Q. Recently friends of ours announced they were getting divorced. The two families get together often. Obviously with a divorce is going to come separation of the parents, and the children will be shuttled back and forth. How do we deal with this as friends of theirs, and how do we discuss this with our children? What do we do if the children are here and bring it up? How do we talk to them in a reassuring manner?
A. I don't mean to sound gleeful - even an amicable divorce is brutal - but, boy do you have an opportunity here.
You can teach your kids to be calm and flexible: "The divorce will change the way we get together with them, and that's going to feel weird at first, but we'll manage."
You can teach your kids when to take sides, and when not to: "Both Al and Bea are our friends. Unless we come to learn that one of them hurt the other seriously and deliberately, we're going to stay out of their private business."
You can teach your kids not to judge: "Two people can try their best and still not be right for each other." You can also explain that even people we know well can have sides to them we haven't seen. And you can, ahem, take care to avoid phrasing like, "shuttled back and forth."
You can show your kids what it means to have perspective: "Yes, this will be awkward for us, but for them it will be a lot more than awkward, and so the least we can do is be good sports about it."
You can teach your kids compassion: "Cece and Dee may want to talk about what's going on with their parents. Or, they may want to talk about anything but. The best way to tell which one they want is to listen."
You can demonstrate that compassion for them. When the friends' children bring up the divorce when they're with you, let them do the talking. When you do need to speak, offer perspective without condescension by posing your ideas as questions to them: "Is it possible your mom meant X when she said Y?" Also, understand their anger without encouraging it. "Your parents love you. I doubt they wanted things to turn out this way."
And, finally, you can show your kids how to be helpful without interfering. Tell the parents your door is open to their children whenever they need refuge - then back it up by inviting the kids over frequently for specific dates and times. That gives everyone in their family some air, if they want it.
The equanimity, compassion and restraint in these actions are fairly high-minded goals, but it's their earthy cousin - flexibility - that might be your most valuable. Significant amounts of change, doubt, uncertainty and emotion lie between now and the new version of normalcy. By remaining flexible while things are in flux - and by that I mean not committing yourself to one friend over another, one belief over another, one narrative over another, one outcome over another, or even one spin over another - you position yourself to be the most valuable kind of friend and parent: one with a calming effect.
•E-mail Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group