The words we choose, can have such a dramatic effect on a situation, and ultimately can be life altering for ourselves and for others, in a mere moment.
When my ex and I chose divorce as the right path for us, that’s exactly how we described it to the kids. We demonstrated that no one needs to compromise themselves for another person, and we decided that changing the status of our relationship was the next right move to keep our relationship healthy. We cared about each other, and we were parents together, but we were “not good” at being married and we would be better as friends.
We did not inject drama or words like “ending”, “divorce”, “separation” in the communication, we let them ask the questions. If they used those words, we validated them, and continued to describe the situation with as neutral a stance while supporting their emotions as much as possible.
And of course, the kids experienced their own feelings associated with the change in our family situation for them. There were lots of questions, emotions, and obviously discomfort with the change and immediate uncertainty. But, what we continued to focus on, was ensuring they fundamentally felt the same sense of love, safety and belonging that children need to feel in the family unit. Reinforcing that foundation was absolutely key to the beginning of a new family situation with a healthy approach.
However, unfortunately, in high conflict situations, where parents (one or both) share the devastation of THEIR hurt, sadness or overwhelm with the kids, they will take that on. Kids will likely emulate their parents, may feel the need to take sides, and reach to feel the same fear, shame, sadness and trauma. They may also immediately assume a caretaker role of the upset parent, and that my friends, is not our kid’s jobs and it is the beginning of our job as parents to never put them in the middle. Ever.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not naive to the fact that divorce completely changes the landscape of the family unit, change is very uncomfortable and there needs to be room for a level of grieving what was, but, we have the power to minimize the impact by the choice of words we use, the age appropriate information we share, and ultimately how we are seen to support our co-parent in front of the kids. Because they are watching. Like hawks.
Supporting the kids feelings is paramount, and the best approach is to to reflect them back to the child, label them, validate them, stay with them in their processing. Just don’t make it worse by your own projection.
Your kids are not there to commiserate with you, no matter what age they are. Young children cannot handle the stress and do not have the capacity to understand what is happening, and that goes for older kids as well. Teenagers and young adults have enough stress in their lives. They are not your confidants as you move forward in your family’s new reality. Their brains are developing and we need to feed them nutritional messages for healthy brain development, even through crisis or change – constantly.
Be as neutral as possible. Kids have likely seen and experienced tension, frustration and anger between the parents already. Model for them that you have come to a resolution that is the best for all.
Take each step one at a time…do not layer on the change with ‘we are getting a divorce, mom is moving out, she has a house 10 minutes away and she’s already moved in!”….perhaps that’s the case, but that’s not how you present it to the kids.
Know your children’s temperament and typical reaction to change. Pre-empt that with comfort, body language, smiles and eye contact. Most importantly, let them feel what they feel and validate their feelings but do not commiserate with them even if you share similar feelings.
Be ready for questions. That does not mean you give them ‘the’ answer to everything, just ‘an’ answer. Have age appropriate answers for the typical questions and if you don’t have the answer, a good approach is to let them know that you’re not sure yet, but as soon as you know and it’s the right time, you will share it with them. Reinforce that it is going to be ok.
The evolution of the family ecosystem through a separation and divorce is fraught with nuances, but with this healthy beginning of the new path for the family, the meaning, safety and predictability for the the kids, will start with more ease and less overwhelm.
As a wise mentor of mine once said “The kids are still in the nest, the nest just looks a little different now.” I’ve never forgotten that. The kids will thrive in the newly formed nest.