What a Child of Divorce Wants Parents to Know
If you have children and you’re getting a divorce, you’re likely concerned about how it will affect them. It’s natural to worry about the potential negative impacts children experience when their parents split up and they go from one household to two. Do you wish you knew the perfect parenting techniques to love and support your children during divorce? I am here to guide you – not as a fellow parent, but as a child of divorce.
I partnered with Hello Divorce to write this blog because there are plenty of resources from other divorced parents, therapists, mediators and other adult experts out there … but not many from the kids themselves. After all, we can offer some of the best insights into how to succeed at co-parenting and helping your children deal with your divorce.
I decided to fill this gap by writing a book on my experience (soon to be published). I also started a podcast, Divorce: What I Wish My Parents Knew (available on all platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts).
In my podcast, I interview children of divorce to capture a diverse range of perspectives. During these interviews, I noted some commonly shared beliefs. Here are the top tips children of divorce want to share with parents.
1. Don’t speak poorly about the other parent
We understand this can be difficult, especially if your ex did something that hurt you or your children. But the more you can stay positive, or at least neutral, the better.
Everyone I’ve interviewed (who are now in their early twenties) spoke about this topic. They either praised their parent for preserving the other parent’s name, or they complained about how their parent tarnished the other parent’s name. You may see it as protecting your child, or telling them the real truth, but here’s the reality: that person will always be their mom or dad. You may be able to separate yourself, but they cannot. And most children of divorce thrive when they have healthy relationships with both parents.
Try to see it from your child’s perspective. Imagine, spending 50/50 with both parents. At one house, mom talks about how their father is the worst, claims he always lies, and can’t be trusted. At the other house, dad talks about how mom always exaggerates the truth and says her words cannot be trusted.
Where do you expect the children to go when they’re in need? They are hearing from both parties that the other cannot be trusted. What are they to do? Pick a side? The child is likely to think, “Maybe mom is the bad parent, because dad always played outside with us and mom complained that dad worked too much…… or maybe dad is the bad parent, because mom always cooked for us and snuggled with us, and dad was always yelling at her.”
Whether it is intentional or not, you are forcing your child to pick a side when you bad-mouth your ex. Or worse, they might pick neither and seek love, attention and support elsewhere.
Advice: If you need to vent, go to a sibling, friend, trusted colleague, neighbor, therapist or another supportive adult.
Do not vent to your child, as sympathetic and attentive as they may be. Don’t waste your time with your children talking about their co-parent – they are likely to respect you less for saying negative things, or appreciate you for remaining respectful toward them.
2. Don’t buy your child’s affection
The second most talked about point with other children of divorce is that their parents tried to buy their affection. Again, whether it was intentional or not, that’s the message the child received. Most of this gift buying was done in the effort to make up for missing something in the child’s life or to make the child like them more than the other parent.
One interviewee said they had to make sure they reacted the same to all the gifts they received on Christmas. If they got more excited about one than another the parent would say something like, “Oh, I guess I did horrible this year compared to your father! Sorry, I don’t have as much money as him! I guess you love him more!” The self-pity was horrible.
A child is a sponge, and smarter than you may think. They absorb this self-pity that you may feel and make it their mission to make sure mom or dad doesn’t feel like that again. They feel guilty about their excited reaction hurting the other parent's feelings and think it is “their fault.”
Advice: Children need present parents – not presents.
Material things are no replacement for genuine love and support. They know what you’re doing. In fact, some children will advantage of this and manipulate their parents. They might say something like, “The divorce makes me really sad, I wish you could buy me a new Xbox. That would make me feel better.”
What a child really needs is present parents who show up in their lives. I am not asking that you show up with perfection, knowing all the answers to life. But I am asking you to simply show up with your undivided attention, your hugs, and your “I love you”s.
3. Counseling & journaling are tools for healing
This last tip is for all parties involved. If you or your child is struggling, counseling or journaling can help a lot. Think about how hard even small changes to your routine can be. Change is, even more, overwhelming for children.
Your divorce changes your child’s life in so many ways. All of the sudden, they have two different homes – maybe even different schools. And now they’re supposed to pack a bag to travel between each house? And their parents don’t love each other anymore? How?
Advice: Consider trying various forms of therapy, which could be as simple as journaling or as in-depth as weekly therapy.
Working through all of the changes and complex emotions that result from a divorce is so crucial. Non-sugar-coated advice from not just a friend, but a professional, can make the difference between “just getting by” and moving successfully through the emotional stages of divorce.
My best tip to find a good therapist or counselor is word of mouth first. Ask your close friends and family if they have any recommendations. You can also try online therapy. Many counselors take insurance or work on a sliding scale, so if money is an issue don’t assume you can’t afford it. Sometimes only a few counseling sessions can help; other times, it might need to be longer-term.
At a minimum, buy a journal for yourself and for your children. Take some time both independently and as a family to write out your thoughts. Writing does so much for processing hard things. Here are some guided journals I recommend:
- Eccolo Self Care Journal
- Grateful Together: A Gratitude Journal for Kids and Their Parents
- Wreck This Journal
- Papier’s Wellness Journal
You’ve got this. Oh – and don’t read your child’s journal unless they volunteer to share it with you!