Kids First: What Kids Want Grownups to Know about Separation & Divorce (Part 1)

Most parents are well-intentioned and want to do the right thing by their children. However, sometimes parents don’t know what to do or say when going through a divorce. In this post, we discuss what divorce and separation feels like to children and how to talk to your children about divorce.

I am a child of divorce. Most importantly I am a child of a high-conflict marriage. It is not by serendipity that I  became a family law attorney, divorce mediator and collaborative divorce attorney. I understand first-hand how children feel when conflict runs rampant in the home. I do not blame my parents. They only repeated what they learned in their own families.

Because of my childhood experience, I decided to break the cycle of conflict not only for my own family, but also in the hopes of helping my clients break the cycle of conflict in their families as well.

In 1989, a group of legal and mental health professionals from Portland, Maine created “Kids First,” a program to help parents minimize the trauma of separation and divorce. Based on their findings and professional experiences with children and divorce they published the book “Kids First: What Kids Want Grown-Ups to Know about Separation and Divorce”.  The book “Kids First” is a collection of the knowledge gained by the staff and volunteers at the Kids First Center over the 25 years they have been in operation.  This book advises parents to measure their actions by a simple – yet powerful –  test:

“What do I want my children to remember about how I behaved
during the time of my separation and divorce?”

 Most parents in a high-conflict marriage or going through a contentious separation and divorce are well-intentioned and want to do the right thing by their children. However, sometimes parents don’t know what to do or say and they struggle to control their emotional reactions. My intention in the next few blog posts is to provide parents with a review of some of the important lessons to be learned in “Kids First.”

What Separation Feel Like to Kids

Ideally, for children life is a series of predictable and recognizable routines. Separation and divorce can be an earthquake that rocks the foundation of children’s lives and many changes happen quickly that affect living arrangements, finances, holidays, parenting, and family connections. These changes are usually complicated and confusing to children.

In stressful times even well-meaning parents make mistakes. Holidays, birthdays, school plays, sporting events, and vacations can become opportunities for separating parents to advance their own agendas.  To minimize the negative impact of divorce on children, decisions need to be guided by the children’s best interest not their own.

  • When struggling with their own feelings of anger, fear, and grief, parents can make the following pitfalls that increase pain for children:
  • Popularity contest between parents by spending too much money on the children
  • Relaxing house rules or being lax with discipline
  • Experiencing a second adolescence by partying, dating, self-indulgence
  • Being physically present yet not emotionally available due to preoccupation with separation, new relationships, or self-discovery
  • Extending conflict by staying in the “victim role” and making the other parent pay for breaking up the family

Children often speak of their parent’s divorce as their own and how children remember the divorce, is largely up to the parents and their behavior. How children cope with the divorce process varies based on the age and temperament of each child. Following are some of the common reactions children have to divorce:

  • Children often react by blaming themselves.
  • Children feel a mix of fear sadness, guilt, and anger. They may even feel shame or embarrassment.
  • Children want to know how divorce will affect them directly. Where will I live? Where will I go to school? Can I still see my friends?
  • Children often have the fantasy of their parents reuniting.
  • Children want to see more of the parent they are not with and worry constantly about their well-being.

Listening to Children

Studies show that the better-understood children feel the more likely they are to successfully adapt to the challenges of divorce and separation. Here are some important points to keep in mind when communicating with your children about divorce.

Listening needs to occur to the child’s particular developmental level.

Children are experts on their own feelings, perceptions, and thoughts. While younger children don’t have the maturity to fully comprehend divorce, that doesn’t mean they have not figured out what is going on or can’t talk about their feelings. Adolescents handle divorce differently. They may appear unaffected and deny that the divorce impacts them at all. The reality is probably very different because teenagers may not want to be seen as weak and vulnerable. Additionally, many teens believe they have to take care of their parents and are given increased responsibilities for taking care of the parenting so they are less likely to discuss their feelings.

Children of any age want their views heard and considered.

Children feel relieved when you name what they are feeling. Do not discredit or try to minimize their feelings. Listen. Do not try to fix it. And do not make promises you cannot keep. Also, keep in mind that it is important for parents to listen and watch for what is not being said.

Prepare yourself for your child to be angry with you.

Do not avoid talking to your children about their feelings. This can be very difficult to do, especially when you know your child is angry. However, children need to express their fears, anger and sorrow to adults and still feel safe.

When children express their feelings, and those feelings challenge the decisions of the adults or it makes the grownups angry, children will tend to keep their feeling to themselves.  Children may not want to make waves for fear of losing privileges or even worse, losing their parents’ love. So do your best not to challenge or try to change the way your children feel.

Listening to children – especially teens – can be difficult and confusing, however, it is important to remind oneself that despite their opinions, you remain the parent and you must remain in control. Counseling may be appropriate for teenagers because they appreciate being listened to and might be more likely to open up to an indirect third party.

Create opportunities for uninterrupted conversations rather than direct questioning. 

There is no simple strategy for tolerating children’s pain and distress. Parents’ understanding of the children’s perspective is very important so it helps to have some familiarity with child development.

Inviting children to participate in constructive conversations about divorce – emphasis on constructive – makes them feel included and validated. However, it is important to let them know that adults will make the final decisions. Knowing that their parents are still in charge reassures them they are being cared for.

When you create opportunities for discussion, it helps you understand the child’s experience as the divorce unfolds. By focusing on putting the children first in divorce, parents can share with one another what they’re learning about how their children feel, and consequently, they are better equipped to make decisions given the child’s development, personality, temperament, and what’s in their best interest.

United parents make more accurate long-term decisions that are durable and sustainable over time.  If you can not do so with your ex, hire a parenting coach or a divorce or custody mediator. They are great resources for parents in conflict.

Learn More

To learn more about how divorce mediation can help your case, contact any of our Divorce Attorney Mediators or Certified Divorce Financial Analysts at CT Divorce Mediation Centers. Divorce and Family Mediation and Collaborative Law are all we do. We have offices in Madison, New Haven, Cheshire, West Hartford, Glastonbury, West Hartford, and Windsor, CT. To find out more information or to schedule a consultation with our divorce experts, call us at (860) 986-1141.

DISCLAIMER:This publication is not meant to constitute legal, accounting, financial, investment advisory, or other professional advice. If legal, financial, investment advisory or other professional assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person such as CT Divorce Mediation center, should be sought.