I wish there were a gentler way to put it: going through a divorce sucks. The pain of deconstructing, redefining, and rearranging a relationship that began with "happily ever after" can be excruciatingly painful. It's all-consuming, emotionally draining and, even in the best of circumstances, a logistical nightmare.
A divorce can feel like it is ruining your life.
But guess what? It's not just about you. This divorce will also be painful to other important people in your life. Family. Friends. Even your soon to be ex. But your single highest priority? Your children.
Remember, as painful as this divorce experience is to you, your children are going through this divorce, too. The "our" in "our divorce" does not just refer to you and your spouse. This divorce will likely be a defining moment in your children's lives. The memories of this event will follow them far into adulthood and, in many cases, impact their own relationships.
No matter how much you hurt, no matter how overwhelmed you feel, and no matter what your ex texted you last night, you have a duty to support your kids through this process. Not occasionally. Every. Single. Day. Will it be tough? Yes. Will it be guilt-inducing? Absolutely. Will you need additional support? Who wouldn't. But none of this changes the simple fact that your children are experiencing this divorce in a way that, while different, is no less real than you and your spouse.
So what, specifically, do your kids need from you during the divorce? Here are 10 practical, but critical, tips for reducing the long-term negative impacts of your break-up:
- Give them a routine they can count on. In the midst of what most certainly feels like chaos, a regular schedule can be a real comfort.
- Talk nice. Speaking negatively about your spouse will reflect more on you than them in the long run. And in the short run, it causes nothing but pain.
- Unambiguously reassure them the divorce isn't their fault. Be very clear. Then do it again. And again. Kids need to hear it. Don't assume they know.
- Make extra time. Be available emotionally and physically -- snuggle time for youngsters and talk time for adolescents.
- Play. Divorce is heavy, serious business. Balance it (for both you and your kids) with joy. Find time to goof around with your kids. Positive, lasting memories can be created even during this challenging time.
- Show appreciation of your spouse. Set a goal to share one positive thing a day about their other parent. It can be difficult, but it can be done.
- Encourage quality time with both parents. Never take time with the other parent away as a punishment (for either your child or your spouse).
- Keep it (the divorce conversation) together. When speaking about the divorce and its outcomes, try to do it together with your spouse. Unity shows you put the children first.
- Give them some sense of control. Age appropriate choices such as "Do you want to go to bed at 8:30pm or 9pm?" or "Do you want to do your chores first or homework first?" help provide a sense of control.
- Let kids be kids. Without both parents present, it's common for children to slip into a role of parenting siblings or feeling as though they must protect you or your spouse. Don't encourage this. Instead, build safe ways for them to enjoy and explore the innocence of childhood.
Children don't choose divorce, parents do. This simple fact puts an extra burden on parents to put them first, to do right by them -- both the current them and the future them.
I've helped dozens upon dozens of families get through divorce. I've done it in the courtroom as an attorney and at the mediation table as a Wevorce divorce architect. I can report, without a shadow of a doubt, that putting your children first and choosing amicable divorce is not easy. It's certainly not "easier" than hiring an attorney to fight it out for you. But it is better for your family.
And it all starts with realizing that the lasting outcome of this divorce is as much about your relationship with your children as it is your relationship with your spouse.
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