Think your divorce is the worst thing that could possibly happen to you? So will your kids.
We did it together. And we never used the "D" word.
Instead, we told our boys that Mommy and Daddy didn't want to be married anymore. We emphasized that we are still their parents, that we love them unconditionally, and we are still a family … always. Nothing will ever change that. And still to this day, we keep that promise to them by acting as responsible co-parents, amicably attending their practices and events, and treating each other with respect. Sounds like my divorce was easy, right? Wrong. It was incredibly long, expensive and stressful. But just because my boys are the fruits of my marriage, it never meant that they had to be a part of my divorce.
Often, the negative emotions associated with divorce make people forget that it's about the marriage, not the family. The two are connected, but not the same. You will always be your kids' mom or dad. And you will always be co-parents with your ex. Don't ever forget that. Your family might look and feel different, but it is still the same when it comes to what is most important.
The things that create and sustain a family are love, acceptance and support — not money, where you live or a legal document that states two people are married. I might not be a wife after my divorce, but I can still provide those support and love to my children as a co-parent. And I do. I created a rule for myself early on that I would put my children's wellbeing first throughout this process. So, I did my best to not let my situation bleed into their lives unnecessarily. And I was mindful throughout this process, this transformation, to preserve my boys' sense of safety, acceptance and family as much as possible. It's not easy, but it's the most important thing I've ever done in my life.
Every divorce is different, but a parent's love for their child is universal. I'm not a child psychologist, but I've found, through my experiences as a divorced mom and a divorce coach, that there are some key things you can do to minimize the negative impact of divorce on your children. Here's my list:
1. Focus On What's Most Important
As a divorce coach, I often hear clients say that they put their kids first. What does that mean? For some, it means that they stayed in an unfulfilling marriage until their kids were older. Or that they try to get a higher level of custody or more time in the parenting plan in their divorce negotiation. My definition is different. Abusive situations aside, kids need both parents in their lives.
And the single most important thing to a child in this process is knowing that neither of his/her parents is going to disappear because of the dissolution of the marriage. It seems basic, but love, attention and support from both parents during this process is critical. As with all good parenting, kids need to see, hear and feel the same message from both parents that your relationship with them will never change — regardless of the circumstances. You might not be husband and wife anymore, but you will always be parents together ... whether you like it or not.
2. Be The Parent
So, being a parent means that you have the emotional maturity to be the leader, role model and guide that your children need to feel safe and secure. It's up to you to model appropriate behavior and provide the assurance that you can protect and provide for them emotionally and physically. Ultimately, it means that you are a guardian of the family, regardless of its new form. It doesn't mean you allow your kids to run the show: They are looking to you for leadership.
It doesn't mean that you allow them to be a part of your resentment, anger and pain related to your ex: They are looking to you to protect them from confusion, hurt and potentially feeling responsible. It doesn't mean you can bad mouth your ex or introduce your kids to your new girlfriend/boyfriend: They are looking to you to value and cherish the family that you have all co-created to reinforce their feelings of love, safety and belonging.
As the parent, your kids follow your lead. If you think and act as if this divorce is the worst thing that could possibly happen to you, then so will your kids. You are potentially setting them up for a lifetime of distrust and negativity. You have a choice. You can show them that all of life is about change and teach them flexibility and resilience. You can show them that nothing is black and white and teach them how to create a life of possibility. You can show them that divorce can honor the family differently and teach them empowerment and critical thinking. Remember, they will follow your lead.
3. Communicate On Their Level, Not Yours
Your experience is not your kids' experience. This is an important fact to acknowledge, because you can't assume that they understand or feel what's happening the way you do. Regardless of how old they are, your kids have separate lives and will experience changes related to your divorce based on how it impacts them. Their concerns can be as simple as where they will live and what they will have in their bedroom … or as complicated as how this will change their relationship with you.
You are in a unique position to help them understand that these changes can be positive. As a parent, you can show them how truly capable you are (and they are) in creating a new life; one full of possibility and fulfillment. As Jennifer Weiner wrote in Fly Away Home, "Divorce isn't such a tragedy. A tragedy's staying in an unhappy marriage, teaching your children the wrong things about love. Nobody ever died of divorce." So, put this all in perspective so that you can teach your children the right things about life and love. Again, it's all in your hands.
Having been there myself, I understand that most of this process is out of your control. I understand that your ex and how he/she behaves is out of your control. But I also understand that you can control how you behave. You can control your perspective and your actions. Modeling a positive outlook for your children will help them, and help you sustain it for yourself. And maintaining a positive perspective in this divorce will help you make decisions you will be proud of. Divorce doesn't have to destroy your family. All it takes is love, acceptance and support … all the things that made you a family in the first place.