Children of Divorce
Watch kids describe what divorce feels like for them.
M. Gary Neuman—founder and director of the Sandcastles Program and author of Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way —says he's seen a lot of bad divorces.
The cardinal rule that all divorcing parents need to follow, Gary says, is to never criticize each other in front of their children. "When they bad-mouth each other, it causes [the children] to question if they can love both," he says. "Kids should be able to love both parents. And if you say something bad about the other person, they feel disloyal to you if they actually love the other person. And they should never have to make that kind of choice."
Daisy says she's very angry with her mom. "I don't really want to have anything to do with my mom," she says. "And then my dad said if I don't talk about stuff like this that I [might] explode one day and everything." Kris says he's feeling "really sad and very mad" about the divorce. "I don't want her to have a boyfriend because she was already married," he says.
Kris says he doesn't miss his mom, but as Kris sits with Gary, he gets emotional remembering the day his mother left. "My mother went away and I don't want her to go away," he says.
"First of all, understand that when you see all this sadness, we shouldn't be depressed about it," Gary says. "We should be upset if they don't express this. That's what it's all about here. If he doesn't get this out, if they don't do this, imagine how numb and what has to happen to them internally."
Gary says there's no specific script to follow when talking to your kids about divorce. "What we have to remember is that we heal through loving connection. That's the magic of being human," he says. "So the most important thing is to take the pressure off of yourself as a parent to say just the right words. It's the feeling. It's looking at these kids and saying, 'Gosh, I know it hurts. It makes sense that it's sad. And I wish I could do something different. But we're a family and we're going to get through this and you can tell Dad.'"
Jim says he's told Daisy and Kris that they can talk to him about anything, but he had never seen Kris react like he did with Gary. "You bring up a great point that many parents say, 'Well, I said to my kid, if you ever have a problem, just come find me; come talk to me.' That's too intense," Gary says. "When do kids talk the most? They talk the most when we're having a catch, you know, cooking dinner together. Taking a drive together. Get back to just spending some quiet time. Get the earphones out and get the cell phone away. And just spend that time with your kid and they'll talk."
Daisy tells Gary that she tried to look pretty to make her mom want to come back. And Kris says he gave his mom "puppy eyes" and bought her a ring with his allowance, but she didn't want it.
This is the time when Gary says a parent needs to break the cardinal rule. "Children in these circumstances, we cannot have them feeling that they are somewhat responsible for the rejection from the parent who has abandoned them. So that's the time when we have to say to our children, 'It is wrong as a parent not to be there for your child.'"
Gary explains to Daisy and Kris, "Sometimes people have problems in their mind and it limits them and it stops parents from giving the love that children deserve. Your dad is here because you guys are terrific and you deserve to have two parents. And if you have this one, that's going to be good enough. You did not make her go away and you cannot make her come back."
To help them express their feelings, Gary has Daisy and Kris write letters to their mother. "I miss baking cookies as a family and you helping us do our homework. I still love you, Mom, but what you did in the past makes me not love you so much like I used to," Daisy writes.
Kris writes, "When I think of you and Daddy not living together, I feel so sad. I do not understand why you got divorced. Sometimes I dream about Dad being sad. About not having you around. I wish that you didn't get a divorce."
Print this letter writing exercise and help your kids express their emotions.
Whether or not their mother gets these letters, Gary says they will help lift the burden that Daisy and Kris feel. "Regardless of who it goes to, the expression itself is healing," Gary says. "Tomorrow and the next day they're going to walk lighter and that sparkle in their eye is going to be back more and more."
Gary says fighting is a common problem that's rough on kids regardless of if their parents are divorced or still together. "The difference is, when you're married and your parents have a fight, the kids kind of see you make up a day later, hours later, so they can kind of get through it," Gary says. "When you're divorced, it just sits there and reminds them of all the bad times and the difficult times that happened."
In a situation in which the parents still live together, sometimes the children can feel responsible for keeping the family intact. "When parents are fighting so much and there's so much anger, [the kids] don't go to them because they feel like they've got to keep things stable. The kids begin to be the ones who are trying to keep the house together and stable while everything's falling apart around them," Gary says.
Gary has three rules about the right way to break the news of your divorce to your children.
- Rule 1: Tell the entire family at once. "Sit down together. We're still going to be together as a family, even at the moment of breaking up," he says.
- Rule 2: You must convey the crucial messages in the first 45 seconds. "You say three things: 'Mom and Dad made each other very sad and we think that it's best for the family that Mom and Dad live apart. You guys are going to spend plenty of time with both of us in our homes. And it is absolutely not your fault. You did nothing to cause this.'"
- Rule 3: Both partners must practice the conversation together before talking to the kids.
Once you break the news to your children, Gary says it's important to listen and help them deal with their sadness. "They [may] start crying, and then you hold hands. You hug. You sit. You allow them to ask questions."
One thing Gary says many children ask is, "Why is this happening to me?" When faced with this question, parents should avoid bad-mouthing their spouses. "There's a couple things we have to explain to kids. We don't want to give them specific reasons, because we don't want to start blaming each other. Number one is to give them some general ideas that are meaningful, [such as], 'In our marriage, we didn't love each other enough. We were too selfish. Maybe we didn't get help early enough. We said nasty things that we couldn't take back,'" he says. "Real things that maybe they can learn from your mistakes under those circumstances."
After her parents' divorce, Ebony, who is now 16, says she began acting out in dangerous ways. "I just thought my mom was the biggest hypocrite in the world, so I was doing whatever I wanted to do, and I was rebelling," she says. "And I did it on purpose to make her mad, but it hurt me more than it hurt her."
Now Ebony regrets her behavior, but she doesn't know what to do. Ebony says she has never felt like she could tell her parents what she is going through, even though she is very close to her dad. "I brought all of this on myself with stupid decisions that I can't take back," she says. "I'm pretty sure some part of him will disown me. He'll see me as a slut, and not as Ebony. And it's not me. It's not who I am. It's just an outlet, a bad outlet."
Gary tells Ebony that in order to be truly close to her parents, she needs to start relying on love. "She courageously agreed that if I would be there, that she could spill the beans, connect with her parents and just tell once and for all," he says. "And I guaranteed to her that her parents are not going to see her as a slut. They're going to see her as their daughter that they want to love and keep loving and keep in touch with."
At first, Belinda has difficulty accepting what Ebony has told her. Gary says it is fine for parents and children to disagree. "That does not mean that you can't accept it and love them no matter what choice they make for themselves," he says. "She can know that it's not okay and it's not cool with you, but that does not mean that you can't say, 'I love you. I accept you.'"
Belinda says Gary is right—even though she still doesn't condone Ebony's actions. She says to Ebony, "But I'm going to still love you because I do believe that things do happen for a reason. So I'm going to be there if you need to talk to me for whatever reason, because I won't want you to take the same road again. I'm not going to lose you just because this is the path you chose to take. And I love you too much for that."
"But how can you say you treated her like an adult?" Oprah asks. "Because [as] an adult, if you were going to leave, you would explain why you were leaving."
Gary says parents shouldn't wait for their children to approach them with their problems. "I mean, how many of us as teenagers were running to our parents with every problem that we had?"
Instead of waiting, Gary says there is a talk that every family should have—one that Gary and his wife had with their own five children. "We identified two adults that we trust and they trust in their lives, and we all met together and we said, 'Listen, we want you to come to us. Of course we'll never judge you. We'll always love you. But here's the deal. If you don't feel like you can come to us, here's two people you can go to individually and we give them permission to make decisions on our behalf for you—and they never have to tell us, if that's what's going to work for you.'"
These go-to parents can act like substitute parents for your children in a time of need. "That way, at least we know as parents our children are using adults with experience to help guide them, instead of their colleagues," Gary says.