Once you’ve told your kids that you’re getting a divorce, it’s common for them to go through an adjustment period. You, too, will likely be going through a period of adjustment as family bonds are being reconfigured and a new “normal” is established.
Stephanie Samar, PsyD, a child psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, recommends not being too alarmed by some of the reactions you may be seeing early in the transition. “Think about how chaotic it feels for the adults in the situation, who have at least some control,” she notes. “That adjustment period has to happen, so honor it and don’t start to send the message ‘I just want you to be happy.’” You don’t want to inadvertently pressure kids to feel like they need to be on board and happy about a divorce. While it may be true, of course, that you just want your kids to be happy as soon as possible, giving them the room to process their own feelings is an important part of adjusting.
One way to let kids know that it’s okay to feel upset or angry is to encourage them to share how they’re feeling. Dr. Samar recommends saying, “We want to know how you’re feeling about this, and you’re not going to hurt our feelings if you tell us how you feel.”
This may be easier said than done, since what your child has to say might be difficult to hear, but it’s important to give her the chance to be honest. Kids sometimes try to protect their parents from the truth about how they’re feeling because they don’t want to make their parents feel upset — or more upset, if kids are already worried about a parent who’s unhappy about the break-up. But it isn’t a child’s job to make a parent feel better, and you don’t want to inadvertently send the message that you will be sad if your child is sad. Make it clear that you are interested in what your child has to say and, as Dr. Samar says, “then be careful not to let it hurt your feelings. Get whatever support you need to deal with how you feel and how your child feels and how that impacts you.”
As part of respecting your child’s emotions, do your best to just listen and not intervene. It’s every parent’s instinct to jump in and protect their child from things that are painful, but divorce is inevitably painful. Taking a step back and just listening allows your child to feel heard and feel that her opinion matters. It also lets her know that her emotions aren’t a problem to be solved or “gotten over.” This requires careful listening and empathizing, which psychologists call “validation.” For example, if your daughter says she is angry, instead of immediately looking for a way to cheer her up, you could validate that emotion by saying that you understand why she might feel that way and invite her to tell you more.
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