Tips on Handling Divorce: A Child’s Perspective

Editor’s Note: Last week, Walter Mendenhall wrote about his personal woundedness as a child of divorce and how The Crucible Project has been instrumental in his healing. This week, Walter writes from a child’s perspective and offers tips for families who are currently navigating divorce.

Throughout my early childhood, I witnessed the erosion of my parent’s marriage. I remember my dad being in my life for brief periods of time. And then he was out of my life for longer periods of time. I witnessed intense arguments, abuse, resentment, anger and abandonment. Like many young people today, I grew up with the obstacles of being raised by a father who was both physically and emotionally absent for the majority of my adolescent life. And I had a mother who did her best to compensate for the absence of my father by being physically strong but, unfortunately, also emotionally absent.

Sadly, divorce and single parent households are very common in our society. For children, growing up in a household where there is an absent parent can be stressful experience because of the disruption in the home and its financial, emotional and social costs. The adverse impact, however, can be minimized by realistic and sensitive attention to its effects on children.

The Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu states that “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” For children going through divorce, their ability to know themselves and explore their fullest potential becomes incredibly strained by the pain and distraction of family upheaval. How adults handle turbulence of the post-separation phase plays a crucial role in influencing pathological reactions in affected children.

According to Carl Prickhardt, a noted psychologist and author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, when separation is not handled right, it can spark five psychological “engines” that propel adolescent growth that are often intensified by parental divorce:

  • Separation: Establishing social distance and privacy from parents as the competing “family” of peers and confiding in friends now matter more.
  • Challenge: Taking risks and testing capacities through braving new adventures so sense of competence and confidence can grow.
  • Curiosity: Relying on offline and online sources of information to satisfy an increased need to know about the larger world.
  • Autonomy: Asserting increased opposition and self-determination to operate more on one’s own terms.
  • Maturity: Seeking more responsibility for making personal choices, facing consequences, and directing one’s life.

I believe divorce often results in some loss of trust in — and respect for — the leadership of parents. This is not a loss of love, however. In adolescent eyes, divorce puts the self-interests of the parents above the interests of the children and family as a unit. In response, the teenager tends to become more detached from parents. They often become increasingly self-dedicated and self-reliant, determined to take a firmer hold on the reins of her or his life, intensifying the engines of adolescent growth — often at a premature rate — in the process.

While parental divorce during a young person’s childhood can slow growth down as holding on to secure attachment is increased; during adolescence, when detachment is now underway, divorce can accelerate teenagers letting go in pursuit of growing up and acting more independent.

In order to slow down the psychological “engines” that propel adolescent growth to normal maturation processes one must make sure they are supplying their children with the following:

  1. Make it clear your child is loved.

When a parent regularly doesn’t follow through on their promises and is constantly unreliable, kids assume that they are somehow to blame. If only they were more fun or better behaved, they believe, then surely their parent would want to be with them. As a result, self-esteem can plummet, notes Edward Teyber, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernadino, and author of Helping Children Cope with Divorce. You need to continually reassure your child that the other parent’s lack of commitment has nothing to do with his or her “lovability.” If, say, your daughter’s father failed to show up, you might tell her, “Even adults make big mistakes, and sometimes they hurt the people they love. Canceling at the last minute — even when he knows that the visit means so much to you — is wrong. But it doesn’t mean you’re not loved.”

  1. Have an alternate arrangement.

If your ex is often a no-show, have a backup plan whenever your child is supposed to see the parent. Whether it’s a playdate or a special activity with you, a fun outing diverts the potential letdown. Agree on how long you’ll wait for the pickup or the phone call, and then get on with your day. You might say, “Let’s wait for half an hour, and if Mom isn’t able to come, we’ll head out to the mall.” If Mom doesn’t show, let your child know you can hear her disappointment without judgment (“I understand it may be sad when Mom doesn’t come to get you on time”) and let your child respond.

  1. Encourage your child to communicate.

You can persuade kids 10 and older to talk to the other parent about his lack of follow-through. “Expressing themselves gives kids a sense of empowerment and can help ease their frustration,” says M. Gary Neuman, creator of the Sandcastles Divorce Therapy Program and author of Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce the Sandcastles Way. Neuman also adds, “Even if nothing changes, your child will feel better knowing he made an effort to remedy the situation.” So, try to talk to your child about voicing disappointment without lashing out in anger. He might say: “I miss you,” “It hurts my feelings when you cancel,” or “I’m embarrassed when everyone’s mom and dad is at the game but mine.” If he’s uncomfortable talking about the issue, suggest he send a letter or an e-mail.

  1. Be willing to alter the visitation schedule.

“Of course, consistency is important, but some flexibility on your part can increase an ex’s ability to come through,” says David Knox, Ph.D., author of The Divorced Dad’s Survival Book: How to Stay Connected With Your Kids. If certain days or times are continually missed, for example, you might say, “If Tuesday dinners aren’t good, what would be better?”

  1. Get others involved.

Attempt to include other reliable, caring adults in your child’s life. Not only are devoted family members and friend’s role models your child can depend on, but their commitment takes pressure off you.

  1. Don’t fight in front of your kids — period.

Heated conversations regarding unreliability or finances should take place on the phone when your kids aren’t around. Research has found that the most poorly adjusted kids of divorce are those exposed to ongoing parental battles. “No one is saying you have to be best friends,” Dr. Teyber says. “Some couples simply can’t get along or trust each other and aren’t likely to. But for your children’s sake, you must stop fighting in front of them.”

  1. Aim for peaceful transitions.

Even if you’re not openly argumentative, kids can sense tension and become anxious themselves. According to Dr. Knox, research shows that many fathers avoid visiting their children simply because running into their exes becomes too much of an ordeal. “Some dads complain that they just can’t handle the conflict when seeing their former spouse,” he says. “Or a dad arrives to a clearly anxious child and assumes his ex has been bad-mouthing him. The father ends up rationalizing that it’s better if he doesn’t come at all.” No matter how upset or angry you feel, be civil. If you truly can’t, it might be best for your ex to collect your child from neutral ground — at a friend’s, at school, or at a McDonald’s — and you can leave for your car when you see him drive in.

  1. Say goodbye with a smile.

When your child does go off to be with the other parent, make it clear that you’re happy she’s spending time with him. Mothers can unconsciously make their child feel guilty about leaving. “If a child sees her mom is upset when it’s time for her to leave, she won’t be able to have a good time with her father,” Dr. Teyber says. Let your child know she doesn’t need to worry about you. This will help your ex feel less tense about pickups too.

  1. Send the right welcome-home message.

Parents are often unsure what to say when their kids come home from an ex’s house. They don’t want to seem disinterested, yet they’re concerned about appearing too inquisitive. To play it safe, they may say nothing. “This silence unconsciously sends the message that you’re either unhappy, disapproving, or uncomfortable with the time he spent with his other parent,” Neuman says. “Or it makes the child feel as if the visit has betrayed you in some way.” How to best handle their return? Pretend your kids came home from a weekend at their grandparents’ house. Be interested and supportive.

  1. Allow kids to express disappointment.

Don’t downplay your child’s pain and sadness. While done with the best intentions, telling kids comforting things like “It’s better this way” and “Don’t worry, everything will be fine” sends the message that you can’t deal with your child’s unhappiness, or worse, that he shouldn’t feel that way. “Whether he’s upset about the divorce in general or about something more specific, like a parent’s having to work late again, anger and disappointment are normal, healthy emotional reactions,” Neuman says. “A child is entitled to these feelings and should be able to talk about them without worrying that his parents will be upset or angry.” Offer your support and comfort by letting your child know you understand — and that his feelings matter. “Then he’ll be free to confront disappointment rather than avoid it,” Neuman says. “This will serve him well throughout his life.”

By Walter Mendenhall

Walter completed his initial Urban weekend for men in 2013 and is currently enrolled in our Two-Year Transformational program. Having accomplished his lifelong dream of making it to the National Football League (NFL), Walter’s desire for mentoring and teaching young people prompted him to walk away from football to focus on pursuing his passion for teaching the next generation of leaders. He is currently a professor at Northeastern Illinois University (Leadership Development) and South Suburban College (Sociology), and a successful motivational speaker and mentor.