Pacing the floors outside a Cincinnati courtroom in an attempt to distract myself from my imminent divorce, I came across a large schedule book of hearings prominently sitting on a podium in the hallway. I was heavyhearted to find several pages of divorce hearings that were scheduled to happen simultaneously with mine.
Even more dispiriting were the number of check marks next to the divorce cases of couples with children. Six families were being separated that morning. If approximately a dozen children’s lives were being torn apart within a few hours in that one courthouse, how many lives were being affected worldwide?
Every year, more than one million children are affected by divorce in the United States alone; nearly half of all American children. Mine were 2 and 5 years old.
Sadly, when children have divorcing parents, they are often more affected by the plight than we parents. And many children believe the divorce is their fault.
However, we parents can take measures to help our children deal with divorce. We first have to meet our basic needs, then address the needs of our children. Easier said than done, but isn’t that what parents are supposed to do?
To keep myself in check during my divorce, I compiled a short list of crucial advice for parents in this predicament and posted it on my refrigerator. I call the following tips the Six Golden Rules to Help Children Through Divorce. These rules can seem simple and obvious, though difficult to abide by, and easily forgotten in our strife.
- With your spouse, tell your children of the divorce before change takes place. Four out of five preschool-aged children are never even told about their parents’ divorce. Babies know when there is a change in routine, or any stress in the household. This may be one of the hardest conversations you’ll have to have with your children, but it is crucial. Consider seeking help from a school counselor, mental health professional, social worker, religious advisor or support group. Other cultures call this “enlightenment.” I call it necessary.
- Reassure children often that the divorce is not their fault. Children of all ages tend to blame themselves. “If I would have thrown Mommy a better birthday party, my parents wouldn’t have gotten divorced” or “If I keep my room extra clean, they won’t fight” are common thoughts of children of divorce. Many children hear their parents arguing over parenting issues. They need to know that most arguments about child-rearing result from problems in the marriage, not with the actual children, and that the kids have absolutely nothing to do with a parent’s decision to divorce.
- Tell your children that you will still be their devoted parents, even though the marriage has ended. Seems silly doesn’t it? Well, children can be silly. Let them know you will always be there for them, and that nothing could ever change the fact that you are their Mom— or Dad. Children may fear abandonment of one or both parents, and not mention it. This leads to the next rule.
- Encourage your children to ask questions. We get so lost in our own painful thoughts that we often go for hours without a spoken word. Break the silence by asking your child a simple “How ya doin’, hun?” Meet your children’s eyes and give them your undivided attention, even if just for a fleeting minute. Give your children the opportunity, and they’ll be more likely to talk openly and ask questions. Keep your interactions simple, casual and frequent.
- Do not criticize your ex-spouse. This may be the hardest rule of all! Children instinctively know that, on a cellular level, they are a part of both of their parents. You might as well be saying, “You are a loser” to your son or daughter, when you call your ex-spouse a loser. There is a saying that goes, “When shooting an arrow of truth, one must first dip it in honey.” Buy honey by the case.
- Explain the meaning of unconditional love to your children. To know that you are loved beyond measure, to no end, is the most powerful and healing concept that a human can grasp. Give this gift to your child, whether you’re divorced or not. And believe in it for yourself. There is a love for us far greater than we can conceive, no spouse necessary.
My father always told me that if you have the family unit, you have everything. I feared I was losing everything that summer day, standing in front of a judge in a cold Cincinnati courtroom. What I’ve come to realize is that my ex-husband, my children and I are a family unit. United we stood, divided we fell, but united in the interest of the children we live.