It seems that because divorce is so difficult to navigate and so stressful on the parents, our kids can get lost in the shuffle. Instead of putting our oxygen mask on first so we can support them, we are drowing in our own distress and chaos.
We may forget how the divorce is adversely affecting our kids, especially if they are young, 7 years old or less. Children this young haven’t developed their critical thinking skills, also known as the EGO or conscious mind. They sponge up everything from their environment, and without having this filter, they make meaning of events that is inaccurate.
We need to be very present to not only what we say to our kids, but what we do, and perhaps the most important of all, but the least paid attention to, HOW WE FEEL towards our soon-to-be-ex or ex.
Our energy, our unspoken words, our hurt, anger, resentment, bitterness, guilt and shame is picked up by our kids. Our subconscious mind cannot lie to another human being’s subconscious mind also made of energy. All of these emotions housed in the subconscious mind are there, whether we are conscious of them or not.
Our kids can FEEL that something is OFF. They may not be able to explain it, but they KNOW.
Negative Impact of Divorce on Kids
The negative impact of divorce, especially when it occurs with young children, is very common. They have a 25-30% greater chance of depression, anxiety, declining grades, drug and alcohol abuse, and self-defeating behaviors such as acting out with anger and failure to thrive. The long-term mental and emotional effects of divorce remain with children, often a minimum of two decades and even for a lifetime.
This makes sense doesn’t it? Any trauma, (and divorce is a trauma), big or small, can be interpreted by children in a false way because they aren’t old enough to analyze what’s happening to them.
For example, they may think because mommy and daddy are getting divorced, and one parent is leaving the house, that it’s their fault. They also may feel abandoned by the one parent who is leaving, or by both parents, since they only see them part-time now.
So what can you do to help your children adjust to the new reality?
1) Help them to interpret their new reality. You have to be their analyzer since they literally can’t do it if they are 7 or younger. In order to do this, you have to stay grounded and centered yourself and pay attention to what they say.
Don’t assume they are resilient and handling things if they are quiet and not making waves for you (if that’s not their normal behavior). Children are very intuitive and they may try to “protect” you by not adding any more to your plate; they feel your stress. This is how they can begin a pattern of taking over-responsibility for others.
Instead, ask them how they are truly doing. Let them know you are here for them to talk to you and you’ll just listen.
Express to them, “This divorce has nothing to do with you at all. It has everything to do with mommy and daddy making decisions to live apart because we will be happier that way. Our whole family will be happier over time. You’ll see. We will all adjust. We both love you very much. And in the mean time, I’m here to listen to you. Let me know if you need anything from me. I can handle hearing whatever you have to say. You don’t have to protect me because I’m safe and so are you.”
2) Let them know that ALL emotions are OK to feel. Many parents like to “help” their children avoid feeling sad, hurt, frustrated, angry, or any negative emotion. This is normal. We want to help them avoid pain because we naturally want to protect them.
However, please know that when we continually try to rescue our kids from their feelings like this, we rob them of an opportunity for growth and expansion into their mature, most successful self. What if, instead, we teach them how to feel their feelings and breathe?
Life isn’t fair a lot of the time. We aim for it to be that way, but it’s not realistic to expect it to be just all of the time. Expectation creates a sense of entitlement and a tendency for kids (and adults with parts within who have not matured) to throw temper tantrums because we’re not getting our way.
So encourage them to FEEL, to get it out, to release, scream, hit a pillow, do jumping jacks, sit in an infrared sauna, sweat….But don’t say things like, “Oh honey, don’t be sad. Don’t be upset.” That teaches them to avoid certain emotions, push them down, and not learn how to deal with a natural part of life.
3) Pay attention to any changes in behavior. Their world has been turned upside down… Stay tuned into their patterns and habits. Are they acting differently than normal? Are they isolating, wanting to miss school, hanging out with different kids, etc.?
Meet your kids where they’re at. Though it may be tempting to lose patience with them, because you’re under so much stress, remember that “Hurting people hurt others.” If they are acting out it’s because they don’t know how to process all that is happening. The key here is to have compassion for the upheaval they may be experiencing.
Kids can get depressed if they aren’t well-expressed (just like adults), leading them to do worse in school, to isolate, get on drugs, etc. This is the time to really pay attention to any changes in them, physically, emotionally, mentally and take immediate action to course correct. Effective actions are listening to them, being real with them, getting them a professional counselor or coach, and above all, respecting them where they’re at.
4) Be real with your kids. In order to talk to your kids and meet them at their level of understanding, remember it’s important for you to be real with them. In order to do this, you have to be honest with yourself which requires humility. Where are YOU honestly at with how you’re dealing with the impact of divorce, whether you’re considering one, going through one, or been divorced for years?
It’s OK to not have all of the answers to life situations. Heck, who does? It’s OK to admit we don’t know where things are headed, if that’s our truth. They can sense if we’re blowing hot air or being insincere. And more importantly, YOU know when you’re being prideful and needing to be appear stronger than you really feel. And this “fakeness” with ourselves creates a feeling of self-betrayal, which will come back to bite us.
I’ll leave you with this thought. Unhealthy co-parenting habits, which originate from the need to be right and in control, and the resulting conflict, harm the kids. This is what makes divorce a trauma for kids. It’s not the actual divorce that has to hurt them.
To help your kids interpret their reality, know all emotions are okay to feel, pay attention to any changes in behavior, and to be real with them, YOU have to do all of these things for yourself.
You have to learn how to compassionately interpret your reality, know all of your emotions are okay to feel, pay attention to your changes in behavior, and to be real with yourself. I hope I’ve driven this point home.
Let me guide you on this divorce adventure which can be seen as a path to growth and expansion. You don’t have to go it alone anymore.
My next upcoming free gathering is in-person on Tuesday, April 19th at 5pm at my home. It will be a small group of women, in which we will have real talk and real solutions to the trauma of divorce. Register Here and Invite your girlfriends.
PS: Whether you are considering, going through, or dealing with the impact of divorce from long ago, this event is for you.