When separation or divorce takes place in a family, it can hit everyone hard. Two spouses who used to be very much in love and who have probably built a life together over several years or decades are now faced with starting over on a new life path they never anticipated. They must decide who gets the house, the cars, the retirement savings and who gets the dog or cat. But what about the children of separation and divorce? What is hardest for them, generally speaking? Does anyone consider how children feel about divorce?
As an attorney Guardian ad Litem, I am often appointed by the South Carolina Family Court to represent the best interests of children of all ages whose parents are engaged in a contested divorce proceeding and child custody is at issue. During these appointments, I am tasked with investigating the facts of the case which are relevant to the child custody issues, but I am also tasked with meeting, interviewing and observing the children at the heart of the case. I have represented children of all ages from infancy to seniors in high school. The children who are old enough to speak with me and express their own feelings about their situation, here are three things I hear from them over and over, no matter the facts of the case:
- “I'm a kid, not a possession to be divided.” So often the parents get so accustomed to divided the checking account, the retirement accounts, the silverware, the china, and the furniture that has accumulated through the marriage, that they forget their children are not “things” to also be divided between them. Children are people, too! They come complete with feelings, opinions, hearts and cry when they feel hurt, sad, or unloved. Parents need to remember that they are divorcing each other, but not their children. Therefore, just as it was important for the children to have a healthy, engaging relationship with each parent when everyone lived under one roof, it is still, and arguably more important for those relationships to continue when parents are living in two separate homes. When discussing schedules, transportation and even ultimate custody of a child, remember you are talking about a person, not another thing. Be prepared to be flexible and allow the children to know that their schedules matter to both parents and that both parents are committed to being there for them whenever they are needed.
- “I'm not Mom/Dad. I'm me. Stop comparing me to someone I know you don't love anymore!” If I had a penny for every time a pre-teen or adolescent child has said this or something similar to me, I would be a rich woman. This seems more common when children are reaching young adulthood and therefore, taking on very similar qualities of one parent or the other. For many divorced parents, this many be a constant irritant if the mannerisms, attitudes or looks of the child too closely resemble the ex they now despise. When conflicts in the home occur, the parent will often say something like “Gosh, you're just like your father/mother! I can't stand it!” Well, to the child, all they hear is “I don't love your father/mother anymore and you're acting just like them so I don't love you anymore.” Sounds harsh, but to a child who has watched, sometimes from a front row seat, his two most loved relatives fall out of love with each before his or her very eyes, the thought that one or both of them could one day fall out of love with him or her is a very real possibility. Be careful with your references to the other parent around the child and learn to eliminate all negative comparisons from your vocabulary. They will only wound your child's self-esteem and sense of worth and those wounds may never heal.
- “I have no business knowing how bad a spouse my parent is/was. Stop telling me about it!” There is something about divorce that turns even the best people into walking divorce narrators. Everyone they come into contact with must hear all the latest “news” from their journey through the family court system, including their own children. Nothing about your separation or divorce changed your role as parent to your children into a peer for your children. They do not need or want to hear the details of what made you or your spouse finally call it quits. They do not automatically become your support system or your confidant. They do not need to know about every time you visit your lawyer or the blow-by-blow of every court hearing. You are burdening them with your baggage and it has never been and never will be their responsibility to carry that for you. Find a therapist, a best friend or a support group to use as your venting mechanisms and allow your children to continue depending onyou for their support through this difficult transition. Your children will thank you for it and your custody case will be much more successful if you can prove to the court that you still the parent you've always been to your children.
Divorce is an “adult” thing. However, it does very much affect every child of the people going through it. Remember these things above if you or someone you know is going through divorce. Most kids are too afraid to say these things to their parents, but they do tell their Guardians, their therapists, their friends and their teachers. Your job as their parent is to keep in mind that your children are struggling, too. Be there for them and help them through it just as you would any other injury or hurt feelings.