The big fear for most divorcing parents is, “What will it do to the children?” This fear often keeps couples together long after the marriage is over. It’s a natural instinct to want to protect children from harm. But no matter how spectacular your parenting skills, human psychology demonstrates that in the course of their emotional development, children will become disillusioned, even emotionally wounded. Famed psychologist Carl Jung called this “necessary suffering” and noted that it was integral to human maturation. Simply put: The child’s idea of how his or her life would play out and reality do not match up.
A common wounding occurs when parents part ways and the family splits. And yet, research indicates that divorce, in and of itself, doesn’t harm the children’s lives. In fact, ending the relationship may actually benefit the child’s welfare in households were there is addiction, physical or verbal abuse, or mental/emotional instability. Studies show that how parents respond to divorce, relate to their soon-to-be-ex and (most important) attend to the emotional and spiritual needs of their children are what determine how the marital split affects their wellbeing.
What can you do to help your children thrive in their post-divorce lives? Philosophers Don Riso and Russ Hudson compiled their knowledge of the human personality and ego in a comprehensive work entitled The Wisdom on the Enneagram. They discovered the following nine distinct messages that children want and need to hear in order to feel valued and safe:
You are good.
You are wanted.
You are loved for yourself.
You are seen for who you are.
Your needs are not a problem.
You are safe.
You will be taken care of.
You will not be betrayed.
Your presence matters.
These nine messages may seem basic, but they are powerful to hear, especially in formative years. Parents may not realize that they aren’t providing these messages to their children — or worse, that they are sending the exact opposite message without intending to do so. Reinforcing these messages in various ways can help your children overcome their fears, especially if they are too young to express their anxieties specifically.
Of course, when reinforcing these positive childhood messages your actions must match your words. Simply telling your daughter she’s “good” doesn’t mean a lot if she’s reprimanded for the slightest misstep. Fortunately, there are infinite ways to express these childhood messages. Here are nine examples of how to give your kids what they need when dealing with the upheaval of divorce:
- Create consistent ways to acknowledge the child’s “goodness” rather than focusing on misbehavior. Avoid negativity and pointing out shortcomings. Instead, acknowledge acts of kindness, politeness, civility or generosity.
- Display an equal number of photos of each child from various stages of their lives.
- Write notes to each child praising his or her unique attributes and talents.
- Make a date with each child to engage in an activity that is of particular interest to him or her.
- On a daily basis, ask each child what he or she needs from you. (Maybe as small as help with homework, or a ride to a game.) Acknowledge his or her needs and talk about ways you can accomplish it together.
- Security is important for all children, but some kids are more nervous than others. Ask fearful children to talk about their concerns and don’t simply dismiss them as “being silly”. Acknowledge the fear and then gently prompt them to think of ways to dispel it. (For example: Create an emergency plan and make sure your children know what to do, who to call and where to go.)
- In a busy household, it’s easy to overlook details that are important to children. Create a family calendar and ask each child to write down important dates and activities so you can make sure they have what they need for each event, including your presence.
- Emotional security is important too. Don’t disclose secrets that your child confides in you or embarrass your child — especially in public. And when you make a promise to your child, keep it.
- Plan family meals and other activities and take time to listen to and observe each child.
Divorce can be difficult on the entire family, but if you’re mindful of your words and actions, you can mitigate its negative impact. By focusing on positive ways to nurture your children’s emotional well-being, you may find yourself less stressed and more present in all aspects of life. Best of all, you may even create deeper and more meaningful relationships with your children that will last a lifetime.