The things we tell our kids become their inner voices as adults. When going through a divorce, it’s hard to break free from the costly price of guilt, shame and fear. Sondheim said it best “Careful the things you say, children will listen.”
I had a rare opportunity to sit down with some children of divorce and I asked them how their lives were affected by their parents’ split. There was one overall arching message: The parents that showed their kids how they themselves are successfully adjusting to their divorce had children who had successfully adjusted to their parents divorce.
Mostly, my opening question did one thing. It proved that I didn’t know how to interview young kids about divorce. When I asked “How do you feel about your parents divorce?” the first answer came from a quick and witty 11 year old, “Tasty.” It was just the pick the icy chill in the room needed. Everyone had a giggle and I did a reality check. These are kids, after all. I was a grown woman and I couldn’t even answer the question with one word if I tried.
To help my subjects get into the mindset of life before their “new normal” set it, I asked some questions about the early days of divorce. I expected some of the older ones to be able to identify with their younger selves but many of them said that, at the time, they didn’t realized what was going on. One said, “I didn’t really know because I was younger, I didn’t really understand that stuff.” They’re right. They don’t know what a divorce can do to the “family unit”. They can’t conceptualize how the divorce will spin their lives on to a new trajectory with myriad unknowns. They don’t know what a “statistic” is or how it feels to be one. They just know that life changed, we adapted, and some good came with the bad.
Kids are really clear about their feelings. There are 4 basic feeling: Sad, Mad, Happy and Scared. My first sincere response came from a question about fear. Kids were able to identify that it’s a scary time, in some respects, with one child stating that he was afraid that his parents wouldn’t love him any more. It’s hard to watch your parents fall out of love. A child watching that is left to wonder, “Am I next?”
When we moved on to talk about the present day, the kids were more responsive, stating that the hardest thing they had to deal with in divorce was an overall agreed on topic. Most kids reported “switching back and forth in-between households” was the greatest challenge. I suspected that to be the case but I realized that my reasoning was off. I assumed that most children would feel the pang of missing their other parent while at one house or the other. What I learned was that the effects were on a much smaller, egocentric, childlike level. One person reported that he found it hard to continually explain to his friends where he was weekend to weekend and that even he, himself, finds the schedule confusing. I didn’t see that coming at all.
Switching gears, I wanted to look at the more positive effects of an unhealthy marriage coming to an end. One child reported that, as I predicted, the best part about their parents’ divorce was “That they don’t argue a lot any more. They argued a lot at the beginning of the divorce.” The kids also said that their relationships with their siblings, those that had siblings, got better, too. One child said, though it was hard for him to articulate, that he felt closer to his brother now because “he stands with me whenever I get upset.” Having a cohort to experience and process the challenges of new beginnings is like having a support group wherever you go.
One child, a veteran of 4 years deep in divorce, offered a bit of advice to other kids who might just be starting out on this segment of their lives’ journey. “Just try and stay happy. (Do what you) enjoy to do…I play football, lacrosse, and sports games on my phone. You can do whatever you like to do.” This guy had a great idea, keep living an interesting life. Good advice for parents and children, alike.