By Sandra F. Banks
1. Create a mutual story that does not accuse or blame the other parent. Before telling your children that you are getting divorced, sit down with your departing spouse and come to an agreement about what you will say. Getting different stories from different parents only makes your children more upset and less able to cope. What you say does not need to be complicated. It can be something as simple as, “Mom and dad need to live apart from each other, but you will always be our children and you will always be wanted by both of us.” At all costs avoid the temptation to blame your spouse for the divorce. Children, especially young ones, do not need to know that your spouse had an affair, or is a gambling addict, or is basically the root of all evil. Sharing that type of information only makes children angry, frightened, and confused.
2. Give your children as much information as they need to understand the situation and help them feel secure. Children need help understanding how their lives will be affected by their parent’s divorce. Be prepared to answer logistical questions about with whom your children will live, where they will go to school, and who will drive them to soccer practice and dance class.
While you can and should answer your children’s questions as simply and honestly as possible (“Mom is going to stay here in the house, so during the week while you are in school, you are going to live in the house with mom;” “Dad is still going to take you to soccer practice every Saturday and for ice cream on Tuesdays after school.”), do not put your own worries onto your children. Children need to know that they still live in their house. They do not need to know that your soon-to-be ex-spouse is asking for so much alimony that you do not know how you are going to pay the mortgage.
Your children may look for seemingly simple ways to keep you and your partner together. It’s very normal for children to ask, for example, why you can’t simply apologize to each other. Address these ideas seriously. You might say, “I wish it were that easy. Sometimes grownups have fights that apologies cannot fix.”
3. Give your children permission to express their feelings in acceptable ways. Children with divorcing parents may experience a full range of emotions, from sorrow to rage. It’s critical to allow your children to express these emotions. Allow your children to cry, rage, draw, and punch pillows, or a punching bag if one is handy. Many children benefit from attending a support group for children of divorced parents or from seeing a therapist one-on-one. Just as it’s important to give your children appropriate outlets for their emotion, it’s equally important to continue to set limits. The rules don’t change just because you and your spouse are getting a divorce. Playing parents against one another (“I bet dad would let me watch a movie before I study for my test.”), refusing to do schoolwork, rudeness, and other unacceptable behaviors should not be tolerated.
4. Give your children a certain amount of control. Multiple studies have shown that children who have some control in the wake of their parents’ divorce ultimately heal faster and come out stronger than their peers who have no say in their own fate. Giving children some control does not mean they get to dictate every aspect of their lives. You may be divorced, but you are still the parents. Instead it means allowing for some flexibility. For instance, where possible, let children know it’s okay for them to want to spend a specific holiday with one parent as opposed to the other, or that dad can take them to the baseball game even though it’s technically your weekend. Older children may even want some say in the custody arrangement.
5. Keep their lives as normal as possible. Children take tremendous comfort from routines. As much as possible, allow them to stay on their sports teams and attend their music and art lessons. Give them time to spend with their friends and take them to their regular doctor appointments. They still have to go to school, brush their teeth, and have ice cream for dessert, not breakfast.
6. Take care of your own mental and physical well-being – you cannot support your family if you are falling apart. Divorce, even when it’s the best option, is an emotionally painful and exhausting process. You need a safe place to cry, rage, blame, and begin to heal and move on. Your children need you to be there for them emotionally, physically, and psychologically. Your lawyer needs you to be clearheaded and able to answer questions, make decisions, and provide extensive information. You need to work out how to co-parent with your ex, adjust to living in a house without your ex, determine your financial state, and figure out your new future. The safest and best place to do all of this is in the office of your therapist. Your lawyer can and will listen as much as you need, but your attorney is an extremely expensive therapist.
7. Most important – let the lawyers do the arguing. While it may be tempting to rail at your ex every time he or she is five minutes late picking up your child, or to demand why he or she cannot pay more child support when there seems to be plenty of money for an annual trip to Europe, fighting, especially in front of your children, only exacerbates the situation. Remember that if you and your ex could have resolved these types of problems in the first place, you would not now be getting a divorce. When your children hear you and your spouse fight, it only increases their feelings of fear and anger, that can lead to acting out. They may start feeling the need to defend one parent, or that they, too, should be angry with a parent for reasons they in all likelihood don’t even understand. Your lawyer is experienced in resolving these issues and advocating for you, doing the fighting for you. Letting your lawyer take this on allows you to continue to put your energies into building your new life.
What To Do Next:
Experiencing a family law issue can be overwhelming and stressful. Knowledgeable family attorneys do much more than represent clients, they understand how choices made in the legal process can drastically affect life afterwards.
Sandra F. Banks offers clients a No Hassle Family Law Strategy Session to make sure every client gets guidance on how to achieve a stable, secure and happy future.
What’s more, if I’m not the right attorney for the case, you have my commitment that I’ll point you in the right direction. Just call my office at 510-336-2369 to schedule.