Did you catch this short, heartfelt video this past week of this sweet little girl, sitting on the stairs at her house explaining to her mom how she wants her divorcing parents to behave? Several friends who are also therapists brought it to my attention, and I think it's well worth watching. It comes straight from her heart.
This little girl also causes me to reflect on the many children and teens I have seen the last 25 years as a family therapist who shared many of these same feelings with me. If we listened to children's feelings, here are a few points to keep in mind as you make this transition:
1. Your child or children didn't make this decision. You and/or your partner did. You might be happier, but you have to respect your children's own grief process. It's a huge loss for them of their intact family. Their grief process can take a very long time, and get reawakened as they pass significant life events and you are not together as a family. This would include their graduations, life passages like dances and learning to drive,holidays, weddings.
2.Be nice. Be respectful to the other parent, no matter what your feelings are for them. You do this as a gift to your children. Remember, you selected that other person to have a family with. Your children probably still strongly need and value that other parent you are no longer interested in or are dividing assets with. Your child will thank you down the road for being kind.
3. Keep the children out of the middle as much as you possibly can.
4. Find an adult listener who is not your child. You have your own feelings---anger, fear, sadness and more but it's dreadful for your child to hear it.
5. Hold on to the adult/child boundaries. In separation and divorce, children can be scared and teens can test the limits to see if you're still parenting. Maintain bedtimes, homework time, mealtimes. Make it a point to still play with and enjoy time with each child and together as a household. Keep taking an interest in their lives. Divorcing parents can get so overwhelmed with their own feelings. Also, please keep everyone sleeping in their own bed.
6. Listen, deeply from your heart. Ask your children how they are doing. Find out if they want or need more support, like individual or family counseling or a divorce group for kids to get help adjusting. Remind them that anything they are feeling is okay. Be fully present when you are with your children, not being distracted by your phone.
7. Avoid badmouthing the other parent. Watch angry texting and emails as well because they create a tense environment between households that will impact the children. Try to avoid drama, like calling the police, unless it is a true emergency. It's traumatic for the children to watch that happen.
8. Wait to date. I've worked with teens whose parents are just barely separated and mom or dad are sharing their dating experiences on Tinder which is scary for them. Your children need to be your focus for quite a while. Usually, children want to be center stage and have parents be stable, supportive and available to help, not crazy in love.
9.Don't unload your stresses on the kids. Manage your stress with exercise, support from friends and family, a good therapist who can help you process your grief and understand your part. Don't worry the kids with your worries. Keep alcohol use to a minimum. Make a stress management plan for your own self-care.
10. Let the kids know things on a need to know basis, and as it is developmentally appropriate. It doesn't help kids to know the other parent cheated on you. On the other hand, if the other parent gets incarcerated don't tell the kids something vague like they are away or working out of town. Children need to feel like they know the key aspects of what's happening in their own families. If in doubt, call a family therapist or your pediatrician for advice.
11. Provide reassurance. Let the children know they didn't cause the divorce, and that you did love the other parent when you met. Let them know that you are still their parents and are still going to work together as a team on their behalf. Make custody change days as smooth as possible, or have custody changes occur from school pick up to avoid scenes.
12. Realize you aren't really getting rid of the person you are divorcing. When you have children, you are connected through those children, and if you are so lucky, by grandchildren later as well. Act accordingly.
13. Limit the changes as much as you possibly can. If you can keep the children's schools the same, do it. It would be great if you could stay in the same residence, and the other parent move nearby. If you can't, stay as close to the children's friends, school and grandparents as you can.
Divorce is hard for children. You have it in your power to minimize the pain for your children. You'll be so happy you chose amutually respectful and child-centered way to navigate this family transition.