Psychologist John Duffy, author of "Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety," practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.
(hyakkendana-hashigozake.com)Mom said they were splitting up because Dad drank too much. Dad said Mom was having an emotional affair and was spending too much money. Mom said Dad was neglectful at times, bordering on abusive. Dad shared that he felt Mom was emotionally cold and remote with him.
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That"s what two siblings, a teenage girl and boy, told me as I worked with them to process the impending divorce of their parents. They were upset, not just because their nuclear family would be forever changed and their future more uncertain, but because their parents were over sharing and trying to pit them against each other.
These are all important and relevant points and need to be discussed. But I have found that creating a foundation around what will not change in their lives is just as important, perhaps more so, in maintaining the well-being of your children during and post-divorce.
Highlight the fact that you both love your children unconditionally, and will continue to do so always. Remind them frequently that they are not the cause of the divorce, a concern many kids carry but few share with their parents. Assure them they are good and good enough, and that the driving force behind the divorce lies between the adults. Kids need to hear these things that may seem obvious to parents.
Let the divorce be a process for the kids. I"ve witnessed many parents treating the "divorce talk" an awful lot like the "sex talk." It"s perfunctory. Mandatory. And hopefully we only have to do it once. We sit down, inform the kids of their new world order -- and where they will be sleeping until their 18th birthday -- and move on.
That"s not enough. In my experience, kids process these issues at different paces. Some will have questions immediately and want to engage in an ongoing discussion. Others will have thoughts and questions over time. It"s crucial that parents allow for both methods.
In practice, I have learned that kids can be quite resilient to the idea that their parents were not meant for each other, or at the very least are not meant to be married any longer.
Not only can children work with that idea, but they often prefer situations in which their parents are divorced or separated versus staying together in conflict. Kids frequently express to me that their parents would both be better off apart, or with more suitable partners. Your kids are undoubtedly smart and observant, so this reality will, in all likelihood, not be missed by them.
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Modeling becomes so important here. Over time kids tend to mirror the relationship patterns of their parents. The perfect breakup is not possible but increasingly I hear from kids their stories of divorced, sometimes estranged parents chatting with one another in a friendly manner during pick-ups and drop-offs. They can sit together at games, plays, concerts and celebrations in relative peace.
Pause for a moment and consider divorce from a child"s point of view, perhaps your own child"s point of view.
It is harsh. Even with the best of intentions, divorce is by nature contentious and emotionally taxing. For kids, the family life they have known is changing, perhaps for the better, but change is difficult and this transition is enormous.
Your kids should never witness the harshest of your exchanges. The changes divorce bring already feel harsh to them. They don"t need to hear you say awful things about one another or arguments about money, new significant others, or them.
I find in the wake of divorce, kids regress a bit. They need to be taken care of more than they normally might. They need care and attention, unconditional regard and gentleness.
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As you are a party to your divorce, you will likely find that your children have a difficult time talking to you about it. I urge you to find a therapist your child is comfortable with, even if you feel he or she may not need it.
Divorce for children is tricky, but with the right help, kids can navigate their way through successfully, redefine family in a way they can be at peace with, and enjoy other satisfying relationships for a lifetime.