What do the children of divorce want their parents to know?
How can parents ease the pain of separation and divorce for their children, and make them feel safe when family life has turned upside down.
In this article from NextAvenue.org, a 16-year-old high school student whose parents split when she was 4 looks back and offers advice parents from a child’s perspective: how to communicate, how to reassure, and how to help your child cope with divorce.
1. Thou shalt not fight where we can see or hear you.
I realize that many parents try hard to adhere to this rule, but sometimes it isn’t easy. Children are more vulnerable than usual when their parents divorce; the last thing they need is to hear or see two adults they love screaming at one another. If you think your children can’t hear you if you’re in your bedroom, think again. They’re probably listening outside your door right now with their ear against the wall.
Try to keep your conversations, whether in person or over the phone, civil. If you have even the smallest suspicion that a conversation might blow up, please go outside or into the hallway. When I was very young, I used to stand in between my parents with my hands up. It isn’t your child’s job to mediate your arguments.
2. Thou shalt be mindful of us and our needs when thou start dating.
This is an important one. After a divorce, dating happens. We get that. We’re not stupid. We realize it’s inevitable.
But parents, please: If your child isn’t comfortable with your new partner, don’t force it. This will end badly. Your child will resent both you and your new partner. Yes, we know, we will have to learn to politely tolerate your new significant other, but it should be at our pace, not yours.
That’s not to say you should allow us to be blatantly rude to the new partner, but let us share our honest feelings with you. Take us on plenty of excursions that are just the two of us, even if it’s just a quick walk around the block. We need to know that we are still your No. 1 priority and that the new partner won’t usurp us.
3. Thou shalt not talk trash about the other parent in front of us or our siblings.
Come on, I thought we were out of high school. This is gossip, people: gossip that should be saved for your parent support group or your friends, not your children. We do not want to hear Mommy call Daddy a deadbeat or Daddy call Mommy a witch. That’s just…mean, OK? Although your ex is no longer part of your life, he or she is still a critical part of ours.
4. Thou shalt not break down in front of us.
We get it: Divorce is hard on adults in ways we kids cannot possibly imagine. However, it’s harder on us. Children, especially young ones, may have a hard time understanding even the basic concept of divorce, let alone its permanence. We also realize that, for all sorts of reasons we can’t possibly understand until our own adulthood (if even then), you had to make this decision. That you could no longer stay married to our other parent and stay sane.
But though your divorce eases your pain, it greatly increases ours. You have ripped our family in half, and the last thing we need is to see you crumble into a thousand pieces as well. You need to be our life vest in these stormy waters, not pull us down under.
Your job is to make sure we know that both of you still love us, that you will still listen to us and hold us when we cry, that you will still cook us our favorite dinner. Be strong for us, whenever possible, and let your friends and older family members support and comfort you when you’re feeling down or overwhelmed.
5. Thou shalt not change our routine (too much).
Obviously, there are going to be changes. Big changes. Depending on custody arrangements, your children may be shuttling back and forth between different houses. For example, I spend Monday with my mother, Tuesday and Wednesday with my father, Thursday with my mother, and then Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with alternating parents. But my parents still take me to school. I still play the same games with my dad. I go to bed and get up at the same time I always did. Divorce is a massive change, but our routines should stay unchanged.
6. Thou shalt make getting a new room at Mom or Dad’s new house fun.
When my dad moved out, we went and picked out a special curtain for a room divider – it was a studio apartment, and I was 4 – and new sheets. I was also allowed to take a special blanket that my maternal grandmother had sewn for me. Don’t make it seem weird if your child wants something at the new house to remind them of the missing parent.
7. No cone of silence shalt thou keep around the divorce: Talk to us, we can deal with it.
We kids need you to talk to us about the divorce. Tell us, in an age-appropriate way, why you divorced, what will change, what will stay the same and – most important – that this isn’t our fault. Many kids, including some of my friends, assumed that their parents’ divorce was somehow their fault. It is your job to tell us it isn’t.
Here’s a wonderful thing my preschool teachers did to open the dialogue: They made me a little book about what was happening and why. They also made me a laminated custody schedule for each house, on which I marked the days with magnets that read “With Mommy” or “With Daddy.”
(MORE: How Divorce Took Away the Sister I Never Knew)
8. Thou shalt honor the sanctity of birthdays, graduations and other events that are special for your kid.
When I “graduated” from eighth grade, I was excited. My parents planned a special dinner at my favorite restaurant to celebrate. I wanted it to just be the people I considered family. My dad wanted to bring his then-girlfriend, but – however rightly or wrongly – I didn’t feel respected by her and asked him not to. Eventually I relented, but it didn’t feel right or good, so when it came time for my 16th birthday, a couple of years later, I put my foot down. No, I said, she couldn’t come to my (extremely) small gathering.
This turned into a bit of a disaster for everyone involved. The girlfriend, through Dad, slipped me a passive-aggressive birthday card – “I’m sorry you don’t feel comfortable having me there, I would have loved to have been invited,” that kind of thing – and suddenly what should have been a moment of celebration for me was not about me at all.
What was great, however, and what showed me the strength of Dad’s character, was that he broke up with her soon thereafter and apologized profusely. We made up, we’re now better than ever and it taught us both a valuable lesson about how to deal with these issues in the future.
9. Thou shalt make sure your child has enough clothes in each home.
I have been traveling back and forth between my parents’ homes for almost 13 years now, yet I still never seem to have any pants at my dad’s or socks at my mom’s. Parents, please, buy at least two pairs of every item of clothing your child likes. If your kid has a favorite shirt or skirt, buy four.
You’re also gonna want double sets of gym clothes, gym sneakers and bathing suits.
And oh my God, I can’t stress this enough: Buy multiple six packs of inexpensive underwear at the drug store. Buy enough underwear that you could sew them together and make a complete set of sheets out of them. Buy so much underwear you could fill four loads of laundry, three drawers and a small village with them. Trust me, you’ll thank me later. There’s nothing quite so enjoyable as walking a grouchy 6-year-old to the other parent’s house at 7 a.m. during a thunderstorm because the kid has no underpants for school.
10. Thou shalt act like an adult whenever humanly possible.
Seriously. ‘Nuff said.
Nico LeMoal-Polumbo is a junior at the Fiorello LaGuardia High School in New York, where she is a saxophonist in the senior band and co-founder of the feminist club. Her areas of interest include writing, feminism, music and LGBTQ+ rights.