GLPG clinician Tanya Tietema, MA, LLP answers some common questions & misconceptions about deciding to divorce and how the decision can impact your children.
Divorce or stay together?
Parents often believe the golden rule is: “We have to stay together for the kids.” There are a lot of statistics to show that divorce causes negative effects on kids; however there are just as many statistics to show that kids who live in constant turmoil and conflict are also just as affected. So what is the right answer? Since each family dynamic is different, it is important to evaluate factors such as:
- Presence of physical abuse or other form of domestic violence. *If so, please seek counseling immediately and consider utilizing a shelter or other positive support system for protection.
- Child’s exposure to frequent parental conflict (arguing, criticizing, belittling).
- A complete disconnect between parents who act as “roommates” or indifferent to each other.
- Age(s) and temperament of the child(ren).
- Financial status and ability to maintain two different households.
- Ability, or lack thereof, to get along amicably.
What if I’m not sure divorce is the right answer?
Please seek counseling. Often times people think “marriage counseling” is to keep the marriage together. However, it is the therapist’s role to help guide couples in making a sound decision. It may in fact keep the couple together as they work out their differences, or it may turn out that the couple will divorce; but counseling can provide avenues to learn better communication techniques and effective strategies for co-parenting. Keep in mind when making a decision, that frequent, unresolved conflict between parents can be just as harmful, if not more so, than divorce. However, if parents can co-exist amicably and there is low potential for conflict, then research suggests it may be better for the children for you to stay married.
How will the kids react to the news?
Sometimes, after many years of conflict, it can actually come as a reprieve for children when they learn of the divorce as they will no longer be exposed to a hostile home environment and unhappy parents. It is not uncommon for children to have “seen it coming” and wonder why it didn’t happen years ago; therefore their adjustment through the process is usually a little easier.
Your child may initially have an intense negative reaction to the news, but it is due to fear. Fear of the unknown causes all of us to react strongly and in different ways as a self protective mechanism. When we can’t predict an outcome, we don’t feel as secure. When we don’t feel secure, it causes feelings of vulnerability, worry, anxiousness, etc. because we are struggling to cope. Humans like familiarity, and change is difficult for most people, especially when the outcome is unknown. You may witness some behavioral changes in your child that were not present before, such as tantrums, irritability, withdrawal, etc. Generally these behaviors are temporary as your child is trying to cope with the change and with a good support system, and being openly available for your child, these behaviors should dissipate.
What can parents do to make the process easier?
- Have a parenting plan in place prior to talking to your children. Try to iron out as many details as possible such as where you will live, who will pick them up from school, how often they will see you, etc.
- When possible, inform the children when you are both together so that they will see this is a united decision (even though it may not be mutual), thus eliminating blame on either party and help alleviate stress because they see you getting along.
- Be very cautious to not over-disclose details that are not necessary for them to hear. Keep it simple, such as, “As you know mommy and daddy have problems getting along and although we have tried to work through things, we have decided that it is better for everyone for us to get a divorce.” Refrain from using your child as a “sounding board” even when they are “old enough” to hear adult issues. This puts them in a very awkward and uncomfortable position and shifts the dynamics of the “parent” role to “friend/confidant” role.
- Tell them that you love them and will continue on loving them even though you don’t love each other anymore. This can be a very confusing concept for younger children, so provide frequent reassurance.
- Assure them that they are not the cause of the separation, nor is there anything they can do to fix it.
- Inform them that they will get to see each parent as equally as possible. Tell them they still have a family, it just looks different now.
- Provide them with possible positive outcomes for the future if they start focusing on the things that they will lose. For example, they might make new friends and get to try new things in their new neighborhood.
- Try to minimize exposure to disagreements in front of the children. If it does happen, it is very important to model good problem solving and communication techniques by coming to some sort of understanding. It is much less harmful, and can in fact be educational when children see the entire cycle of disagreement, discussion, compromise, apology and resolution.
- Consider getting the children into counseling as an added support. Much can be accomplished when children are guided by a health professional during the process to make their adjustment easier. They will learn techniques such as healthy ways to manage stress, process feelings, effective communication strategies, and understand more about themselves and their world.
- Keep kids informed and give details as often as possible about what the future might hold for them regardless of their age. Never assume that kids will understand even sometimes the simplest things as they are often literal. They do not have the world knowledge adults do and do not have life experiences to generalize information into new situations. An example might be where a 5 year old child is terrified of moving into his newly built home. Seems odd at first, but after some inquiry, it is discovered that the family went to visit the home in the process of being built and some of the rooms didn’t have walls yet. Therefore in his mind, he was thinking he was actually going to live in the house like that!
Although there is no foolproof way to ensure you are making the right decision on whether or not to stay married, by taking your time and using the strategies above, both you and your children will have a greater chance for a successful adjustment whichever the choice.
Click below for more information about couples/marriage counseling at Great Lakes Psychology Group. We have same day, evening and weekend appointments available.
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