Children of divorce have many divorce-related concerns. Below is a list of typical concerns and some appropriate and inappropriate ways to respond to them:
1. Why are you and Dad (Mom) getting a divorce?
Many children wonder why their parents are getting a divorce. Children are more likely to ask this question when they haven’t been given an adequate explanation about the divorce. It is important that children receive an honest response about the divorce from both parents. A parent may withhold information because they feel that “the child cannot handle it.” However, this response is often an excuse for parents who may feel uncomfortable discussing the divorce with their child(ren). Children are better equipped to handle such situations than parents think and often imagine that things are worse without it. Children need to be told preferably by both parents about the divorce. This gives the child(ren) an opportunity to ask questions. A parent might say, “Mom and Dad don’t love each other but each of us loves you.” Ideally, this should be said to the child(ren) before the parents separate so the child can adjust to the loss before it occurs. Parents should share the basic reason for the divorce (e.g. “we can’t get along”) and be truthful with the child(ren).
2. Will I ever see Dad (Mom) again?
Many children wonder if they will see their Dad (Mom) again. This question is likely to arise when the child is given no explanation about visitation or further contact with the other parent. Children who ask this question often feel abandoned and wonder if the departing parent loved them. Ideally, the child should be told where Mom or Dad is living and how often they will see the other parent. However, in cases where there is no contact with the other parent, the parent with whom the child(ren) are residing should be honest and reassure the child(ren) that she/he loves him/her and that Dad (Mom) is having problems or otherwise she/he would be here. It is important for the child(ren) to understand there is nothing wrong with him/her and that he/she did not cause the divorce.
3. Does Dad (Mom) love someone else?
Parents often wonder how to deal with questions about an extra-marital affair. This issue is a difficult one that requires a great deal of sensitivity. If a parent is getting a divorce to marry another person the children can be told that Dad (Mom) doesn’t love Mom (Dad) anymore and wants to live with another woman (man). Caution should be exercised in a delicate and honest manner to avoid alienating the child(ren)against the other parent. Alienating the children against each parent is harmful to the child(ren). When marriage is not imminent but is central to the divorce, children do better if they are told the circumstances. Parents should be truthful even though it may be painful and embarrassing. When the child learns about parental difficulties and mistakes, they will be less likely to make those mistakes themselves.
4. Why don’t you love Dad (Mom) anymore?
It is not uncommon for children to wonder why their Mom or Dad no longer love each other. Often, children will blame the parent who is initiating the divorce and view the other as a victim. This reaction is particularly true when the parent who does not want the divorce tells the child(ren) that the divorce is the other parent’s fault. In this case, the initiating parent preferably is difficult, children need to understand both sides and what contributed to the decision to divorce. It is important to note that some loss of respect for the initiating spouse is preferable to endless distortion and hostility between parents.
5. What will happen to us?
As a result of divorce, children will often have many questions about their welfare. Where will they go? Will we have enough money? Where will I go to school? Will we have enough to eat? Children who ask questions often have heard parents discuss these issues with each other or someone else. It is critical for parents to be honest with their child(ren) and indicate that while there may not be as much money, they will have enough to eat and a place to live.
6. What should I tell my friends?
Many parents are ashamed about their divorce and are reluctant to share it with others. However, if divorced parents handle their divorce in this way, their child(ren) will deal with it the same way. Thus, if parents don’t want their child(ren) to be ashamed they must not be ashamed themselves. Parents should encourage their children to discuss divorce and tell their friends about the situation.
In some cases, peer concerns may alarm children and cause them to worry even more. Once again parents should reassure their child(ren) that things will be okay. Parents should also encourage their child(ren) to be honest with others about divorce.
7. I don’t want my friends over.
Children often experience sadness at the time of the divorce. This reaction is often manifested in apathy and diminished interest in school work and being with friends. Such a reaction may be due to the absence of the departed parent. These feelings should subside in a few weeks provided the child(ren) has regular contact with the absent parent and the parent with whom the children resides is not depressed him/herself. Regardless, parents are advised to encourage their child(ren) to talk about the reactions to the divorce and emphasize the need to express their feelings. Parents can facilitate this openness by sharing their own feelings.
8. Why can’t I do anything right?
Children often become angry at the time of divorce. They have difficulty with anger and expressing these feelings. This response is particularly true for children of divorce who may be afraid of expressing anger to the departed parent for fear of losing contact with him/her or to the parent with whom the child(ren) resides lest she/he will leave also. Thus, children will often direct their anger at themselves saying things such as “I can’t do anything right” or “I’m no good.” While anger directed against themselves is safer, it is really anger directed against the parents. Parents should encourage children to direct their anger appropriately and help them identify the source of their anger. This task may be difficult since parents may be feeling guilty about the divorce and the effects it has had on the child(ren). Nevertheless, self-directed anger is harmful and often contributes to depression and low self-esteem.
9. She/he doesn’t love me.
It is not uncommon for a child to feel that the departing parent doesn’t love the child(ren), otherwise he/she wouldn’t have left. A child may reason since Dad (Mom) left “there must be something wrong with me” or “she/he doesn’t love me.” When children feel that a parent doesn’t love them, they worry whether the other parent doesn’t love them or whether anyone loves them. It is critical once again, for the parent to let the child know that even though Mom or Dad no longer love each other they still love him/her.
10. If you don’t come home, I’ll never speak to you again.
Some children make vibrant attempts to reunite their parents. Children may do this in a variety of ways. One of the most common ways is to threaten the parent. For example, a child might say, “ If you don’t come home, I’ll never speak to you again” or I’ll run away if you don’t come home.” The purpose of these statements is to make the parent feel guilty so that she/he will return home. In other cases, children will act out (e.g., exhibit temper outbursts, fighting with peers, noncompliance with parent and teacher) at home or school to attract the departing parent’s attention. Children believe that if they act bad enough their Dad (Mom) will come home.
Some children may be more creative and design ways to bring their parents together. For example, a child may ask to have a birthday party and invite both parents or make reservations for both parents at a restaurant. The child believes in this case that if the parents are physically together they can live together again.
There are several things that parents can do to help children become less preoccupied with reconciliation. First, parents can try to find ways to reduce their hostility towards each other. Children believe that parents are still involved when they continue to argue with each other after the divorce. On the other hand, when parents resolved their differences, children are less likely to see the need for parents to be back together. Secondly, parents can develop a cooperative, co-parenting relationship without becoming overly friendly. Parents who are too friendly with each other may stimulate images of reconciliation in children. This belief appears to be more likely when parents have frequent contact with each other which is not associated with visiting the child(ren). If children see their parents getting along, they believe that their parents can still live together. It is not uncommon for the parent with whom the child(ren) resides to call the other parent to discuss trivial matters or something the child did that day. Children thus believe that if they maintain their parents’ interest in them the parents will have more contact with each other and can be reunited.
11. I don’t want to come over today.
Children’s interests vary as they get older. This change is more difficult for the parent not living with the child(ren) to accept. Because the child has other plans (activities), the parent may feel that the child doesn’t want to see him/her. Even though the parent may be hurt, it is important to recognize that as the child gets older she/he will want to spend time with his/her friends. Instead of getting upset, it is important to schedule a meeting time that is convenient for both the parent and child(ren). When this isn’t possible, it is important to call the child(ren) on the telephone or write them a note. It is also important to ask the child(ren) to do the same. However, it is important for the parent to be aware that the telephone is no substitute for seeing the children. Frequent short visits are preferable to infrequent long visits or no visitation. By contacting the child(ren) regularly, the parent will be able to recognize their changing needs and strengths.
12. Will my plans be changed?
This question is often asked by adolescents. Adolescents often want to know whether there will be enough money for college. Will I be able to get a car? Will I have enough money for new clothes? Will I have to get a job? Do I have to baby-sit my brother (sister)? Adolescents tend to be more self-centered and want to know how the divorce will directly affect them. Parents should encourage adolescents to ask questions, and give them honest and clear answers (e.g., You will be able to go to college, but you may need to help by working during the summer to pay your tuition.”) Parents should be honest in their explanation of the problem (e.g., I need a car to get to work) but at the same time help the adolescent to find ways to solve the problem (“What are some other ways that you could get to work?”). Helping adolescents to find solutions to their problems will help them become more responsible and independent- important characteristics of personal adjustment.
If you are a parent struggling to navigate the complex aftermath of divorce, child and/or family counseling may help. Call or email to schedule an appointment today.