No one wants to expose a child to secondhand divorce, but sometimes parents need to do exactly that in order to make sure that nobody in the family ends up trapped in an emotional miasma of negativity. Unfortunately, divorce traumatizes many children, but that result is not inevitable if parents are proactive and communicative (but not over-communicative) about the what and the why. A parent’s behavior at the outset of the process of separating can either ease or amplify pain. To do the former, it’s critical to start an honest conversation early.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Divorce and Kids
“Even after you get to the point where you know you’re divorcing, you still have to parent together,” explains child psychologist Dr. Scott Carroll, author of Don’t Settle: How to Marry the Man You Were Meant For. “You’ve got to work together as parents even though you’re not together as a couple and that can be profoundly difficult.”
Nearly half of all marriages in the United States will end in divorce. The reasons can vary, however, experts most often point to a refusal to seek help for issues of addiction and depression, infidelity, and money problems as the most common causes. What’s more: a divorce often causes headaches, stomachaches, nausea, and mental health issues such as nightmares and flashbacks. All of which illustrates why working together and having a simple talk can seem nearly impossible.
The point of parental cooperation should be to create a calm environment for the kid or kids. To that end, parents should agree not to fight in front of their child. If something needs to be said, it can be said quietly (if heatedly) in another room. It’s very inconvenient that children are destabilized by aggressive parental conflict, but there it is. And don’t think that whispering angrily through tight smiles helps. Kids aren’t dumb.
“If the father is screaming in anger, either at the mother or the child, you risk traumatizing them,” says Carroll. “It just takes that one time. If it’s too intense or too loud and you have a two or three-year-old, you could traumatize them.”
With the ground rules and a quiet, comfortable, stable home environment in place, parents can address the impending divorce with their kid. In the best of all possible scenarios, this talk should happen with both parents at the same time. And the message should be as simple as it is predictable: We will be living in separate places, but we are still a family and we still love you.
“Children will often illogically think that they’re the cause somehow,” Carroll says. “They’re very ego-centric so they think it’s about them, kind of naturally. It’s important to reassure them that they are not the cause and that they didn’t do anything wrong.”
If there is simply no way for both parents to be present during the conversation, it’s critical that parents never use their child as a messenger or go-between. And that they repeat each other and that core message — separate, family, love — almost compulsively. It’s also important that when parents are explaining the decision in a one-on-one scenario that they leave out the gory details. A kid doesn’t need to know if someone cheated, or was dishonest or disastrous with money.
“The thing is, as much as you may be upset and hate your soon to be ex-spouse, that person is still their parent,” Carroll explains. “Children love their parents, so to try and play favorites is not fair or good for the child.”
Carroll explains that a parent holding their tongue about their ex-spouse is not for the benefit for the ex, but for the child. The child should always be the motivating factor.
“If the parent has a significant issue, the child will figure it out,” he says. “You telling them can often damage your relationship with them.”