Separation and divorce involves a restructuring of the family, especially when children are involved. I observe in my clients, and know from personal and professional experience, what a difficult transition divorce can be.
As a mediator and collaborative family law attorney, I rarely get to meet or talk with the parties’ children. I always inquire, “How are the children doing?”
It amazes me how often the response is, “They are fine; doing well.”
Based on my training and experience, a child experiencing their parents’ separation and divorce is not likely to be fine during the process. The child may be doing well in school, have lots of friends, and do what is expected at home, without saying much.
However, a lack of acting out does not mean the child is doing “just fine.”
Adult children frequently express that when their parents were separated and/or divorced, they experienced pain and difficulty managing their adjustment, especially when they experienced conflict between their parents. Such conflict does not need to be physical or even overt. It can be subtle comments made by one or both parents when the child is within earshot.
A child may struggle with how he/she feels about each parent.
It can be difficult for a child to know what to say when a child hears a negative comment made by one parent against the other.
A child may have been told something upsetting by either parent or a third party about what led to the separation.
Sometimes a parent discourages the child from having a relationship with the other parent.
A parent may feel like a victim and express this to the child. The child may worry and feel the need to protect a more vulnerable parent.
It is critical for a child to be able to open up and express thoughts and emotions without being judged or feeling like the child needs to take sides. It is good if the child can have an individual counselor or child specialist to speak freely without worrying about what was said being repeated to mom and dad. The child may be fearful of backlash if they say something either parent does not want to hear.
When a parent hears something they do not want to hear, the parent may react with anger, frustration, blame, or some other negative message. A parent may be in such pain that the parent is solely focused on his/her own feelings and unable to make space to see or experience what the child may be thinking.
In most situations, children need to be free to love both parents with their whole heart. It should not be a matter of 50% of the love to one parent and 50% to the other parent. A child can love each parent with all their heart. It can be 100%, without a heart divided, toward both parents.
The child should feel free to express that love of a parent fully, even in the presence of the other parent.
Parents who are able to work through their emotions, through individual and/or joint counseling, are able to put negative feelings aside to be able to see things from their child’s point of view. The parent is then able to listen to the child and enable the child to freely express feelings and thoughts without the child feeling pulled in different directions. The child still may not be “fine” but it can be so helpful for the child to feel heard, without any judging or fear of retaliation.
Parents should strive to enable their children to freely express themselves as the family transitions, and long after the divorce has passed. Such communications can enable the child to adjust in a healthier way and grow the parent-child relationship despite the divorce.