I’m not going to lie, divorce is really hard on kids! Their world is thrown upside down and they miss their other parent, and they don’t know how to manage all the fear and anxiety your divorce is causing them. It’s a really tough time for children.
But in truth, divorce is also a really tough time for you too!
Trying to get over a breakup when you’re a parent is complicated. You want what’s best for your life, your heart, and you sense you’re on the right path for your kids. But you don’t know for sure. You worry all the time and the guilt is always there. You start hiding so as to not make things worse for them. Like you only speak to your attorney or your best friend when the kids aren’t around; you date when your kids are with the other parent, you send the kids out of the room so you can gossip, and you turn the volume up on the TV so you can talk on the phone.
This behavior is necessary and it’s useful, it’s called “protecting your children.” But protecting your children means you start to hide and put on this fake image in your own home appearing super strong or invincible. You play hard to get so they don’t see you’re upset. You lie. You know you can’t confide in them - they can’t be your confidant - and yet, you don’t know how to manage your own crazy feelings so it’s hard to show up real in front of your kids without anger or fear. No matter what age.
When you speak with friends or family about your divorce, neighbors you haven’t seen in awhile, usually, everyone is concerned about your children. Which drives those divorcing absolutely crazy! The first question my clients need to know is, “Don’t I have a right to be upset and destabilized?” My answer… absolutely yes, you do! You have a right to ask for help and to get personal support! These are difficult days and this particular transition - going from being married to becoming single again - is one of the most difficult experiences adults go through.
I’ve been around parents divorcing for a very long time. I’ve been a parent divorcing. It’s super hard to manage the balance between getting yourself your support, the inherent venting and frustration, and doing what’s right by your kids. Today, I want to share with you some useful coping skills and techniques so that you and your children can get through your breakup easier. It’s important that the separation from your spouse doesn’t ruin your relationship with your children, but so often without skills, it becomes much harder than it has to be.
The guilt is the first thing I want to address. We feel guilty about separating our children from their other parent. Sure, there are plenty of reasons - important, justifiable reasons for needing to separate children from some adults - everything from addiction, emotional abuse, and violence to infidelity, criminal activities, and living like roommates. All along the spectrum, there are real reasons families breakup. Divorce doesn’t happen in healthy and happy families. But just because there are good reasons to break up, doesn’t mean you won’t experience guilt and it’s cousin feeling, known as shame.
The worst guilt is the one other parents will unknowingly toss at you - the statistics on future success your kids will miss out on or the things your kids will not be able to do now that there’s less money to help them achieve. (News Flash: when a frenemy shares those facts with you, you have my permission never to speak with them again.) Even though many of these statistics are accurate, there’s no reason your particular family needs to succumb to ongoing suffering because of your divorce, especially knowing what we know about this particular experience and how to deal with it today.
You do not need other parents to define your feelings. You will automatically feel guilty and shame all by yourself. Toss in some embarrassment about the situation you’re putting your kin in - whether it’s the fighting or the upheaval they’ve witnessed and experienced, and you’ve got plenty of your own heartache to contend with without more help. So stay away from the people who don’t have your back! And get you and your children the support they need!
Then there’s the should’s that permeate the decision-making process - the comparative feeling that you should be able to deal with the partner and the life you’ve got when compared to your neighbor’s life. You may think that living in a sexless marriage is easy compared to the neighbor down the street who’s partner is hitting them. That it’s better for your kids, and they at least have two parents at home.
There’s the idea that you should be able to handle the emotional roller coaster you’re experiencing during the decision making part of divorce when your attorney and financial advisors are throwing tons of information at you and your ex is causing an emotional ruckus to put it mildly. At this point, you’ll be wondering what’s wrong with you and may be asking, “Why can’t I handle the stress? This is what I want.” Things won’t be making much sense and you’ll wonder if you really can separate after-all.
Sure, playing the comparison game keeps many couples together for way longer than they should be. It even brings couples back together again as they try to navigate the experience of separation. But this is your life, your finite experience and only you get to decide what you can tolerate, and how much you’ll accept. No one else is in your bed with your spouse. No one else understands your heart or has your fears.
When I work with parents, I do my best to help them understand that the feelings of guilt and shame are natural for people going through a breakup when a child is involved. I remind them that comparing themselves to others started long before they learned how to walk, and that during their separation, they’re going to feel a bunch of conflicting emotions. I impress upon them that they have a right to being acknowledged and respected. That their feelings are valid and important and that they’re allowed to live their own life, not one influenced by neighbors, family or their religion. I also help them understand that their children are not stupid.
Your children may be chronologically young but many are quite wise. How many times have you met an adult who knew their parents’ relationship wasn’t healthy? How many times have you personally had a friend tell you that their parents should have split up long before they did? How long did it take for you personally, to understand the relationship your parents really had? It usually takes awhile but we know.
Your kids know exactly what’s going on. They may not be able to articulate in detail what they’re feeling or what they know, but they have a keen sense of what’s up. They’ve seen the mean-spiritedness, they know dad and mom act more like friends than lovers, they’ve heard the fighting, they’ve witnessed the abuse, they see your tear-stained cheeks, and they know how hard you’ve tried.
So, you really don’t have to tell them anything. No facts, no opinions, no details, no gossip. No brainwashing. No lies. No self-righteous justifications. You let them be and give them space to express what they need. And you go elsewhere to vent.
This perspective isn’t always easy to maintain. You’ll want to voice your feelings, you’ll become frustrated and you’ll have bursts of anger. You’ll blame the kids’ other parent, see your ex reflected in your children’s behavior; you’ll want them to get on your side, you’ll need to be right in your children’s eyes. These are the moments you have to hold your breath. Bite your tongue.
If and when you indulge the anger and talk badly about your ex, the courts call it parental alienation. All professionals look down upon this behavior and you will lose out. Sorry, this is so true. (And adds to the guilt.) So, one of the things you’re going to start doing (if you haven’t learned this skill yet) is to share only what you can in bite-sized amounts that are age appropriate for your kids.
Instead of venting in angry bursts, you find a place to exercise. You develop a meditative practice or begin praying every day. You go back to church. You walk in nature. You cry with a friend. You hit a punching bag. You do anything and everything so that when you are in your role as a parent, with your children, you are as calm and respectful as possible.
You won’t be perfect at this.
However, your children are watching and you’re showing them how to manage stress during difficult times. (I don’t have to tell you that it’s super good for you too, to develop these healthy practices no matter what’s going on in your life.)
When you mess up, you apologize. You give your kids the benefit of the doubt. You hear them out and you acknowledge how upset they are about your outbursts. It’s embarrassing but necessary. Your kids can’t be lied to. They know what they witness and how they feel. Honor that. Respect them. And get them outside help. Yes, it’s time to share your kids even more.
Coaches, teachers, a babysitter, a social worker, counselors, and therapists are there to help all of us. Your children will need an objective, safe place to process their feelings about you and their other parent. They will be afraid to talk with you about your divorce for quite some time. Maybe years. They need your approval and your love, but they also need your ex’s approval and love, and they know that’s a tough one for you to handle. So find them outside help.
Then get yourself some help. You need help. You need perspective. You need a team. You can’t afford not to invest in yourself right now. Righting your heart and mind so that you can parent and handle all the reasons why you and your spouse ended your relationship is critical.
You need to process and move through all the stress from the legal separation, while also paving the way toward a new future. This isn’t easily done with the skills you’ve currently got. Your emotions will be all over the place. The fear of change, and the stress that change causes will destabilize you. There will be times, you won’t recognize yourself.
So breathe. Know this is normal.
The experience of divorce has its own rules and transitional steps. It’s very different than staying in a bad marriage. It’s also very different than being separated and creating a life on your own. If left on your own, this change can be difficult to manage. Please don’t expect that you can handle this on your own especially if you can’t. Please don’t expect your children to be able to handle the stress themselves. Both of you will need outside help.
Getting over a breakup when a child is involved makes your separation more difficult than you’d like. However, it’s also possible to rise to the occasion and find yourselves the support you need as you all learn new communication and coping skills. Getting help is becoming more and more normalized and quite necessary to safeguard any lasting effects. I should know, I was a child and a parent in divorce!
My Scarlet D™ Weekly Letters are a resource to help those going through divorce understand and anticipate the emotional journey ahead. Opt-in to gain perspective and weekly action steps. You can find them at www.laurabonarrigo.com