Divorce and the sensitive child
Divorce is a subject very close to my heart. My parents separated when I was 5 years old, reconciled, and eventually divorced when I was 10. I no longer blame my parents for the mistakes they made, but it is hard not to hold adults at least a little responsible for their actions, especially when those adults are a school psychologist and a social worker specializing in family advocacy. There is that old adage though, that plumbers have the worst plumbing, so maybe I should give my 'rents a free pass on that one. It's a scary thought that more than half of marriages end in divorce, and it makes one wonder how children are being effected by so many dissolutions of families. I was a very sensitive child, and am still a very sensitive adult. I was placed in a weird and (maybe a little damaging) position by my father after my parents divorced, and I hope that my insights and experience will help others who may struggle with similar situations.
Divorce is death of sorts. Even if a marriage is not particularly happy or functional, it is important to remember that it is all that children have known, and any drastic change, particularly in terms of a child's family unit, is going to raise questions for children about stability and security. These questions may or may not be verbalized, because often kids may not have the words to describe the complicated and conflicting emotions they are feeling. Communication has got to continue even if the words are hard to find. If divorce is the death of a family unit, like any death, it must be grieved in order to find peace and closure, and grief in children manifests itself in a variety of ways. It's not going to be easy, and parents need to be patient and compassionate long after the ink has dried on the paperwork.
As a parent it is critical to see past your own pain, sadness, and frustration and pay close attention to what is going on with your children. Lean on your friends and your family, do not look to your children for support or validation. In terms of children it's a one way street, they do not have the resources to take care of you and your feelings, and it is an unfair position to put them in. Divorce may be the best solution for your family, but it's essential to put the emotional and psychological needs of your kids first, throughout the process. Children do not need to know the details. However, they do need to know that they will be okay, and that they are loved and supported. Even if you are not sure what will happen, it is critical to maintain a sense of stability and routine for your children. Structure makes kids feel safe, and children that feel safe grow into healthy, well-adjusted, and secure adults.
Do not under any circumstances talk negatively about your ex-spouse (or soon to be ex-spouse) with your children, or in front of your children. This behavior is selfish and frankly it sucks. Your ex may be a total scumbag and a terrible person, but he/she is the mother/father of your child and will always be the mother/father of your child. If you want to maintain any sort of functional relationship with your children, it is imperative to remember that once words are spoken your audience will most likely remember them. I'm quite positive my father does not remember all the garbage he said for years out of pain and sadness, but unfortunately I sure do, and I still feel a little resentful that I was treated as a confidante rather than a child, and missed out on a lot of the carefree stuff that many kids get to enjoy. Divorce is hard, can be ugly, and is rarely easy, but as adults, it is critical to leave children out of ex-bashing conversations, even if you don't have anyone else to talk to. As an adult, it is quite hard to trust someone who continually put their needs over yours when you were in a powerless and vulnerable situation as a child. Children should never be used as sounding boards or as weapons. Children should not be encouraged to choose sides. Remember that words do hurt and can leave deep scars.
Do not discuss child support payments with your kids. Yes, money is a part of everyday life, and teaching kids about finances is definitely important, but your child should never hear your resentment or frustration involving child support payments. I don't know if this is a common occurrence in divorced families or not, but my dad often told my younger sister and I that he couldn't wait until we turned 18, "so the goose that laid the golden egg could die." That's a weird conversation to have with a 12 year-old, and I'm still not sure where my father was going with that and what he was hoping to accomplish. I don't wish to vilify my father, but he rarely considered our feelings in conversation. There is no doubt in my mind that my parents' divorce was devastating to him. Some people internalize pain, and others externalize. I think my dad opted to lash out, and I'm sure he felt better after he verbalized what he was feeling, but he was unable to consider his audience. Think before you speak, because like I mentioned before, words are a powerful thing.
If it comes time to introduce a new person to your children it's important to be honest and respectful during the process. Nothing stinks more than feeling as if you've been tricked as a child. My mom used to arrange "random" run-ins with her friend Bob. My sister and I would get kind of pissed because we totally saw through these transparently pre-arranged "accidental" run-ins. It was insulting not to be included, and it became impossible for us not to feel as if something duplicitous was happening. Eventually Bob became our step-father, and he's a pretty cool guy, but I hated his guts and resented him for a long time unnecessarily, largely, because my mom and Bob were so sneaky in trying to get us acquainted. There is a way to introduce new people without becoming deceitful. Never underestimate your children's abilities to understand what is going on. I remember talking with my sister on our swing set in the backyard one day after school. She was six and I was almost nine. She asked me if I thought our parents were going to divorce, and I told her that it might happen, and if it did we would be okay because we had each other. Kids are far more capable of understanding what is happening than they are often given credit for.
Family is a funny thing. Our families arguably have more impact on us than anything else, from our genetic makeup, to our mannerisms and world view, yet we have no say in who these people are. It's not like poker when you can just fold and try to get a better hand the next go-round. There is no doubt in my mind that both of my parents love me and my sister and did the best they could. I often joke that my parents are two people who never should have met, never should have gotten married, and certainly never should have had children. I feel as if I've ultimately grieved my parent's divorce and maybe even the subsequent loss of large parts of my childhood, but it's hard sometimes not to resent how long this process was prolonged by my parents' missteps. Very few things are impossible to forgive given enough time, but it's not easy for a sensitive kid in an outwardly civil and yet very messy divorce. My best advice is to love your children selflessly and to remember that no matter how bad the marriage was, and all the things you feel you may have lost in the process, you will always have your children and it's up to you to protect that relationship.
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