This is an extract from: Constance Ahrons, Ph.D
What Makes a Family Strong?
With its disruption to the daily routines and rituals of family life, divorce inevitable thrusts parents and children into a state of limbo. The key to surviving transition, both for parents and children, is resilience. It is resilience that allows us to successfully manage stressful changes – the ability to bounce back from adversity, to face a crisis with the resources to adapt. Resilient people are able to use whatever resources they have to protect them in times of distress. Resilience also explains how some children overcome difficult obstacles while others become victims of their early experiences.
Although we commonly think about resilience as an extraordinary trait that some people just have, the reality is that we all have the capacity to be resilient and every one of us encounters some adversity in our lives that requires us to be resilient. It has its roots in childhood experiences and the skills we learned then to help us cope. Some of us may be more resilient than others, but it is certainly not a fixed trait. It is something we learn, and it can be taught. If your children are showing signs of distress, helping them foster resilience can be one of the most important things you do and this chapter will give you some pointers.
The best thing we can do to help our children develop their own capacity for resilience is to prepare them well.
When and How to Break the News
If you haven’t yet told your children you are divorcing, decisions about when, how and what to tell them probably weigh heavily on your mind. In my clinical practice, these are among the most common questions parents ask me. How much in advance should we tell the children? Should we both tell them? What should we tell them? Parents are very concerned about upsetting their children and worry about how they will respond. Sometimes this worry causes them either not to tell the children or to wait until the last minute – sometimes the actual day of the separation – to break the news.
The interviews with the adult children offered up a number of important tips for parents who are considering or about to divorce:
1) Consider your child’s age and temperament when deciding how soon to tell
Young children have little conception of time and shouldn’t be given much advance notice. Older children often pick up that something is wrong and would prefer to be told directly and given some time to deal with it before the actual separation occurs.
It’s important to know that, except for young children (those under seven), children usually remember being told. And how they’re told matters – a lot. Some have such vivid memories that they can remember where they were sitting, what they were wearing, how their parents looked, and the words their parents spoke. Other have only a vague memory of being told.
As the children in the study talked about how they were told all felt it was important to tell children and to do so well before the actual separation. Children want to be told, and when they aren’t they resent it. It makes them feel more confused and anxious when they don’t know what’s happening and don’t have the time to prepare for what’s ahead.
2) If at all possible, decide beforehand, with your spouse or partner, what you are going to tell your children and sit down together to share the news.
Children don’t want or need all the dirty details. What they need to know is that their parents have made the decision and they have thought through what will happen next.
I realize this is not always possible. For example, an angry spouse or partner may sabotage the situation by telling he children in order to illicit their support or punish the spouse or partner. All you can do in that case is to patch up the damage done and reassure the children that they are loved and will be taken care of, in spite of their parents’ anger or distress with each other.
3) Talk to your kids about how their lives will change, how they will be cared for, where they will live and how they will continue to see both parents.
Children are most concerned with their day-to-day needs and most are very fearful of the change. Over and over again, the children told us how important it was for them to have the chance to talk to their parents and be part of the plan that was going to affect their lives.
Kids today are surrounded by divorce and it is a rare child who doesn’t know another child with divorced parents. Based on their limited knowledge they form their own views of what happens when parents divorce. They know, for instance, that Tony down the street spends some weekends with his father or Kerry has a stepmother. Others will have friends who are sad or unhappy because they don’t see their father and others who brag about the two Christmas holidays and all the extra presents they get. Older children are most concerned about how the divorce will interrupt their lives, whether they will have to move or babysit for the younger sibs more frequently, or what their friends will think of them.
4) Give your children time to process the news.
Whenever any of us undergoes a life transition, it helps to know what to expect. It’s no wonder that books about what to expect as we transition to a new an unknown stage in our lives are so popular. The mother who is tearing her hair out because her two-year-old refuses to listen to her grabs today’s version of Dr.Spock on her bedside table and sighs with relief as she reads that it is developmentally appropriate for her child to be rebellious. She then reads ahead to the next chapter dealing with the age of three and goes to sleep hopeful that she can look forward to her obstinate child becoming more mellow, desiring once again to please. So it is with your kids. They want to know what to expect, and you can help them a great deal by being prepared to answer this question.
It is worth noting here that one of the universal truths about divorce is that children don’t really care when a divorce becomes legal or official. As far as they are concerned the marker event is the day one parent moves out.
5) Explore with your children what they know about divorce and what they thing and fear will happen.
Many children ask concrete questions, and if parents have made plans for how and exactly when the separation will take place, it helps the children feel more secure, If parents do not yet know the specifics they need to reassure their children that they will continue to take good care of them and will let them know as the plans get formed. Children want to know that even though things are changing, they parents can be depended on to keep them safe.
6) Listen to your kids, but don’t make them choose whom to live with
Many of the older children who make these choices are haunted by loyalty conflicts afterward. They would have preferred not to have had to make the choice and often resent that they were put in that position.