In 25 years of supporting people going through divorce, I’ve learned what the effects of divorce on children really are. This includes what children of divorce actually want from their parents.
I’ve often wished that parents could see divorce’s effects on their children sooner. The emotional trauma some parents feel hurts them so badly that they simply can’t see beyond their own pain to consider their children’s.
Divorce can cause children anxiety, stress, anger, and low self-esteem for the children, but here’s what children of divorce really want from their parents.
1. Children of divorce want their parents to coexist.
Children of divorce want their parents to be able to exist in the same place at the same time without conflict, avoidance, or angst. They want their parents to be able to meet together with their teachers, to sit together at events, to cheer for them from the same bleachers, to pose with them for photos, and to celebrate their achievements together.
An 18-year-old boy told me that his greatest stressor in elementary school was playing in the school concert band. He always dreaded performances because his parents hated each other, but both always showed up. This young man knew that they would sit apart, seemingly competing for who could sit closer to his spot on the stage. He never knew where to look to try to find a supportive smile. His stomach would ache, he would begin to feel sick, and he simply couldn’t wait for the concert to end. Afterward, he wouldn’t know who to go to first. He felt responsible for how they would feel. He quit concert band in elementary school, quit soccer in high school, and later, quit his job.
Children want their parents to be there for them, not against each other so much that they can’t be present.
2. Children of divorce want their parents to communicate respectfully.
They want their parents to be adults, manage their emotions, and behave responsibly. Children of divorce want their parents to stop fighting and criticizing each other in front of them.
They want their parents to be the grown-ups and to let them be the kids.
People expect children to express their feelings appropriately in their relationships with others. Is this too much to ask of their own parents? Parents are the greatest teachers.
A 14-year-old shared with me that she gets extremely upset when she hears her parents fight about her. She said that when they fight about her, she feels like it’s her fault. She also said that her parents will go weeks without communicating with one another and will instead send each other messages through her. Then, she again feels at fault for her parents’ anger with each other. This girl said that she sometimes wishes her divorced parents could feel what it’s like to be in the middle. She wants to hide in her room, not see anyone, and eat the snacks she hid there to try and feel better. She developed an eating disorder and consistently struggles with self-esteem.
The effects of divorce on children are often serious, and the repercussions last into adulthood.
3. Children of divorce want their parents to cooperate in co-parenting.
Children want their best interests to be the focus of their parents’ relationship. If marriage bred an unhealthy, unhappy, high-conflict relationship in the home, believe me, the children are pro-divorce.
They don’t want their parents to stay together for them. They do want to remain a top priority in their parents’ separate lives. Often, parents tell their children that they are their number-one priority, but their actions don’t support that. This can make children feel insecure and unloved.
A 9-year-old boy told me that he felt like he had to hide when his mother called or texted him when he was with his father. His mom, on the other hand, just wanted to know how his soccer game went.
His father would react with anger, yelling and accusing her of stealing his time. The boy didn’t understand why her interest in his life would upset his father so much. He stopped answering his mother’s calls and texts and eventually started hanging out with the wrong crowd.
Your relationship with their ex is not your child’s relationship with them. Bickering with your co-parent means that someday, you might have a price to pay.
4. Children want their parents to commit to healing after going through a divorce.
They want their parents to take responsibility for their lives. So many parents wallow in their pain or avoid it, so they don’t do the work of grieving and letting go. They just run away from the relationship without doing the reflection and learning the lessons from this period of their lives.
Others, often those who may be victims of betrayal, can become so defeated that they begin to betray themselves with their lifestyle choices.
Children of divorce want their parents to talk to someone about their problems. They want them to get the help they need to lead a well-balanced, stable life.
Their parents’ moods and their emotional, social, and financial struggles significantly impact them. Kids want to see their parents smile and hear them laugh. They want to play, have fun, and make memories with their divorced parents that will carry them through their lifetime.
A young girl once revealed to me that her mother was sad all the time since her dad moved out. She said that every time he called to ask about her day or tell her goodnight, Mommy would cry. This girl said that she felt like she had to go from being happy on the phone with her dad to comforting her mother, who had no one else to talk to. She carried the burden of being a parent and a friend to her mom until her mom sought support on her own.
Children want healthy, happy parents who take care of themselves and can take care of them too.
Divorced or separated parents should give themselves the opportunity to recover from heartbreak and disappointment, learn to manage the stress, and regulate their emotions. If they do, they’ll give their children the same capacity for resilience, happiness, and connection.
Originally written by Ann Papayoti on YourTango.
Featured Photo by Xavier Mouton Photographie on Unsplash.