My husband and I are in the process of a divorce. I’m not sure about how to talk to my kids about it or what to say. They seem to be OK but a lot of changes will be happening very soon. Their ages are 12, 10 and 7. Should I take them to counseling or try to talk to them myself?
A: This is a great question and I applaud you for taking initiative and seeking guidance during a traumatic time for your entire family.
Close to half of all American children will witness the breakup of their parents’ marriage. How the divorce is handled by the parents is a very good predictor for how the children will react and respond emotionally. Parents can either choose to be supportive of each other and co-parent with respect, or argue, fight and cause a tense situation for their children. It is a conscious choice that you and your husband will make.
Children need stable, predictable, loving homes with clear rules. This holds true whether parents are together or divorced. The changes that your children are experiencing are unsettling at best and possibly disturbing at worst. Their minds may fill up with worries, fears and anxiety about what will happen next. Focus your children on the fact that their lives will certainly be different but they will still have all the people and things that are important to them. Try to remain positive but realistic. Listen, listen, listen to their anger or resentment about the divorce. They are entitled to have and express mixed feelings.
Involve your children in your decision about counseling. Explain to them that sometimes when situations are hard or confusing, it is helpful to talk with someone objective and hear advice, gather support, and even laugh a little. Try to minimize their fears about counseling and encourage them to give it a try. Studies have shown that children who have counseling during divorce have fewer future mental health problems and a lower incidence of alcohol and substance abuse. Talk with your husband to gain his support in offering counseling to the children. It’s possible that family counseling would be helpful to all of you. Also, remember to talk openly with your children about these changes and remind them that the divorce IS NOT THEIR FAULT. Even when it’s tempting, do not badmouth their father — always show support for their relationship with him.
Be on the lookout for signs of depression, withdrawal, aggression and extreme defiance. These are all strong indicators that you should seek immediate professional help for your children. It may also be helpful to talk with the counselors at school to make them aware of the changes that your family is experiencing. They may be a safe resource for your children to turn to during the school day.
It is essential that you take care of yourself during this time. Divorce is a traumatic experience on many levels and you need support and guidance as much as your children do. Seek out an understanding counselor or join a divorce support group to deal with feelings of loneliness, fear, and anxiety. If you take care of your mental health you will be a stronger parent for your children. The effects of divorce can be minimized with the right approach, flexibility and help. When you find yourself in doubt about how to handle a situation with the children, consult with a professional for guidance and advice.