“I was always afraid of the squid and whale fighting,” Jesse Eisenberg’s Walt tells his therapist in The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical tale of two brothers caught in the middle of a nasty divorce between their literary parents. “I can only look at it with my hands in front of my face.” The title of the film evokes — all at once — the famous exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, how watching your parents argue can feel like a titanic clash between two beasts, and Walt’s realization in this particular scene: that in re-examining the experiences that have terrified him, he gains insight into why they held such power over him in the first place, and the ability to be truly honest with his mother and father.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Step-Parenting
A divorce is a profoundly traumatic experience for a family on all fronts, but particular damage is done by the breakdown of communication between parent and child. The tension and pressure involved in a separation can make children of divorce feel unable to tell their parents how the situation is affecting them, and they may not even be able to articulate those feelings for many years, leaving many parents hopelessly unaware of the effect their actions have on their kids. But as Walt displayed, hindsight can be a powerful tool. So, in order to help parents going through a divorce, we asked some adults who endured their parents’ divorce as children what they wished they could tell their mothers and fathers at the time.
Take It Seriously
Flippancy begets flippancy. Or, at least, that’s the lesson Lisa Conception, founder of LoveQuest Coaching, learned the hard way. Conception’s parents divorced when she was three before finding their own life partners, leaving her with a skewed vision of the divorce’s weight. “I thought … that I could be flippant when I got married,” she says. “‘What’s the worst that can happen? I could always get a divorce!’” But as much as this might feel like an emotional security blanket, it communicates something very different to your kids.
It’s hard to look at something as painful as a divorce in the eye. But to kids, presence and directness are critical. “I wish my father knew his ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude meant my sister and I had the opposite attitude towards his absence in our lives,” says Nabeel Khalid, whose parents split when he was a kid. The more Khalid’s father tried to brush off his responsibilities to his children, the more desperate they were for a direct connection with him, one that would have come with a price. “His argument was always that he would support us (financially) if we lived with him,” says Khalid. “But we couldn’t live without our mother.”
Don’t Force a Step-Parent On the Kids
Meeting other people after a divorce is as healthy as anything. If that turns into a marriage, that’s great. However, as much as ‘you’re not my real dad’ has become somewhat of a cliché, it’s a painfully real bit of cognitive dissonance with which children of divorce have to reckon. “Stop trying to sell that dream to try and water down our other parent’s validity in our lives,” says Ave Rogan*. When a parent tries to reinforce a step-parent’s status as the ‘new parent,’ it can be too much for the child. It’s all symptomatic of something Rogan’s mother noted after her divorce. “She said that divorcing someone you share a child with is like living with a ghost,” says Rogan “Oftentimes they continue to ‘haunt’ you because your child has some of their same traits—physically, character-wise, etc.” But attempting to impose a new partner’s personality on your child can’t be the answer.
Don’t Talk Trash
Negative feelings towards your spouse during a divorce are perfectly natural. When your children become a sounding board for those feelings, the repercussions are lifelong. “My parents divorced when I was eleven,” says author Cindy Gerard. “As I would spend time with each parent I would hear how awful the other parent was.” This behavior, Gerard argues, can evolve into more than just a gross misjudgment of your child’s emotional capacity. “I have seen so many others around me do the same thing,” she says. “Or worse, use the children as pawns to hurt the other spouse.”
Kids Don’t Deal with Divorce Uniformly
This one might seem like a no-brainer, as all people deal with major life events in their own way. But a divorce can shift a parent’s perspective, and it might seem like the path of least resistance to assume that each of your children are dealing with this pain in the same way. It’s just not true. “I am the oldest of four girls,” says Dorina L M. “I’m the only one married. I have six kids. I feel like I benefitted by being older when my parents divorced compared to my sisters, who were between seven and eighteen when they split.” The wider the range of ages, experiences, and temperaments amongst your children, the more variety in their reactions to the process.
Don’t Avoid Each Other
One of the most painful experiences as a child of divorce, says Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, LCSW-C and author of Cruising Through Caregiving, was her parents’ inability to be in the same room. “Seek counseling and support,” says Fitzpatrick, “so you have the confidence and emotional fortitude to see your ex at important events in your adult child’s life.” While it might seem like an important method of self-care — and this isn’t to say it can’t be — as life goes on, that automatic response ripples through the rest of the family. “Don’t expect your adult child to have two separate elementary school graduations for your grandchild,” says FitzPatrick.
Remember That Sometime’s It’s For the Best
As painful as it can be to admit, your kids have the capacity to understand that divorce was the healthiest long-term solution. They may not understand this right now, and might not be able to for a long time. But though divorce shouldn’t be your first solution, says Prudence Onaah — author of Unwholesome Past, a novel about the psychological effects of divorce — “we know that sometimes living apart is better than living together … one day, we would come to know too that their relationship is not a mirror for ours or a prophecy that ours would fail should we try to allow love into our lives in the future.”
*Some names have been changed in this piece out of respect for the anonymity of the sources.