A few years ago I taught a young boy whose parents were going through a very messy divorce. It was a tough year for everyone in the family. The parents hated that they were putting their children through the process, but they recognized that they didn't want to stay married. Now, several years later, the divorce is final, the parents have created new lives of their own, and the kids are flourishing.
It is sad when young children have to face their parents' divorce, but kids are resillient and they will be healthier if their parents are happy. I grew up in a home where my parents fought constantly and they didn't divorce until I was 16. I think I would have been better off had they made the split sooner, as there was always tension hanging over all of us.
As much as we’d love to shield our children from pain, they do deserve to know about things that will affect them. Sadly, there are parents who get divorced while their children are in preschool. It is very hard for parents to know what to say to their children or how to behave in the presence of their spouse. How do you talk to a very young child about divorce?
Jean Thomas, MD, MSW, a Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at both The Children’s National Medical Center and The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, DC, who is internationally known for early childhood diagnosis and treatment strategies, shares her point of view. She points out that parents cannot hide their true feelings.
“The feelings that they think they’re hiding are shown to the child by their facial expression and body language," she explains. "Let’s say they are putting on a pretty face every time they are with the child and the spouse. But, the child sees through that and absolutely knows when the parent is having a hard time, despite the false face that the parent presents.”
She suggests that the parents tell the child that Mommy and Daddy have been arguing and have been unhappy. “The problem with not telling the child what’s going on is the facial or body language information the child is reading,” explains Dr. Thomas. “The child thinks that it’s something he’s done. They have very strong little super egos so they blame themselves. That can lead toward a long-term depressive process if it’s not reversed. I think it’s very important that the child understands that there’s a problem.”
Until you are sure that you are going to separate or divorce, you don’t want to suggest to your child that separation is a possibility. “You don’t want to put ideas into their head that are then going to be reversed or fixed,” says Dr. Thomas. “If it’s a done deal and somebody’s moving out this weekend, I would make sure that there is no blame put on one or the other parent. Say something like, ‘Mommy and Daddy aren’t getting along very well and we think we would do better living in different places. We both love you and you know it’s not your fault.’” She says that kids are going to believe it’s their fault even if nobody is blaming them. They might think back to the night before when they were in trouble for spilling their milk as the reason for everyone’s unhappiness today.
So don't beat yourself up if you find yourself in this situation. But, you do need to work hard to keep your children well-adjusted through the process.