Ask any child of divorce and they will agree, they were victims of a more difficult childhood and they still – 20 years later – admit that their parents’ divorce causes struggles for them.
Divorce is an all too common occurrence that can cause families to put their children at an emotional risk every day for the rest of their lives. According to Psychologist Judith Wallerstein, who followed a group of children of divorce for 25 years, divorce is not a sudden obstacle the child faces, but a life changing occurrence that alters their self-views and their opinion of the world at large.
As a divorce lawyer, I’m forced to see the fall-out of shattered relationships and the struggles each spouse has coming to terms with what they perceive as failure, loss and sometimes abandonment. Years of research have showed us that the children in these situations are at obvious risk as well – suffering future feelings of insecurity and self-doubt as a result of absentee parents.
What disheartens me the most is on the front lines it seems that the children most at risk are the ones whose parents are the least likely to take the time to talk about the child’s feelings, academics, problem-behavior or insecurities. In fact, these are the same parents I see that use their children as a pawn while waging war against their spouse.
If a child turns to alcohol and drug use or their academics falter, many parents berate and scold the child without taking into account their own culpability.
So what can be done? How can we mitigate feelings of failure, inadequacy and insecurity from a child while their parent faces the same emotions? How can a parent, determined to turn a new leaf with a new love, move on from the pain of divorce without forcing the child to be emotionally scarred.
- You Cannot Control Your Spouse
You love your child, and you do not have control over how your spouse shows their love. If your former spouse misses a sporting event or forgets to pick your child up from school, your child assumes they are to blame or that their parent doesn’t love them. This will be the most heartbreaking journey of your life, and while it may feel good in the moment to fault the other parent, you must remember that the best thing you can do is show the child love. They do not need you to support their doubt in someone, but build confidence in themselves.
- Let your Child Express Him or Herself
This is a sad situation. It is upsetting and hurtful and difficult to manage. You know that, your spouse knows that – and your child should know that too. If at every juncture, your child is unable to express their anger, frustration or sadness because they are told, “It will be OK,” “Don’t worry,” or “It is better this way,” they will feel as though their valid emotions are inappropriate and wrong. Support your child and let them grieve how they see best. Allow them to face their disappointment without you sugarcoating the situation or cutting them off with your own disappointment. This is a difficult point to balance – but an important one to grasp.
- Don’t Make Your Child Feel Guilty
Many parents subconsciously make their child feel guilty for spending time with the other parent. Children are all too good at reading the room. Greet the other parent with a smile, and let the child feel confident in spending time with you and your former spouse. Feeling awkward about coming home from the other parent’s house is an issue as well. It may be difficult to hear about your spouse and his or her new flame, but this is still your child’s life and their reality. Take an interest in their weekend. A good rule of thumb is to pretend you are asking about their time at camp or at a grandparent’s house. You don’t need to know if Grandma and Grandpa were holding hands or happy – you want to know if your child felt happy and fulfilled. Remember, it’s not a time for gossip, but silence can send the wrong question as well.
- Encourage Your Child to Use Their Voice
If Mom or Dad has been negligent in spending time with your child and they have voiced their concern to you, encourage them to speak with the offending parent. Many spouses will take this upon themselves and attack the absent parent or put them on the defensive. Embolden your child to politely tell the other parent that they would like to spend more time together. This communication will better serve them in the future and teach them not to keep their feelings bottled up.
- Get Help
Divorce is one of the few life situations where I see otherwise smart, capable, whole parents – totally unable to navigate the emotional turmoil they have caused. The havoc wreaked is of their own making, and leads some to feelings of guilt and failure. Due to the parent being unable to properly handle the weight of this parenting conundrum – I highly recommend that each family should see a children’s psychiatrist or family therapist. Each parent needs an objective, unbiased observer that can hear the child’s pleas for help and assist the spouses with a post-marriage relationship that is suitable for their situation.