What a start to 2012 -- it seems that celebrity divorces are occurring so frequently that we can hardly keep up. The provocative tabloid divorce headlines grab our attention on the internet, in the grocery check-out line, and even on the news. As these separations are played out on the public stage, I think we assume that celebrities fare better than ordinary people. We imagine that celebrities can hire the best divorce lawyers, attorneys, private mediators and judges because they have the wealth to do so.
But there are universal challenges inherent in all separating families -- challenges not related to the size of a family bank account. The most important challenge, of course, is addressing the well-being of children before, during and after the split. To the credit of high-profile separating couples, most celebrities (there are a few exceptions) make a deliberate effort to keep their children out of the public eye while the divorce plays out. I am inclined to believe, however, that separating celebrities are just as challenged as the rest of us in sorting out their new life while keeping their children's lives stable.
In the spirit of helping people divorce -- both famous and non-famous alike -- I present three myths about the effects of divorce on children.
Myth #1: My children don't notice what is happening between us. Even if you are an enlightened separating couple making every effort not to fight in front of your children, make no mistake -- they know what is going on. There is so much new information available on brain science which helps us understand the impressions your parental conduct makes on children.
Youngsters of all ages look to us to learn how to act in our human relationships -- they mirror what we do. Even though you think you are stating neutral verbal messages about the other parent, how you say it (look, gestures, body language, tone of voice) communicates your real meaning. You may need to put on an award-winning performance to get through this, but you can do it!
Myth #2: My children know this is not about them. The younger the child, the more limited their world. Starting with infancy and preschool age, a child's world revolves around him/her -- they are the center of their own universe. When a split occurs in the life of a very young child, the impression that they caused the parents separation can remain for a long time -- even a lifetime. The developmental stage of the children determines how the family changes are internalized. Elementary school-age children can feel alone and isolated. Adolescents and teenagers worry about what their friends will think (Will they have to move? Will there still be money for all the things they like to do?)
Many children of divorce carry these impressions to such a degree that their ability to develop their own relationships can be impeded later in life. Remember, parents: your children didn't create these problems. Clearly stating and demonstrating an age-appropriate message and consistently relieving them of responsibility for the break-up is a critical element in successful family reorganization.
Myth #3: My children will be just fine. This myth may not be a total myth, after all. It was the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers who experienced a dramatic increase in divorce in the United States. The evolving philosophy from 1950 forward focused on the resilience of children and the notion that youngsters could handle just about anything.
The research in the field of divorce and separation is very clear: children who experience the break-up of a family can manage pretty well if parents make significant efforts to reduce conflict before, during and post-separation. Intellectually, this probably sounds easy to do. But since conflict is what leads to separation in the first place, changing those adult behaviors can be difficult.
At Kids' Turn, a nonprofit organization that provides divorce education for kids and their parents, we are strong advocates of programs that are designed to teach parents new ways to conduct their family lives with reduced conflict. Some programs are better than others and most communities offer something. If parents do not want to take a divorce education class, they can find some noted authors on the subject (like Dr. Isolina Ricci), and informative websites abound. Do your homework and you will improve the circumstances for your children.
I hope debunking these myths help both celebrity parents and not-so-famous parents focus on their children during this difficult time.