

But let me remind you. The more cooperative parents can be, the better the experience for the children.

A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “Would I be proud if my children heard/saw my behavior? Would I want my children to talk this way about someone?” If the answer is no, try to adjust. Try to say only kind things about the other person. If that’s too hard, of course, you can just say nothing. Try to be respectful of the other person. Try to imagine that the other person is doing the best he can, even if it’s not meeting your standards. Try to be compassionate and understand that the other person is also going through his own emotional experience.

You are feeling hurt, but your children’s hurt is different. You should see your adult friends, or a therapist, to help you with your hurt. You should not put that hurt on to your children. What do I mean by that?

Let’s say your kid tells you, “Dad said he didn’t want to get divorced and that you made him.” You will feel hurt. You should take that to your therapist or your friends instead of saying, “Well if he didn’t want to get divorced, he shouldn’t have…”

You have the opportunity to give the message you want your kids to hear. You can be positive, or you can be reactionary. You cannot control what the other person says, but you can control your response to it.

When parents speak poorly of each other, children feel conflicted. If a child loves both his mom and his dad, but his mom is telling him that dad is a bad person, the child doesn’t know what to do with that information.

Try to look at everything through the eyes of your child. I have a friend who never asks her children how their weekend was at their dad’s house. This is not coming from a place of anger or resentment; rather, she is always thinking about how her actions might impact her children. She worries that her children will have a hard time answering these kinds of questions. Will they wonder if she’s fishing for compliments –  – or feel as though they need to protect her feelings –

So she just doesn’t ask at all. Certainly, if they share their experiences with her, she listens with curiosity. The most important part of this is that she’s thinking about her actions through the eyes of her children. In her particular situation, asking that question can be complicated and might cause unnecessary stress for her children. The same is not true for every family. Some divorced parents sit together at their children’s performances and then eat dinner together afterward. Some don’t do these kind of joint activities but are perfectly respectable and there’s no tension at all. Some haven’t gotten to a place where they can speak kindly of each other yet. There are many different ways that people handle divorce, so I like my friend’s posture of thinking about it from her children’s perspective.

Another tricky topic to navigate are the different expectations in two different households. In a perfect world, you and your co-parent would have the same rules in both homes. However, this is easier said than done at times.  If your children come home complaining about your rules and make statements like “Dad lets us eat in our rooms at his house,” your best response is to acknowledge that there WILL be differences. Just like there are different rules at school than home, rules in one house may be different than the other. Children can usually adjust to this if

(Notice the theme here?). Again, avoid the temptation to speak unkindly of the other parent.  Rather, a statement such as “I respect that your dad has made that choice, but at my house, this is the rule. It has been thought through and I am not going to change my mind.”  One of the few times I suggest parents re-think rules is around anxiety-provoking structure. For example, if a child is able to sleep with a night light at one house, but is forced to sleep in a completely dark room at the other, I encourage parents to think through why their rules exist. If the answer is “his father is just babying him too much and he needs to toughen up,” you may need to honestly ask yourself if the rule is for the child or about anger held for the other parent. 

Lastly, I suggest that you continue to monitor the situation. It will change and grow as time goes on. A child who initially reacted strongly to the divorce might eventually come to peace with it once the dust has settled. A child who seemed calm at the initial news might start failing classes or hanging out with different friends or getting upset at seemingly small things. As you stay in tune with your family, you can decide who, if anyone, should seek therapy. A child with a strong support system of peers and adults might be able to navigate this without therapy. A child who starts having drastic changes of any kind might need outside help. Seek a therapist who will work not just with your child, but your entire family.

I know how hard it can be to have compassion and cooperation during one of the most difficult challenges of your life. For the sake of your children, try, try, try. Because I will remind you again, the more cooperative parents can be, the better the experience for the children.

P.S. Here’s a nice little sheet I like to use with families. I personally think it has a few too many “DO NOT” suggestions and not enough “DO” suggestions, but it’s a great list nonetheless.