Divorce is painful for every member of the family, but children are especially vulnerable. Even great parents can get caught up in the anger and bitterness, and without knowing it, can say and do things that really hurt their children. Gary Neuman, creator of the Sandcastles Therapy Program, offers these ideas for talking about divorce with children:
1. Don't ask your kids to choose sides.
Whether you come right out and ask them or subtly pressure them, you're putting them in the middle of your problems. They feel tremendous pressure and anxiety to please both parents, and they don't know what to say.
2. Don't say bad things about your ex.
When you criticize your ex, you criticize your child. To their ears, you might as well be saying, "You're a rotten person."
3. Talk to your child about his or her feelings.
When your child is feeling rejected by one parent or the other, help them talk about it, and help them understand that it's not their fault. Say, "It must be very sad for you not to have your (father's/mother's) attention. Adults make mistakes, and a lot of times they hurt the people they love the most. But that doesn't mean you did anything wrong."
4. Open the lines of communication.
Don't just ask your kids how they're doing. You won't get a straight answer. Instead, say, "It sounds like you feel ________." Fill in the blank with words like "hurt," "sad," or whatever you think they feel. This gives kids permission to open up and say whatever they want.
5. Act like a parent.
You are the adults in this situation. Let your kids know that you and your ex will make the decisions about how much time they spend with each of you. It's not something they need to worry about.
6. "It's not worth it."
Make those words your mantra. The fighting, the name-calling, the ugliness—none of those things are worth the pain you're putting your kids through.
7. Admit your mistakes.
Let your kids know what you have done wrong, whether in your marriage, or in dealing with the divorce, and make a new commitment to them.