Divorce, while sometimes the best thing that can actually happen to a family in the long run, can take quite an initial emotional toll on all members of the clan.
When divorce occurs, children may feel confusion, sadness and even anger. Remember that teenagers are still children, even though they seem vastly different from someone much younger, and their emotions and ways of dealing with the situation will not be that of an adult. Each person’s reaction to this event depends a great deal on their age, their familial circumstances prior to the divorce and facets of their personality – and figuring out how to talk to them can be potentially awkward and difficult. Luckily, there are techniques on how to properly communicate about divorce and its numerous repercussions.
As a friend or an adult who wants to help a child of divorce, it helps to understand what that child may feel he or she is missing. HelpGuide.org offers a list of what children of divorce want from their parents, including a desire for their parents to get along, even if it isn’t in the name of getting back together. Part of getting along is parents’ mutual restraint when it comes to discussing the divorce and the other parent’s faults. Children want the continued support of their parents for their endeavors outside of the divorce, and when discussions surround the reasons for the divorce or the faults of the other parent, they can often feel guilty or as if they have to choose sides.
Your job as a friend is to be there as an outlet for emotions and confusion. Many children, especially teens, don’t feel as if they can discuss the divorce directly with their parents because they fear hurting their parents’ feelings or being put in the middle of arguments. In some situations, the best way to talk to the children of a new divorce is not to talk at all. A good listener can provide the child with a strong safety net into which he or she can throw feelings, worries, and thoughts. Another duty of a listener is to watch for signs of extreme social withdrawal, self-blame, or other indications of depression, such as lack of appetite or sleep, preoccupation with hurting oneself, or a sudden or heightened attraction to drugs and alcohol.
Sometimes, a child who is watching as a divorce happens may not want to talk about it at all. If that is the case, it is still important to periodically tell them they can talk to you and you will listen. Don’t pry, but make your openness to them clear. The key to being there for someone whose parents are divorcing is to not push them for information or to reveal how they are feeling, but to make them aware that you are there when they want to share. Offering information about a time you felt afraid may encourage them to open up, but make sure it is not a competitive statement that belittles how they are feeling. Saying something in the vein of “it could be worse” is not helpful and might make them retreat further or assume you will not understand. (source: Nightingale Center)
Recognize that what they are expressing is based on emotion, which can make a person act in an unreasonable manner and say irrational and overly impassioned things. If you don’t agree with the way they feel, it’s not always helpful to voice your opinions. Save your thoughts and criticisms for later and try validating their feelings and frustrations, especially when those emotions are new. The time for counseling and guidance will come down the road. (source: First Things First)
One thing to keep in mind is how to broach the topic in the first place. Sensitivity and timing are of tantamount importance. Make sure you break the news when you have some time to spend with them right afterwards; they shouldn’t feel isolated in any way. Another aspect that holds significant weight in terms of the telling is who does it. Babycenter.com urges both parents to tell the child together: “Parents should break the news as a team. Telling your child together avoids confusion — he’ll hear only one version of the story — and conveys that it was a mutual decision.” Obviously the more parents, even after divorce, can amicably work together on issues that relate to their children, the better for all involved.
Down the road, after the initial shock of the divorce begins to wear away, there are other factors that can arise that need to be addressed. The most common is how to deal with the topic of a parent dating new individuals. This will inevitably arise for one parent, and typically both, over time. It’s best to discuss this openly with children, but not to rush things. Onetoughjob.org suggests “When you think the time is right, sit down with your children and explain to them that you get lonely and need adult company, and the person you are dating is special to you. Reassure them that you love them and that they always come first no matter who is in your life, and encourage them to come to you with any worries.” Letting children know they have nothing to fear in terms of losing you is important, as well as explaining that this new person isn’t there to “replace” their other parent. The new person you are dating is just a new edition to the group.
The bottom line is that when communicating with children of divorce, parents, as well as others who want to help, are advised to keep messages about the divorce simple and to the point. Children don’t need to be involved in the details of the split-up, but they do need to know that they are not the culprit. Enabling children to speak up and express their thoughts without much interference or coercing can help prevent them from internalizing the negative feelings they have, and can help them be honest and truly deal with the situation at hand.