During the typical arguing and fighting leading up to deciding to divorce and during the divorce process itself, what should and shouldn’t you tell the kids? When you think there’s still a chance to salvage the marriage, should you tell them nothing is wrong so they don’t worry? Should you re-assure them that you and your spouse will be together forever? In a nasty divorce, should you tell them what a rat your soon-to-be ex-spouse really is? How can you protect the kids from being scarred and totally messed up later? Whatever you decide, you must deal with each child and situation as unique and design your answer to deal with each child’s questions in an age appropriate way. And keep adjusting as they grow older.
Think of the process as your needing to peel layers off the children’s concerns. One concern will lead to another or maybe you’ll return to a previous one. Saying something one time will not be enough. You’ll have to return to some issues, depending on the individual, many times. But don’t make a problem where the child isn’t.
You’ll think very differently if the divorce is amicable or if it’s a nasty, vicious, vindictive power-struggle to the death. In one case, you’ll probably say “We” a lot while in the other you’ll probably say “I” a lot,.
If it’s an ugly situation, don’t pretend that your ex is perfect. Be truthful and distinguish between what behavior the kids can count on and what’s just your opinion. Always ask them to check things out for themselves; like little scientists. Help them think of reasonable tests; who keeps promises, who’s on time, who are they afraid of, who can they rely on, who blames, shames and guilt-trips?
Some guidelines, not rigid rules:
- Don’t allow the “Big Lie.” When the children sense that there’s frustration and tension that sometimes boils over into anger, bullying, abuse or violence don’t deny their kid-radar. Don’t tell them everything’s fine and that they’re wrong. The most important verification they need is that they’re sensing and seeing reality. They must know that there is trouble and that they can sense it. For example, “Yes, you’re very smart, you can sense what’s going on and your radar is accurate. That skill will help you the rest of your life. Sometimes, I don’t tell you what’s happening or why, because I want to keep it private or maybe you’re too young to understand yet or I don’t want to upset you unduly. But I want you to ask me if you worry about anything.”
- The most important assurance they need is that they can be fine. For example, “I know this can be scary and hard and you’ll have lots of questions. Over time, I’ll answer them as best I can as we work out our new living arrangements. But the most important thing is that you dedicate yourselves to having great lives. Never let anything get in the way of that. No matter how scared or upset you might get, overcome it. Make sure that you’ll look back on this tough time as just a speed bump in your lives. Make sure that you’re not bothered much by it. Your parents’ fights have nothing to do with you. You’re not the cause of them. You’re fine. We just don’t get along. Your job is to grow up and get independent and find someone you will get along with. And that this tough time isn’t a big deal in your life.”
- Help them overcome uncertainty, insecurity, anxiety, fear and panic. Assure them that you’ll always care for them and take care of them, in whatever way you can. For example, “We’ll figure out how to be together and be safe and have good times. I’ll always see that you have the things and the opportunities you really need. It’s always hard when we’re in a transition or in limbo waiting to see what will happen and you don’t have control. Your job is to focus on what’s most important for you right now and that’s not the emotional turmoil you’re living in. The turmoil isn’t your doing. Your job is to take charge of what you have control over; your moods and attitudes and efforts, which means school. Make this turmoil as small and colorless in your life as you can. Don’t step into it; stay outside of it. This is good training for you in mental and emotional-control. These are the number one skills you need to learn in order to be successful later in life.”
- Help them deal with mean, nasty kids who taunt, harass or cut them out. For example, begin with developing their inner strength, “Not having as much money as we did or having some other kids act mean because your parents are divorcing is not really important. You can be invulnerable. You may feel like you need to be liked or be friends with those kids now, but when you’re out of school, with 70 years of life ahead of you, you won’t care what those kids think. You won’t want to be friends with those kids. More important, you’ll see that they’re acting like jerks and you’ll decide never to care what jerks think. You’ll have the freedom to go anywhere and be with anyone so, of course, you’ll choose to be with people who love and like you, appreciate and respect you, and who treat you better.” Follow up by making sure the school principal stops this bullying.
- Some other questions they might have are: Are all marriages doomed, will I choose the wrong person just like you did, will we kids be split up, can I stay at the same school, will my other parent move far away so I never see them again, whose fault is it, do I have to take sides, will I still have grandparents, will I still get birthday and Christmas presents, can I use guilt or my temper tantrums to manipulate you, will I still have to brush my teeth? Don’t give into them or give them everything they want because you feel guilty, want them to like you more or think their lives are too hard.
- Don’t use your kids as your best friends, confidants or therapists. Don’t use them to comfort yourself or as pawns in a vicious struggle. They’re your kids; they’re not adults or lovers. Take your emotional pain and baggage somewhere else. You have to be a responsible adult, no matter how difficult that is. If you can’t, you should consider making safer arrangements for them. For example, “This is too painful for me to talk about. Sometimes I get tired and stressed out, and I blow up or lose it. I don’t mean to. When I’m like that, don’t take anything I say seriously. Suggest that I need a time out. Your job, children, is to look away and focus on your own tasks so you can have great lives as you grow up. No matter how hard it is, you have to focus on school and getting skills so you can take care of yourselves when you’re adults. That’s what’s important. Your future is what’s most important to me.”
The big message is about the wonderful future they can have. The big message is that they can/should/must decide to let this roll off their backs. Even though it’s happening to them, they can be resilient. They can move beyond it and create wonderful lives for themselves.
We adults make a mistake if we worry that when bad things happen, the children are automatically guaranteed to have huge problems later in life. Looking at them as too fragile and helpless to resist the effects of a difficulty, divorce or trauma is like giving them a terrible thought virus. It’s easy for them to catch that virus.
Actually, our responsibility is to protect them from that too common virus. For example, they might tend to worry that since a classmate is so traumatized because their parents are divorcing they’ll be messed up also. You might say, “No. You’re strong and wise and brave and you have me to keep reminding you that you’ll be fine. Stop bullying yourself. Take power over yourself. So choose to be fine; dedicate and discipline yourself. Choose to be successful, no matter what. That’s my wish for you.”
Tell them stories about ancestors or great people who overcame the same or even worse situations in childhood. For example, “Don’t be victims of what happens to you. Be one of the ‘Invulnerables.’ Did you know that a study of 400 great people born in the 19th and early 20th centuries found that most of these people had absolutely horrible childhoods? Yet they were not destroyed by what had happened; they were invulnerable. They became much stronger. They had great lives – including wonderful marriages. You too, my beloved children, can choose that path for yourselves. Please do.”
Since all tactics are situational, you’ll need expert coaching rather than just guidelines. We’ll have to go into the details of specific situations in order to design tactics that fit you and the other people involved.
“How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” and “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids” have many examples of kids growing up under very difficult situations and learning to take command of themselves. For personalized coaching call me at 877-8Bullies (877-828-5543).