When talking to kids about divorce, you should be cautious about how much you share and the way you phrase what you do say. While you may feel fully justified in letting it all spill out, some things are better left unsaid. Keep reading to find out some of the common conversation pitfalls to avoid when talking to your kids after divorce...
Divorce rocks a person's world upside down. It's emotionally painful, filled with change and important decisions that weigh heavily on the future. Children are the innocent witnesses that require a delicate and compassionate hand as they strive to make sense of their parents' divorce. When seeking divorce support, clients often ask me 'how' to talk to their children about the divorce. There are the words themselves, and there is also how much you share.
Even the most conscientious single parent can slip into some of these communication mistakes with their kids when emotions heat up. Here is what to avoid in conversation with children affected by divorce:
1) "I don't want the divorce, but your Dad/Mom won't work on it with me."
This is a very polarizing statement that sets up the child to blame one parent over the other as the cause of the divorce, and consequently all the change the child is dealing with. This just amplifies the confusion, and hurt your child has instead of empathizing or offering compassion. Even if this is accurate in your marriage, seek out other sources of divorce support to help you deal effectively with the emotions and blame you may feel towards your former spouse.
2) "Tell your Mom / Dad ..."
Keep the adult communications between the adults. Messages between you and your former spouse need to always be kept between the two of you. If you find it challenging to talk over the phone or in person, use email or text message. Let your behavior model for your children that his/her parents use mature, respectful communication in appropriate ways even when in conflict. This is your responsibility as you learn to co-parent and can also provide a huge life lesson for your children about conflict and communication.
3) "Your Mom / Dad is a ..."
Before labels, accusations, and hostile language is turned on your children's ears, remember that you are about to speak about a person that this child loves implicitly, trusts, needs and values in their life. Anything you might say to complete this phrase will be based entirely on your perception of your former spouse and not (necessarily) the truth. Additionally, it seeds a very destructive pattern for parent alienation. If you find it difficult to say anything nice about your ex, then find something like, "He/she is doing their best". You are simply affirming that none of us are perfect, but we are all doing the best we can with what we know.
4) "If you would just ____, your Mom / Dad wouldn't be so upset with me all the time!"
No matter what, your kids are not responsible for the quality of your relationship with their other parent. Placing this kind of blame and responsibility on a child creates a deep and heavy burden to him/her to carry. Not only that, you are not fully taking responsibility for your relationship(s). If you want to raise responsible children, show them explicitly how you do that in your own life. Conversely, if you really believe the marriage disintegrated due to a child, seek out a therapist or counselor for divorce support so that you can mend your parent-child relationship. You both are worth it!
5) "What is your father / mother doing or saying about me?"
From probing about your former spouses' new relationships, job situation, or thoughts about you, your child is not a spy or secret informer for you. Once again, adult conversations are best left between the adults. If there is something you need to ask or know, ask your former spouse directly. Asking a child to fulfill this role sets them up to feel awkward around you, positions them to betray the other parent, or possibly lie to you out of loyalty to the other parent. Remember to allow your child to be the child. They love both parents even with all of our imperfections. If you notice that you obsess with curiosity over your former spouse, take it as a signal that you are still healing. Time spent lingering over a dead relationship is time that could be invested into rebuilding your life.
6) "If you need something, you'll have to ask your Mom. I'm broke after paying child support"
Child support is another aspect of divorce that needs to remain an adult only issue and conversation. Your children do not need to know how much you either pay or receive for child support, nor your financial constraints. It becomes a part of your financial picture and budget, and how you teach financial lessons to your children is another topic worth consideration. In this case, however, explore the inquiry for money with your child. What is it for? If the money is simply not available in your budget, look for ways to be resourceful. Is there a teaching opportunity available for them to create a plan, earn the money, and save for something important?
7) "I'm sorry I wasn't there…something important came up"
Your children need constant reassurance that they are a valued priority in your life. Divorce can totally shift the dynamic and time commitment with your kids, compared to what it was in marriage. This makes is challenging to re-prioritize work time, family time, and personal time. Avoid last minute changes, or alternate care that leaves your children feeling unimportant and abandoned. Using a system to keep your schedule organized is critical so that all three areas of your life are attended to. If you find yourself scheduling personal time over time with your kids, find a system so that you can block out the time at work and time with your kids. Then get creative! You may even discover that your fun time can include the kids depending on the activity. Play with it, but above all, keep your commitment to your children non-negotiable and the last thing to be cancelled.
Happy parents are more effective at raising happy kids. Be sure to make yourself a priority and invest in seeking divorce support for yourself and your kids' sake. As a result, you'll find the whole process of raising happy, confident kids much easier when you are too!
For more ideas on talking to kids about divorce and helping them deal with the changes, keep reading: