A seven-year old was playing as his mother talked with a friend about her recent separation and divorce. The words "my ex" and "the ex" hung in the air -- in anger, frustration or simply as a descriptor. At a pause in the conversation the boy wondered, "Does that mean he's my ex-father?" Of course he wonders.
Our language about separation and divorce isn't helpful to kids. I don't think it's helpful to parents either. The word "ex" and another common term, "broken family," implies a final break. The language of "ex" and "broken family" keeps the center of attention on what's happening with the adults.
Adults who have no children can divorce and walk away from each other. Parents may wish to walk away but are in each other's lives forever. Many parents have some form of joint custody; therefore "ex" and "broken family" are no longer even accurate. As our notions of "family" change, there are more and more parents in wholly new categories. Some parents have never married -- and may not even be living with one another -- but opt to share parenting for the long haul. Parents apart are always tied in some way, even if the adults are very strained with each other.
At first, separations are filled with hard feelings and difficult decisions. We all know the custody battles and money challenges in high profile divorces -- and maybe in our own families. Many of these battles ease with time and as the kids grow up.
How can we help children make sense of divorce? We help them by understanding their position in the family and knowing that circumstances will change with time. The important thing to remember that children are the center of the equation and that parents untangle and rearrange around the children. Let's use words to reflect that.
I remember how carefully my kids' father and I talked about how to tell our 5-year-old and 2- year-old about our decision to separate. We spoke the carefully rehearsed words and wept unscripted tears: "Daddy is going to have a new place to live. We love you very much but we aren't happy living together. You'll have two houses but we promise to love you and take care of you forever."
Any parent who has separated knows some version of that speech. And children of all ages can tell you, sometimes in vivid detail, when they first heard those words.
And then, after the careful speech, we aren't so careful in front of the children. Parents and friends and family members use "ex" without thinking. And the media uses "ex" and "broken family" over and over.
Let's help children understand that families change; they don't break. And while families change, children learn to keep connections with both parents -- as parents find new partners, as children grow to adulthood and find their own partners and add in-laws, and as grandchildren are born.
Focusing on change and using words like "untangling" and "rearranging" are more helpful and more accurate. These words leave room for all the changes that will come as the children grow and the parents continue to care for them and add new relationships around the children.
I want everyone to think about this. Families don't break; they change. Even if one parent gives up parenting for a while -- or forever -- the children have to sort out how they are related to both parents, how to make sense of the family they started out in.
We can all help shift the language. When you hear about separation and divorce, think about whether there are children. Find the words that will help children, not confuse them. The 7-year-old who wondered about his "ex-father" felt safe enough to ask the question. Many children can't even ask a too-distracted or angry parent. We can all help parents to remember to speak respectfully about a former partner. All children deserve parents who are speaking respectfully to one another.
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