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by Jami L. Stephens, with Stephanie LH Barrie
The other day, I had a 9-year-old come to me, sobbing, wondering why her parents couldn’t figure out the terms of their divorce.
“Why do I have to be the one going back and forth?”
“Why do I have to leave my friends?”
“Why do I have to be at my mom’s or dad’s house on days that they are working?”
“None of this makes any sense,” she cried in frustration.
As a therapist, a mom and a stepmom, I was racking my brain to offer words of comfort, but all I could come up with was the truth: “I know. This really sucks.” She looked up at me with surprise at my word choice, but appeared to settle into the word. “Yeah, it really does.”
From The Child’s Viewpoint
These conversations are not at all uncommon with my young clients. They ask all kinds of questions: When will I get to decide my schedule? When do I have say over who I want to be with? I know my parents don’t belong married, but why can’t they figure this out so I don’t have to be the one dealing with all of it?
When it comes time for a family to reform into two separate households, there are a lot of questions. Easy answers are hard to find. For the children especially — who don’t have any preconceived notions of what the process looks like — each day, each hour, is one huge unknown. That can be very frightening.
It is especially frightening when the adults around them don’t know the answers themselves and are emotionally grieving, managing conflict, struggling with finances or dealing with the logistics of relocating.
Combat the judgment and speak the truth
Kids know more than we give them credit for, and they know a lot more than we tell them. One of the real dangers is that they are incredibly effective at filling in the blanks with their powerful imaginations. Speak the truth.
There is great power in choosing, together as parents if possible, what the truth of the situation will be. Together you can combat the unknown — the preconceived notions, the fear, the confusion — with clear and fully transparent statements that everyone can understand and embrace as the change occurs. Using language everyone can agree on, parents can use labels, euphemisms, even a type of agreed-upon code, to tell the kids what they can expect and what to call it. Naming something is, after all, owning it.
Of course, if parents cannot make these decisions together or in mediation, the court will make these decisions for them. Meanwhile, the children suffer in a purgatory of the unknown and the frustration of not feeling heard as their lives change immeasurably.
When it comes time to begin the process, what a family says to the children (and to the rest of the family, friends and neighbors as well) can set the tone for how to move forward. We are not aiming to eliminate emotions and questions, but instead to create a safe environment to experience the two, and a common vocabulary for two households.
Also, the vocabulary you use and how you speak it at the time of the separation sets the tone for how children (and the rest of your village) take in the new information. If it’s said well, everyone will come to understand that the change of marital status isn’t like a death, an ending we must come to accept, but instead a launch pad for two happy homes out of one that was unhappy. What message do you want to give your children as your family goes through its transition? Respect for self? Respect for others? Stability? Hope? Here are some suggestions for talking to children too young for adult issues.
|“Why?!!?”||Want you really want to say:||Say instead:|
|Infidelity||He/She had sex with someone else and doesn’t care about us.||We decided that although we love you so much, Mom and Dad don’t work well together as a couple anymore. We are both sad/mad about it because it means a big change for our family, but we both think this will help us parent together better.|
|Apathy||We don’t love each other anymore.||We make better parents to you from separate homes.|
|Drug/Alcohol Dependency||He/She is a drug addict/alcoholic||Dad’s/Mom’s body has trouble with drugs/alcohol. He/she acts differently than he/she used to and it makes me unhappy.|
|Gambling||He/She is irresponsible with money.||We like to spend our money on different things and we can’t agree about it anymore. We don’t like to fight over it so we will live in separate houses using our separate money.|
|Sex Addiction||He/She is a sex fiend||We have different ideas on how to spend time with our friends, so we are going to live in separate homes and make those decisions ourselves.|
|Sexuality||He/She is gay/straight/trans, etc.||Your mom/dad just realized that they don’t have romantic love for boys/girls and instead love girls/boys. Because we have so much respect for each other, I want to help her/him have the space to explore these new feelings and we have to do that separately. We are both still your parents and love you so much.|
|Medical issues||He/she doesn’t want to help take care of me anymore||Being sick is really hard and taking care of someone who is sick is also really hard. It can feel overwhelming for everyone. For us, it make a little more sense for Mom/Dad to move out so that she/he can get some personal space and support while I work on feeling better and getting some separate support, too. We both love you so much and intend to work really hard together to make sure we’re still good parents for you.|
|Abuse||He/She hits me||I want us to move to a safe environment where Dad/Mom and I can learn to be good parents separately.|
Your marriage or relationship may be ending quietly, like water leaking out of a cracked glass, or it may sound like screeching tires before a big impact, so give some thought to how much support and structure you both need when talking to the children about the separation for the first time. Is your family basically happy? Is there some shame or blame going on? Do tempers get red hot? Based on these three family and personality styles, you may consider how meticulous you want to be in discussing matters with the children. Our next article, “How to Tell the Children,” will help you with the next step on the road to your new life.
Jami L. Stephens, CT, LPC is a Gresham counselor specializing in grief and loss as well as divorce and child custody mediation. For more information, please check out her website at www.catalystcounseling.org. Stephanie LH Barrie is a retired divorce attorney and presently a Trusted Advisor. She can be reached through www.Hoffmanbarrie.com.