As a child of divorce — the angry, screamy, big-scene, picture-tearing, thing-throwing messy divorce — I have some tips and tricks for adults aiming to avoid wounding children before, during, and after a breakup.
1. DON’T tell your kid that he or she is now the leader of the house and to be brave and strong for younger siblings.
That’s too much burden for small humans to carry. They don’t need pressures to suppress emotion. They need a wide open space to grieve, hurt, feel vulnerable and lost and mushy. Free them up to be little and confused. Love them through it. Even when it rubs up against your own guilt and fear. Maybe especially then.
2. DO make it clear that it’s not — and never will be — their fault.
Every day and as often as you need to.
3. DO check in on how they’re feeling.
How’s today for you? Any thoughts or questions you want to share? They’re very likely thinking things they believe are weird or wrong. Get that shit out in the open. Anything goes. You feel what you feel, baby child. We’ll figure out what to do with your feelings, but in the meantime, feel what you feel. No shame.
4. DO be age-appropriately honest in a way that honours everyone involved.
“Yeah, I am feeling a little sad today, too. I love daddy/mommy and it’s strange to live without him/her, but I know it’s what’s right for all of us.”
5. DON’T trash-talk your former partner in front of your child.
That person represents half of the earth’s axis for your child and your vitriol claws at them like a motherfucker. My mom made it very clear that she was doing the lion’s share of the parenting. She raged if I cried or expressed any warm feelings for my dad after a visit with him.
Loving my dad felt like a betrayal to my mom and came with guilt and confusion that left me resenting both of them. Children don’t exist to validate your superior life choices. They should be free to love both parents fiercely and without question.
6. DO fight for your right to be in their life. (Unless you’re an abusive asshole. In that case get help or stay away.)
Maybe you seriously fucked up and you’re the reason the relationship fell apart? And maybe your former partner has you convinced that you’re less — or completely un — worthy to occupy space in your child’s life?
Pick up your ragged sense of self-worth and elbow your way into your kid’s life anyway. They need to know they’re worth fighting for. When they turn 25 and come looking for you, your confession, “Your mother told me you’d be better off without me,” won’t win you points or buy back year’s worth of lost connectedness.
My dad wasn’t super available to me growing up. He’d show up sporadically, and eventually, not at all. I’m not sure if my mom’s anger, my dad’s shame, or a combination of the two kept him away. His absence left me believing I wasn’t smart, interesting, or loveable enough to keep him or anyone close. I’m still fighting those internalized beliefs in my adult relationships.
Your child(ren) won’t understand your good intentions or have the capacity to consider your pain. What they’ll experience is the pain of their own abandonment.
Relationships are hard. The end of relationships are hard. It’s okay that you’re struggling. It’s okay that you’re not doing everything right. And it’s okay as you fuck up to ask for help. You don’t have to do any of this alone. If you don’t have anyone — I’m no expert, but I’d be more than happy to be someone you trust.
Our little people deserve big people who dig deep and muck through the muck in the most brave, loving, thoughtful, hearts-out, arms-open, know-better-do-better fashion.
I believe in you.
I also am a child of divorce and what you write is ever so true! Good reminders now that I am a divorced mom as well.
This should be REQUIRED READING and handed out in Therapist’s Offices. Another doozy from the gorgeously truthful Shannon.
I would add one more to the list:
Be very slow and circumspect about moving into new relationships. Do NOT move in right away (if ever). Do NOT put your new relationship ahead of your relationship with your child(ten). Yes, you are entitled to a life, but you made these other lives and right now they come first.
As the child of divorced parents who did a lot of things right, I was much more damaged by their subsequent dysfunctional relationships that I was by their (much needed) divorce.
Great list. Please publish to all the parents of the children I currently counsel.
*child(ren). Dopey autocorrect.
I love the sentence: “Yes, you are entitled to a life, but you made these other lives and right now they come first.” Thank you for giving me something to say to the moms that I know that are being selfish. I am not a person who will be unkind with your words so please do not regret writing it.
Thank you. Divorce is never good even when it has to be. Children suffer and you suffer. What a confused life we lead after the deed is done. I hate to see the mental suffering after the physical is gone.