Separation and divorce can lead to a lot of guilt for parents, it’s not what anyone wants, nobody plans for it. And it’s traumatic, it’s the loss of the future you’d imagined and you don’t yet know what the replacement future looks like. From an adult perspective, our hearts may be breaking not necessarily for the loss of the relationship but for the loss of the family unit.
We imagine that our kids feel the same way, but they don’t; children don’t have that wider deeper perspective that adults have. Children live in the here and now and what they experience is the fear and sadness of immediate change and the insecurity of not knowing, but they don’t project into the future. They don’t have those overall beliefs, dreams and aspirations that we do, so they don’t experience all of that come crashing down.
With little kids, it’s those immediate practical considerations like who will I live with? When will I see mummy/daddy? Teenagers have more of a sense of the larger meanings, but, to balance that, their lives are so much more wrapped up in their peer group. Their focus is shifting to the outside world anyway and family life is fading into the background.
Little children still accept all their life experiences as normal and older children very quickly shift into ‘How can I make the most of this new situation?’ and ‘What’s in it for me?’
Kids can still experience the security of having two caring parents who live separately. Children’s brains are so plastic that they adjust to new situations much more quickly and easily than we do, as long as we let them and don’t project the depth of our personal tragedy onto them.
When children are expressing sadness, anger or upset, it is not because of the magnitude of the situation, but their reaction to the immediate chaos and disruption to established routines which made them feel safe.
During that time of separation and the period of adjustment to a new life after divorce, when everything else is chaotic, we need to keep to our normal level of authority, because that’s the only thing that is a constant in the child’s world of change. We need to continue being the adults and making the decisions; we need to work out the living arrangements together, privately, and then tell the children. The kids don’t need the added responsibility of working things out together: no matter how much they may question or complain, they would prefer to feel like the adults know what they are doing.
This is not the time to give our kids lots of choices and a shared role in decision-making, out of a sense of making it up to them (or feeling sorry for them). When everything else is chaos, something needs to be constant. The parents’ authority is like an anchor in the storm.
We may feel guilt for breaking up the family home but we can’t ask our kids to help put the pieces back together after divorce, that’s our job. It’s our confidence in our authority to do that which provides the security and safety our children desperately need at a time when they feel that all the normal security has gone.