By Katie Davis
Whether you are a father going through a divorce, are about to go through one or have been through a divorce in the past, you know that explaining these matters to kids is not easy.
Many dads struggle with finding the best balance between open communication with their kids and leaving unnecessary details out of the equation. Some wonder whether their children are coping with the changes or want to know what else they can do for their kids before, during or after the divorce process.
Most psychologists agree that sugar coating realities or avoiding discussions does not help. It is important that you are honest with them from the beginning – but you also don’t want to over-involve them in complicated adult matters.
Read through some of these best practices for helping kids relate to divorce on their own terms.
1) You are divorced, not your kids – Remember, your kids are not seeking a divorce from their parents. It is not your job to make them dislike or resent the other parent, and it shouldn’t be a competition. As psychologist Robert Stone mentions in “Kids and Divorce: Ten Tough Issues,” even if one parent is currently not involved with the children, “There are no replacements. Even if a parent is ‘out of the picture,’ in the child’s mind, that parent is always part of the picture both now and in the future.”
2) Be honest with them – While many dads can feel guilty about divorce and its impacts on their kids, it is important to be honest and not sugar coat the situation. Of course, you don’t want to over involve the children in the numerous details of the marriage, its failure and the divorce – but you do want to be upfront about what is happening with the family and how parenting will now work. If the other parent misses out on an appointment or lets the child down in some way, don’t attack that parent. But you also shouldn’t make up excuses. “It’s important that your child has a chance to voice his/her feelings,” says therapist and author of “Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way,” M. Gary Neuman.
3) In fact, encourage them to communicate – Communication can be key for children of divorce. Instead of bottling up their feelings or letting them release in unhealthy ways, if your child knows that he or she can talk to you about any existing feelings, uncertainties or anything else, this is huge. Particularly, if your child is already upset with a parent, talking about what bothers him or her can even be empowering. Neuman also encourages children to write in journals or send letters (or emails) as a way of communicating their thoughts.
4) Don’t mix up your feelings with your kids’ – Many times, divorced parents project their own feelings or thoughts on to their children. While you may be thinking that you feel bad for your kid, worrying that he or she feels abandoned or scared, it’s important to step back and make sure that you aren’t confusing emotions. It could very well be you who is primarily feeling all of this, and you don’t want to dumb your negative emotions on to your children. You have to deal with how you feel before you can truly reach out and help your children.
5) Above all, let them know they are loved – It sounds basic, but it is vital. Don’t forget to let your kids know they are loved and cared for both through words and actions. Unfortunately, you cannot always determine how the other parent in your children’s lives will act. But even if your ex misses a meeting time to hang out with the kids, and you can feel their disappointment, it is not about you. Kids will automatically assume that they are to blame, so it is important to reassure them it is not their fault – and it doesn’t mean they are not loved. Edward Teyber, Ph.D. and author of “Helping Children Cope with Divorce,” recommends saying something to your kids like, “Even adults make big mistakes, and sometimes they hurt people that they love…that was wrong. But it doesn’t mean you’re not loved.”
And remember, stability is love. So, as tempting as it is to get emotional or upset when your children leave you and go to another parent, it is important that you remain the loving (and stable) parent. Teyber says, “If a child sees her mom is upset when it’s time for her to leave, she won’t be able to have a good time with her father.” Send off your children with a smile, as hard as it may be to do, and let them know how happy you are that they are loved and safe.