My best advice for parents going through a divorce?
It’s just like the instructions flight attendants give to passengers at the start of a plane ride.
Divorce is traumatic.
Even though my ex-spouse is still a good friend, getting a divorced after 20 years was traumatic for me. When something traumatic happens, people have a need to talk. That’s a good thing. It’s natural, and needed. You will want to talk to family members, you will want to talk to your friends and co-workers, and you will want to talk to your kids. Again, this is natural – basic human nature. But, remember your children are different.
In the literature about divorce, you will find article after article, discussing the damage divorce does to children. Much of this damage is caused by the direct exposure of children to the fighting and anger between the parents. This open hostility can take place during the divorce process, and then continue after the divorce. These parents are the “fiery foes,” discussed in the literature. They fight to the bitter end. As a divorce lawyer, I have seen people live their lives in court – fighting, and re-fighting every imaginable issue when it comes to their children. It is horrible, and something I actively try to avoid in my practice. However, this article is not directed to the so called fiery foes.
Parents with the best of intentions can still over-involve their children with the divorce. This is true even when parents are using the collaborative divorce model, which is specifically designed to put your children first, and avoid harmful litigation.
As a parent going through divorce, you may want (need) to talk to your children about whatever trauma-based thought pops into your head. You will find yourself talking about the other parent, financial stress, and the divorce itself. In an unspoken way, these conversations encourage your children to identify with you, which is really the same thing as asking your children to pick a “side.”
Children have a need to be in harmony with the parent standing right in front of them. Your children will instinctively want to be on your side. Your children even may make unprompted statements to show that they are loyal to you. If you are a good person (and you are), you are going to try to avoid falling into this trap – you are going to set an example so your children do not feel they have to take sides. But, it is going to be harder than you think.
Get counseling for yourself
My suggestion is to get counseling for yourself during the divorce process, and to continue with counseling for as long as you need, after the divorce. To emphasize: I am talking about a counselor just for you, and not family counseling. It’s just like the instructions flight attendants give to passengers at the start of a plane ride. You need to put on your oxygen mask first, so that you can then help your children.
Use your counselor as a first-line filter for your thoughts and feelings about the divorce. If you feel the urge to share a divorce related thought with your children, or your children are prompting such discussions, talk to your counselor first. Just hold those thoughts for a day or two. If the thoughts are really that important, they still be there after a few days of “cooling,” and discussion with your counselor.
But what about the children’s thoughts and feelings? Don’t they have a need to talk about the divorce, and how it effects them, and how it makes them feel? Yes, of course. Your children will have a need to talk about the divorce. And, your children will have a better outcome if they have counseling on their own, and family counseling with you and your ex-spouse. However, you can respect your children’s feelings and needs, without making your immediate thoughts and fears about the divorce, their thoughts and fears. Before you can help your children, you need to first put on your oxygen mask.