Helping children cope with the pain of divorce

What splitting couples can do to make the transition more comfortable for their kids.

Divorce is painful.

Breaking up is hard to do, especially after couples have tied the knot. They look back at their wedding day, filled with promise and joy. They wonder what happened. How did everything go from spring to winter?

Adults tend to blame themselves. And they blame each other. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough. Why couldn’t I compromise? Why couldn’t she see what I needed? Why did he make it so hard for me? What happened to our love? In the gloom of that moment of shearing, it’s very easy to feel bad about oneself and one’s partner. Most individuals feel like failures. It’s a crummy feeling.

In addition to self-reproach, one or both parties can feel anger. There may have been months, maybe years, of feeling hurt and injured by the other party. The intense emotion of love can turn into hatred. It’s an ugly feeling.

By the time most adults have made the decision to part, these feelings of both self-reproach and antagonism have grown and ripened. Ending this partnership involves emotional, legal and material change.

It’s easier when there are no kids. But when children are involved, breaking up becomes more complex. There is no King Solomon here. The kids must live either with one parent or another, or they shuttle back and forth. To parents and kids, none of these alternatives compare with living under the same roof. None of them look good to anyone.

On top of it, many times, someone has to pay child support to the other parent. Families strapped paying for one roof, now have to pay for two roofs. The economics of breaking up cut the family income in half. It isn’t pretty.

These are all good reasons for adults to seek help from a marriage counselor way before the relationship has turned sour. One of my biggest frustrations as a psychologist is that couples frequently seek help after it is too late! But sometimes, for many good reasons, it can be time to part.

Regardless, it is important to set aside one’s feelings about their spouse and find a way to make this challenging transition more comfortable for children. It is possible.

Tell your children together. It’s always best for both parents to sit children down together and tell them what is happening in language that they can understand. It is impossible for kids to understand the complexities of adult relationships, so don’t bother with the details. Kids are most concerned with what the separation will mean for them.

In a situation where one parent wants the separation and the other doesn’t, avoid the temptation to blame the departing parent! (e.g.—“Your mother wants to leave us.”) Better to be more general (“Despite everything, our relationship isn’t working out”).

Acknowledge that this is going to be hard. It’s helpful and honest to tell children that this will be difficult at first, with many changes for them, but in time they will adjust to it. Find examples in the recent past, where they had an experience that was hard at the beginning, but then they adapted.

Keep your feelings to yourself. This is perhaps the most difficult task of all. When parents have intense anger or hurt, it is hard to keep it from spilling out! Even if you avoid the temptation of saying negative things about your ex, grunts, groans, and sighs can say it all!

Keep the kids out of your disagreements. Inevitably, there will be differences of opinion about how to split up your lives. Work overtime to keep these differences away from your children. Remember, the walls have ears!

Take the high road. I know, this can be very hard when the you-know-what hits the fan. Take the long view. Life can throw you and your children many fast and hard balls. Your kids will learn from you how to cope with these ups and downs. Show them the right stuff.

Get help. Down the road, new love will sprout. But then new knotty problems arise — stepchildren, step-parenting and blended families. Love will not be enough to solve these problems. Don’t be proud! Find a counselor to help you negotiate this new landscape.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.

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