If you are divorced or in the process of a divorce, you're probably wondering what the kids are thinking. Oh, some of them will tell you -- loud and clear. But kids also have a way of protecting their parents. Their security depends on the big folks so they often pull their punches. They know that the situation is already upsetting. They don't want to make things worse.
In a support group for kids or in the therapy room, kids can sometimes feel safe enough to tell us what they really think. Here are the five issues I've found concern young kids the most. (Teen issues are a bit different so I'll leave that for another time.) For kids under 10, then, these concerns top the list:
1. "I just want the fighting to stop!" A little fighting actually helps kids make sense of why their parents can't stay together. Some of the kids I've seen who've had the hardest adjustment are those who thought that everything was fine. But when parents continue to fight in almost every contact or when they regularly say bad things about each other, the kids feel torn in half. Kids usually love and want to continue to love both parents. Often they want to comfort their folks. They want them to be okay. They don't want to take sides (see #2).
2. "I hate being in the middle." Although it seems that every divorcing or divorced parent I've talked to in therapy seems to know it's a bad idea to put kids in the middle, some can't seem to help themselves. They make disparaging remarks about the other parent in the kids' presence. They roll their eyes or sigh when they talk about their ex. They ask the kids to take messages to the other parent instead of dealing with them directly. (For example, "You tell you mother that when she sends you over here, she'd better send more than 1 set of clothes." "You tell your father to be on time or we won't be here waiting for him.") It's important to remember that kids are intensely loyal to both their parents. Each parent can go about the business of parenting without making negative comments about the other.
3. "I feel like it's all my fault." When parents break up, it's unsettling enough. Harder still is when the kids feel they are somehow to blame. They take it to heart when one or the other parent says things like: "Everything was fine until we had kids!," or "We had kids too young," or "I never had a turn to be a teenager cuz I had a baby." Each of those things may be true. But it's only part of a much larger truth that made it impossible for the parents to stay together. The kids don't understand that. When they overhear such things, they feel like they're not loved and maybe were never wanted.
4. "Will my mother/father divorce me too?" Young kids take everything personally. Yes, it may be that the only job available to one or the other parent is 100 miles or more away. Yes, it might be for the best to move in with the grandparents who live in the next state. Or maybe visitations don't work out because the boss offers an extra shift or the financial situation means needing two jobs to stay afloat. Whatever the reason, if the kids don't get time with a parent, they often feel rejected. It's understandable. Deep inside, every kid has a tiny (or not so tiny) voice that says, "If my parents can divorce each other, maybe they can divorce me too." They need regular reassurance that it's the situation causing the reduced contact, not the parent's feelings about them.
5. "I wish everything could go back to the way it was before." However difficult family life was before the decision to divorce, it's still what the kids know. To them, the way they've lived is their "normal". They've learned how each parent operates, who to go to for what, and how to get what they need. Parents lose sight of the fact that adults have a broader perspective. Adults have a basis for comparing the relationship they have to the one they want. Kids don't. It's understandable that the kids want things to get back to "normal". Even if it was uncomfortable, even dangerous, they knew what to expect.
Parents need to be mindful that whatever they say in the kids' earshot has a huge impact. Kids are not little adults. Kids don't have adult perspective or experience. What may seem obvious and sensible to their parents doesn't always occur to the kids. One serious talk to explain things doesn't do it. Kids need ongoing reassurance, conversation, love, and attention as they settle in to a new normal.