Mister Rogers (talking to a young boy whose parents are going through a divorce):
“I think one of the toughest things for children is for their parents not to be getting along, and so divorce feels like it’s just ripping a piece of cloth apart, and for children to try to understand that is sometimes way beyond their capacities. So you really need somebody to help you know that both your mother and your dad love you. It wasn’t your fault that your mom and dad don’t live together, and it won’t be your fault if they get a divorce. As a matter of fact, you are probably one of the best things that has ever happened to your mom and your dad. And they’ll love you as long as they live – and even longer. But for a little child to have a mom and dad that don’t like each other, it’s very important for you to know that they still love you.”*
A divorce can be devastating for a child. But it doesn’t have to be. Studies show that where the parents keep the children out of the middle of their dispute, and where they are able to find a way to co-parent (in spite of their differences), then the children will likely turn out just fine. However, this is easier said than done. When a relationship falls apart, it is a difficult and emotional time, even for the strongest and best of us. Fear, sadness, and anger are human emotions, and to struggle with these feelings during a divorce or separation is normal and natural. But remember that while you, as an adult, are able to make sense of the situation and understand your feelings – a child (even a teenager) is not capable of doing so. He or she is helpless, confused, and scared. A child is likely to feel that the problem is, somehow, his or her fault, and often those confused feelings and a deep sense of hurt will result in defiant behavior. Or worse. Children who are placed in the middle of their parents’ dispute can sometimes turn that anger and defiance inward, which may cause them to think or act in self-destructive ways.
While in the midst of a crumbing relationship, it is easy for even the most loving, caring parent to be temporarily blinded by fear and anger. Arguing in front of the children, talking bad about the other parent in their presence, sharing inappropriate information about parental problems or a divorce case, forcing children to choose between parents, demonstrating violence – these are all things that can occur during a difficult divorce or separation. But you, as a parent, must understand that this type of behavior can have long-term negative consequences for the children. In fact, it can cause irreparable damage and change the course of their lives. So, what can you do to prevent that from happening?
HOW TO KEEP CHILDREN SAFE AND SECURE
As difficult as it might be during this time of extreme stress, it is up to you to constantly remind yourself that you are the adult – you are the parent – and it is your responsibility to protect the best interests of your child. Obviously, pretending that nothing is wrong is not the answer. That would be dishonest and not-at-all helpful. Your child knows that something is wrong. Most experts will tell you that the best approach is to talk to the child in a reassuring and age-appropriate way. The key is to let the child know: “This is not your fault. We are your parents and, even though we are having some grown-up problems right now, we both love you and we will always be there to take care of you.” This is a message that every child needs to hear. It provides a sense of protection and stability that will help the child to get through this difficult experience.
But what do you do if the other parent is incapable of protecting the child and keeping him or her out of the middle of the dispute? Answer: Then you be the adult. Studies show that as long as there is one stable, responsible parent who is protecting the needs of the child, then that child will likely turn out fine. You can be that parent. It is difficult, I know, but somebody has to take on that role – so it might as well be you.
HELP IS OUT THERE
For a parent going through a difficult divorce, separation, or custody case, please be assured that there are places you can turn for assistance and support. Therapeutic counseling, for you and/or the children, is often extremely helpful. For a parent facing an acrimonious split, it can feel like you are the only person in the world who has ever experienced such a thing. But a good therapist has helped hundreds or thousands of families with similar problems, and he or she has developed a broad range of solutions that can help you, too. Your church or synagogue can be an enormous source of support. And there are many divorce support groups out there with people who are going through the same thing that you are now. Through these groups, you can receive not only ideas and support, but you may also develop lasting friendships. If your child is having problems, it might be helpful to notify the school and let them know that the family is going through a separation or divorce. An understanding teacher or administrator can be very supportive, and many schools have psychologists who can counsel the child at no cost to you.
HOW TO AVOID FUTURE PROBLEMS
I am a big believer in counseling during – and after – a divorce. I often recommend “Post-Divorce Counseling” for my clients. Co-parenting after a divorce can be a new and sometimes challenging experience. There will be times when your child is spending extended periods of time with the other parent and, while you were able to be there to supervise when you were living together, you will now be unable to intervene or even know what is happening in the other parent’s home. This can cause the fear and stress level to intensify, which can lead to anger and miscommunication. The best remedy, in my opinion, is “Post-Divorce Counseling.” This is where the parents meet with a counselor on a regular basis – maybe every 6 months or every year – to discuss issues regarding the children, and to make sure that the parents are “on the same page.” I have found that this type of counseling can help parents feel confident that they are being heard and that the children’s needs are being addressed. It also helps the parents avoid future disputes -- an all-to-common problem that often results in more trips to the courthouse, which can be time-consuming, expensive, stressful, and destructive.
MAKE SURE YOUR CHILDREN WILL BE OK
So, there is a reason to be optimistic. Being the child of divorced parents is no longer a stigma. Today, it is the norm. If you will just make the effort to assure your children that they are loved, and that their parents will be always be there for them (even if the parents are no longer living together), then it is likely that the children will grow up healthy, happy, and well-adjusted. If you are able to co-parent, or at least keep the children out of the middle of any disputes, then their future looks bright, indeed.
Gary J. Frank is an
* From the book “The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers” by Amy Hollingsworth