Hi Dr Justin,
"My husband and I are divorcing. We love each other but we’re not good for each other. But we’re worried about how to talk to the kids about it. They’re 11 and 6. We’re also not sure how we can co-parent because of the strong feelings and issues we’ve got. How do we get this right?"
Because you and your ex- have children together, your lives will be intertwined for a long time yet, and you’ll need to work together to make things smooth. This can be tricky since working together hasn’t worked so well already.
There are 7 C’s to separation and divorce when there are kids involved, and they’ll help you navigate this tricky time:
To the extent possible, you’ll co-parent more effectively if you live close by. Children who can be with their parents (both of them) regularly and easily seem to do best in most situations. And it’s convenient for school, friends, extra-curricular activities, and so on.
Children and parents do better when parenting is shared. If dad has all the fun on weekends and holidays and mum does the daily grind, dissatisfaction and resentment build. Plus, kids may think mum’s no fun, and relationships can be damaged.
Keep it down. There aren’t too many things more damaging to kids than parents who are constantly at each other. So speak positively about one another, particularly to the kids. And if you can’t be “nice” when you’re together, treat one another as if you were business clients transacting a big deal. (Remember, we don’t tend to text profanities and hate to our business clients at 11pm.)
Children don’t respond to these kinds of changes well. Remember, you’ve had time to adapt and get used to the idea that this is happening. They haven’t. They’ll struggle. They’ll tantrum. They’ll say that hate you. Be patient and understanding. This change is likely to be tougher on them than you. And when more change is coming, give lots of warning so they can get used to the idea.
In too many cases, living standards between homes become unequal after divorce. To the extent possible, make sure that both parents can provide for children in similar ways. If this doesn’t happen, one parent’s home often becomes far more appealing to kids.
Being able to talk to one another respectfully is crucial. Some couples use a diary and write to one another when kids are swapping homes. Others are able to talk to one another with complete civility. What matters is that communication is simple, clear, and direct.
The final “C” of separation and divorce is an unfortunate reality. When matters can’t be deal with in good ways without intervention, the courts have their place. While many people hate what the courts do to families, we sometimes need someone else to set the boundaries of our new relationship because the two adults in charge can’t do it effectively themselves. Ideally, work things out together, but if it all goes pear-shaped, the law may be the best way to protect yourself and your family.
In relation to the conversation that you have with your children, the following discussion points will be helpful. These ideas may be adapted based on the ages of your children. Let them know:
- The kids didn’t cause it, and they couldn’t have prevented it
- The parents loved each other when the children were born, and those children were (and are) wanted
- Both parents still love them and want to remain part of their lives
- The children don’t have to choose who they’ll live with. That’s been decided for them
- Parents may still struggle and disagree. These disagreements are between the parents, and the kids don’t need to take sides
- The children will probably have big feelings like sadness and anger for a long time – maybe more than a year! If they feel like that, their parents will be there to listen and talk without judgment
- The divorce is not a secret. They can tell others if they need to
- Rules are probably going to be a bit different in each home. They need to accept that each home will have different rules and follow the rules accordingly
Research suggests that, on average, it takes about two years for most kids to move through the emotions related to parents divorcing. Minimise the change they experience in relation to new schools, friends, and new circumstances, and then be there to listen, understand, and help. Patience will be key.
Of course, it’s hard to be patient when your whole world is falling down and you don’t have the emotional headspace to deal with your own stuff, let alone theirs. So my last point is simple: Be good to yourself. There will be times when you feel relieved, happy, free, and even jubilant. But it will take you time to adjust to any painful separation. You’ll also likely have times where you feel isolated, angry, helpless, depressed, and alone. (Holidays, Christmas, or hearing about your ex’s new partner or marriage can all do that.) You may ask “why” over and over, and your self-worth may drop. In serious cases you may even think about suicide. If this happens, get help fast. Don’t keep it a secret.
Ultimately, families can and do adapt to divorce. Experiencing all of the emotions on the spectrum is often part of the process, but with time comes healing. For now, remember that your children need both their parents (as long as they’re safe). Find ways to get along, cooperate in loving your children, give it time, and you can make it work.