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Acknowledging Children’s Feelings After Divorce

Instead of laboring over kids having a broken family, I encourage parents to frame divorce as a change in the family, not the end of it.
(6 min 57 sec read)

Lori Denman-Underhill
Lori Denman-Underhill uses the power of the press to raise awareness about endless causes.

As a divorce coach, I’ve never been thrilled about the negative images that tend to be associated with divorce. Instead of laboring over kids having a broken family, I encourage parents to frame divorce as a change in the family, not the end of it.

That doesn’t mean however, that I want my clients to see their breakup through rose-colored glasses. When emotions are running high and strong even the most well-intentioned parent can lose sight of just how stressful and confusing divorce can be for children. As a result, I routinely advise parents to think carefully about the beginning steps.

How you start has a big impact on where you and your kids end up. While I’m not one to use “doom and gloom” scare tactics with my clients, there are times when parents need to be able to sit with the “hard truths” to keep a clear perspective on how this change really feels for kids.

Here are a few truths about parenting kids through divorce worth considering:

This is gonna hurt

I know this may seem like a no-brainer to you but in reality, most parents have no idea how just how deeply divorce is felt by kids. It shakes them to their core and shatters their world.

Seeing them hurt will shatter your world too. You’ll want to make it better. You’ll want to fix it but you can’t. It’s really hard to sit back and watch those babies you love hurt but there’s no way around it.

No matter how much you love them, no matter how skilled you are as a parent you won’t be able to take all the hurt away.

Please know even though you can’t make it better, you have the power to make it infinitely worse.

Hang on to that. There will be times when not making it worse will be the only thing you can do. It may also be the one thing that gets you through those moments when you need to dig deep, suck it up or bite your tongue.

Divorce will suck for your kids

Be okay with that. When you’re feeling helpless you might be tempted to offer a quick up sell on the benefits of this new family arrangement. Don’t. While two birthdays, two vacations, two Christmases would make any self-respecting kid swoon, two schedules, two different set of rules, two ways of being parented, two sets of stuff you schlep back and forth, doesn’t. Allow them the chance to feel sucky, to hate divorce, to get angry and be sad. Tell them you think it sucks too and it’s okay to talk about how bad it sucks. Hug them tight while they cry at night.

Make sure you let them know even though it doesn’t feel like it right now, you know they’re strong enough to get through this.

You will need a tribe

As a divorce coach with over 15 years under my belt, I can tell you there’s no magic bullet. Getting your kids through the rough spots takes more than love. There will be times when you will have to swallow your pride, look past what feels unfair, find ways to compromise or give a little ground to make things better for your kids. While you may be very committed to your children, sheer willpower alone won’t get you there.

In order to be the parent your kids need you to be, you will need support.  

Reach out to people who will listen and support you instead of fanning the flames. Surround yourself with people who love you and your kids and can offer a soft place to fall when things get to be too much. Find someone you can turn to for an objective point of view. From time to time, you will need to see a situation through another set of eyes. Find your people and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

You’re going to mess up

Even with the very best of intentions, no matter how careful or enlightened you are, you will make mistakes. Be gentle with yourself, no parent gets it right 100% of the time.

The key to parenting well isn’t avoiding mistakes. It’s not making the same ones over and over again. 

When you fall off the wagon, dust yourself off and own it.  Come clean with your kids and do what’s needed to make things right. Children are incredibly forgiving and they will love you for trying your best.

You won’t know it all

Now that you’ve split up, you may think you have the inside track on how your kids feel and how they’re handling divorce. After all, who would know them better than you?

The funny thing is… divorce can really muck up those parenting superpowers. When the emotions kick in, it’s not so easy to separate how you feel from how your kids feel. In those early days, everyone is reeling which makes it hard to be emotionally objective. You should also know during this time your kids will be super sensitive to how you’re feeling. They don’t want to rock the boat or make things worse than they already are. To keep the peace they may tell you they’re okay or act like they’re fine, even when they’re not. They might tell each parent different things. Of course, it’s only natural that each of you will think you are hearing the truth and that the other parent doesn’t know what they are talking about.

Do your kids a favor and don’t assume. They’ll also silently navigate all kinds of awkward situations that really stress them out. You will be probably be clueless about this.  At school plays they will worry about who they should walk up to first, weigh out whether they are looking at each parent an equal amount of time at their baseball game or struggle with being fair to each parent when they plan how and where they will celebrate their birthday.

Pay special attention to those little details when special events come up. Try to see the world through their eyes and do what you can to remove any unnecessary stressors for them.

It really is until death do you part

Don’t fool yourself in to thinking now that you’re divorced those vows mean nothing. When you have children with someone, they mean everything. No matter what happens from this point forward, you will always be the only Mom and Dad your kids will ever have.

There will be countless occasions and once-in-a-lifetime moments where they will need you both. Make it easy for them to have happy memories of having you both in the same room for birthdays, graduations, weddings and the birth of their own children.

Find some way to make peace with what has passed because how you really feel about each other will be painfully obvious to your kids. You may think you’ve got them fooled but children are extremely perceptive. They will pick up on the occasional slights, the off-handed remarks and the impersonal yet polite exchanges.

Taking the high road is no easy task. When you find yourself struggling, think about what message you’re sending your kids when you can be nicer to a total stranger than the person you share children with.

They’re not alright now, but they can and will be

There’s a silver lining to this dark cloud… kids can handle hard stuff. They’re often much more resilient than we think. And the truth is most kids come through this stronger, more capable and wise beyond their years.

Here’s the catch, how they get through this tough time and move forward in life as happy, healthy, human being depends on you. The choices you are making right now aren’t just shaping their today, you’re shaping their tomorrow. Do your best to choose wisely. Divorce is tough but doesn’t have to be the end of the world.

“It’s (divorce) like a roller-coaster. When you’re on the top you feel so happy, it’s fine the way it is right now. But when you’re on the low part of the rollercoaster, you know you’re frustrated… As time goes, you might feel a little bit sadder. But soon you’re going to get back to the top and be happy.” Tea, 9 years old

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