A Guest Post by Ben Stich
The last thing divorced or separated parents want is for their kids to be hurt by their break-up any more than necessary. There is nothing worse for a parent than to see their child in pain. Yet, it is almost inevitable that the kids will experience some level of pain, disappointment and confusion.
Human nature being what it is, it is normal for divorced parents to have difficulty tolerating their children’s distress. As a result, some conversations between an anxious soon-to-be divorced mother and her upset son go something like this:
Parent: What’s wrong, honey?
Son: Why do you have to get divorced? I hate it!
Parent: It’s going to be, OK.
Son: (Sniffling). But, but…
Parent: Don’t worry, everything will be OK.
Son: OK, Mommy.
At first blush, it seems like this mother did a nice job of reassuring her child, right?
This exchange is about the parent – despite her good intentions – making herself feel better. She believes she helped calm down her child and probably feels less anxious. But how does her child really feel?
Worse, most likely.
This child had a legitimate concern: hating that his parents were getting divorced. There could be many unintended consequences of such a parental response, including:
- The son thinking that he was doing something wrong by being upset (by something that is clearly upsetting)
- The son believing that his mother does not want to hear about his feelings
- The mother ensuring that she never learns what about the divorce is upsetting to him
- The mother leaving potentially resolvable problems unsolved
- The mother breaking down open communication with her son
Listen to Your Child
It is incredibly important that divorced parents put their angst about their child’s distress aside and become curious about what their child has to say. Let’s see how this fictional mother/son dialogue might look with a different approach.
Parent: What’s wrong, honey?
Child: Why do you have to get divorced? I hate it!
Parent: You really hate that we’re getting divorced, huh?
Child: Yeah, it’s not fair at all.
Parent: I know – you didn’t do anything wrong and it’s not fair. What about the divorce is upsetting you?
Child: I don’t know. Forget about it.
Parent: No, honey – I want to know. It’s important.
Child: Well, I don’t know – I mean – well…
Child: I wish I could go back to camp next year and now that you are divorced I can’t. It’s not fair!
Parent: Why do you think you can’t go back to camp?
Child: Because I switch back and forth every other weekend between you and Dad. And it’s so far away from Dad’s house so you won’t be able to take me.
Parent: So you think that you won’t be able to go to camp because of the divorce and how the schedule works? And because it’s too far away from Dad?
Child: Yes! I don’t want to talk about this anymore…
Parent: Well, I’m not sure if you can’t go to camp. Would you like me to talk to Dad to see if there is anyway we can work it out?
Child: But you don’t even live together so how can you work it out?
Parent: Dad and I are still your parents and there are some decisions that we still make together. I’m not sure if we can work it out but we can try. Did you tell Dad you wanted to go to camp?
You can imagine how this might play out and that it may be easily solved. Maybe they change the summer schedule…maybe they look in to a bus to camp…maybe he attends for two weeks instead of three…
The point is that because the mother listened to her son – truly listened to both his feelings and his concerns – the son felt understood and encouraged to talk about his thoughts and feelings. This ultimately allowed the parents to address what was bothering him in a productive way.
Looking at this vignette there are several strategies that can help separated or divorced parents listen to their children:
Reflect Back What You Hear: Stating what you think your child is saying – in your words or in his own – helps ensure that you truly understand what is being said and validates for the child that what they have to say is important. And feeling heard and understood is a great way to help someone upset calm down!
Be Patient: It can take time for children to figure out how to express their thoughts and feelings to adults. Stay patient and offer gentle encouragement. The payoff will be huge!
Ask Open-Ended Questions: An opened-ended question is one that requires an answer that is more complex than yes or no. If you put your assumptions aside and avoid asking a yes/no question you will often be surprised by what is revealed!
Avoid Promises: In this scenario the mother committed to trying to figure it out with her ex but did not make a promise. Making a promise and not following through – which can happen despite the best of intentions – will destroy trust and deteriorate open communication with your child.
Being Transparent About Co-Parenting: Children feel safer and more secure when they know that the parents still work together to parent the child. The marriage may be forever dismantled but the child will be loved and taken care of by his parents. What better way to decrease the anxiety a child might feel about divorce?
One of the best ways to minimize the negative impact of divorce on children is to do nothing more than listen to them and talk to rather than at your children. What they have to say is very important. So listen.
About the Author: Ben Stich provides family and divorce mediation in Massachusetts. He specializes in working with parents and teens, divorcing couples, divorced parents, and couples that want to stay married. His blog helps families improve communication and manage family conflict. Learn more at www.benstich.com.
Thanks for helping me contribute to the important work you do for so many families, Rosalind!
It’s a pleasure supporting you, as well. Keep up the great work!
It’s true that parents really need to think how kids would think about the divorce, although it is hard and everyone knows. The key is to understand kids’ thoughts.