This is the second installment in a four-part series.
Our children are always influenced, positively or negatively, by the quality of our marriages.
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Needless to say, the failure of our marriage will have a significant impact on our children.
Almost half of all marriages eventually end in divorce. Marital failure, then, is a reality for many, if not most, children in America. It may involve their own parents. If not, they are soon aware of the divorces of aunts and uncles, grandparents, friends' parents, teachers and others.
Despite the increasing normalcy of divorce, we parents usually try to hide our marital disintegration from our children. Yet, sooner or later, they must be told. It might be helpful, then, if we took a look at divorce from our children's perspective.
First, we need to recognize our children usually know something is wrong long before we tell them. Kids are remarkably intuitive about what goes on in the family. They may not say anything, but on some level they are aware things are not right between Mom and Dad.
And as we near the ending of our marriage, our children will increasingly give off clear signals they are not only aware, but confused, frightened and angry as well.
Second, many of our children's misperceptions (which I mentioned last week) will be magnified. They may feel they are somehow to blame for our failure, or that they can somehow pull us back from the brink. They may fear we will reject or abandon them. They often believe their entire world is about to fall apart.
Third, depending on their ages, our children also will have a number of accurate perceptions of the impending changes in their lives. They may correctly anticipate that one parent will be much less available, if not absent entirely. They can accurately assume there will be financial problems. They may realistically fear a change of homes, neighborhoods, schools, churches, friends, etc. And they also may question the continuity in their relationships with both parents' extended families (grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and so on.)
Finally, as our children begin to deal with the changes in their lives, real or imagined, they will experience a strong sense of grief. A key relationship in their lives is dying. They will respond with shock, denial, withdrawal, depression, anger.
In the midst of their response to our relational failure, our children need us more than ever. And there are specific things we parents can do to ease our children's (and our own) transition through the painful process of divorce.
1. Be honest. We can't hide our marital disintegration from our children. We need to be open with them about our failure and its implications.
2. Give "age appropriate" explanations. We want to talk in terms our children will understand. A 4-year-old will probably understand "Mom and Dad don't love each other anymore." A 14-year-old needs a bit more, a 24-year-old more still.
3. Share information. As soon as possible, our children need to know who is going where, when and how. We want to reduce as much as possible the chances for misinformation or misunderstanding.
4. Reassure and encourage. We can stress to our children those areas of their lives that will remain stable. This is especially important when it comes to the continuity of contact with both mother and father.
5. Have integrity as parents. This can be difficult, especially in the midst of marital failure. It means putting aside our fighting or distancing to be united as parents. We have to refuse to involve our children in our discord. If at all possible, we want to keep them out of the divorce court. We need to encourage them (and allow the time) to relate positively to our ex (or soon to be "ex") spouse. It is important we coordinate and mutually enforce rules, privileges, discipline, etc.
And we must be willing to get professional help when we need it. Let's face it. Being married parents isn't easy. Being divorced parents is a lot tougher.
A positive note: research suggests that, after the initial adjustment period, children often do better after a divorce than before. Two reasonably happy divorced parents seem to ultimately be better for children than two miserable married ones. The ending of our failed marriages can eventually be a healing experience for all involved. It all depends on us.
• Next week: "When Mom and Dad Are Single"