If there is one aspect of family life that changed more than any other in the last half century, it is divorce. The D word has been transformed by decades of social change from scandalous rarity to something almost routine and every day. But while divorce has lost its power to shock, it has not lost its power to sadden. And children remain the innocent bystanders in every split.
The number of children who experienced their parents divorcing represents a disturbing legacy for society. We hope these children will be able to form stable, long-term relationships of their own in the future, even after seeing their parents fight, scream and cry. Such children will feel upset and uncertain about what the future holds, and many are left feeling torn in their loyalty to both parents.
Children are sharp and sensitive to their surroundings. Even if Mum and Dad save the crockery-throwing and accusations of intolerable behaviour for those times when the kids are out of the house, they will soon realise that all is not well. But there is much you can do as a parent to help them through difficult times and minimise the bad memories.
Telling your children that the family is breaking up will be one of the hardest things that you will ever have to do – hopefully! Whatever you do and however you do it, make it very clear that you both love the children, that it is not their fault the relationship is over and that they are not “leaving” either parent.
Other key dos ad don’ts:
Don’t involve the children in any rows. They may already feel that the break-up is somehow their fault – don’t make them feel worse by dragging them into the middle of the animosity.
Do give constant reassurance to your children that they are not to blame, that they are still loved by both parents and that this will remain the case, whatever may happen in the future.
Don’t put any pressure upon your children to take sides, however angry and in the right you may feel. Doing so borders on abuse. Most children feel a strong sense of loyalty to both their parents and trying to interfere with that can leave them scarred and confused.
Do present a united front with the other parent in all discussions and decisions involving the children – even if you can only do so through gritted teeth. Kids may be very distressed and disturbed if they discover that their parents are arguing over their future.
Don’t put pressure on younger children to make decisions about their own care. By all means take their feelings into account, but don’t expect them to choose.
Do encourage your children to express their opinions and feelings. Some children feel unable to do so, afraid that they will upset Mum or Dad. But bottled-up resentment and unhappiness will keep them from moving on.
Do remember that divorce is just as frightening and bewildering for the children as it is for you. So keep them up-to-date with events and be honest with them up to a point – without burdening them with the ugly details. Children are usually tempted to try to push their parents back together. This rarely works out, and it will be easier for them to come to terms with their family breakdown if they have some idea of the reasons behind it.
Don’t tell your children about the other parent’s misdemeanours. Just tell them that Mummy and Daddy are no longer happy living together.
Do set boundaries. Successful boundaries, along with respect for the other parent, will benefit everyone. Don’t interfere when it is your former partner’s turn to care for the kids – but equally, don’t permit your former partner to encroach on your space. Try your very best to respect the other’s choices and personal parenting styles – even if they are different to yours.
Of course none of this is a panacea. Unless you are very lucky, there will still be some tears and turmoil. But children are resilient, and as long as they feel safe and settled they will cope and learn to accept their new lives.