Ending a marriage when you have children can elicit feelings of guilt ("What could I have done differently to save the marriage?") to panic ("How am I going to be able to support my kids financially and emotionally?") to reluctance and doubt ("Maybe we should just move into separate bedrooms and ignore each other?")
Lots of couples stay together for the kids. I can remember well-meaning acquaintances and even armchair Internet pundits advising, "Stay together till your children are done with college," as if providing them with a dysfunctional model of a relationship might mitigate the future therapy bills. Kids are aware things aren't the way they should be.
Stephanie Haen, Director of Behavioral Health at Fairfield County, Connecticut's Family Centers says even infants can sense tension and anger. Constant yelling in the house may impact temperament, ability to attach to parents and others, and may be confusing for an infant.
The breakup of a couple is a loss for the children when all they know is the nuclear family. There's a lot of fear about what that's going to mean. "Am I going to have to side with one parent? Are my parents going to change in some way? Will they be able to provide for me like they have been? What are my peers going to think? How are other adults going to treat me?"
Haen says lots of parents think by not talking to their kids, they'll shield them from the process, especially if the parents are angry. As with most situations, being open with a child in a developmentally appropriate manner is a healthier approach. Explain what is happening, assure kids that they didn't cause this in any way. Let kids know what it will look like when one parent moves out of the house.
Reassure young children that they will be safe and will still spend time with each parent, depending upon the situation. Young kids emotionally buy into "magical thinking." "If I hadn't had a tantrum, they'd still be together."
During adolescence, kids may experience anger about the situation, whether because they are reacting to frequent fighting between the parents or because they don't want to admit their parents are splitting. They might not understand the situation that is throwing their world into a tizzy. "What will my friends think?" In general, the adolescent brain isn't fully developed so preteens and teens tend to question what they've done to bring this on.
As parents, we want to go to protect kids, attempting to shelter them when all kids are going to skin knees, fail a test, or fight with a friend. "Kids will become stronger going through the process, learning that life throws obstacles," shares Haen.
Divorce, advises Haen, can bring "a good educational moment to help kids understand intimacy in a relationship and what a family is, that parents can still be part of the family even if they are divorcing." We also have the opportunity to work on how we communicate with each other, encouraging kids to be part of the discussion about loss without talking at them or using them as part of an agenda. We may be scared to hear how kids feel but we need to provide a safe place to share feelings in a way that encourages a healthy outlook. That doesn't mean hiding sadness or anger, nor dwelling on these feelings so they interfere with the rest of our lives."
Acknowledge your child's feelings as well as your own.
Haen adds, "We all have feelings and sometimes those feelings get the best of us. One thing we remind parents is that you are role modeling for your child. That is your role, whether you want it to be or not. Try for the kids' sake to not just scream and yell but also don't ignore the elephant in the room. At some point, your child will be in a relationship. Move on from that and give your child what he or she needs to succeed."