You’ll find stuff that scares the crap out of you as a parent, if you search Google on the impact of divorce on kids. And while it’s not wrong, it’s not the full story either.
There’s something missing from statistics that show the effects of parents divorcing on their children. How you and your husband go through the process is really what’s critical to their emotional well-being.
In this episode of The Loving Truth podcast, you’ll learn about how the way you go through the divorce process can affect your kids and their relationship with you and your soon-to-be ex. I’ll also reveal some tools that provide better options to help them understand and accept what’s happening.
Listen to the Full Episode:
What You’ll Learn In This Episode:
3:05 – Examples of the downstream impact of how you divorce
10:32 – The destructive impact of sharing intimate details of your marriage with your children (even if they’re adults now)
12:46 – Examples of better ways to handle divorcing so that it doesn’t cause your kids to suffer
15:39 – How to talk (and listen) to your kids when going through a divorce
20:12 – Why it’s okay for your children to see you struggle (and where it gets unhealthy)
21:09 – One last practical thing to help your kids get through their parent’s divorce
Featured On The Missing Piece to the Research on the Impact of Divorce on Your Kids
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Welcome to The Loving Truth Podcast where it's all about finding clarity, confidence, and peace in the face of marriage challenges. And now your host, relationship expert, and certified master life coach, Sharon Pope.
Sharon Pope: Hello, loves. This is Sharon Pope. This is The Loving Truth. Today we're going to be talking about you, your kids, and divorce. Now if there is any part of my work that is super fulfilling, it is this part of my work. When divorce is inevitable and/or the right answer and I help equip my clients with how to do it, how to unwind a marriage in the most loving and peaceful way possible.
The reason that's so fulfilling is because I know it not only will change my client's life, it will change their children's lives. As soon as you change your children's lives, now you change generations of lives that come after that, the impact I will never even see but when I think about it, it's super humbling.
Now you might think that's an overstatement. But think about it like this. Let's say that a child experiences their parents getting divorced and having nothing but just hatefulness towards each other, not being able to communicate, not liking each other at all, that creates a lot of hardship for that child.
Let's say that that child then picks up and has the belief now from their experience, that all marriages end badly, and that it's always going to hurt and it causes nothing but heartache and trauma so they avoid ever getting close in their personal relationships because they have sworn off doing it the way you did it because they see the pain, they felt the pain.
Let's say they end up having a child and they're like, “Oh, we have a child. We probably should get married.” “Oh, I didn't want to get married. All marriages end badly. I carry the belief that all marriages end badly and cause a lot of hurt. But I do it because it's the right thing to do.”
Lo and behold, because I carry the belief that it ends badly, it ultimately ends badly. Then the way that they handled the divorce, because the role models that they had were just filled with hatefulness, venom, and anger, how do they unwind their marriage but with venom, anger, and hatefulness because they never saw any other option?
Then that impacts that new child. Literally, these things, these experiences that we have create thoughts. When we think the same thought over and over and over again like it's always going to end badly, it's always going to hurt, then it becomes a deeply held belief. Once it's a belief, it impacts every part of our experience and impacts how we show up to our lives.
Now, if you Google divorce or the impacts of divorce on children, if you googled that, you would get a lot of stuff that would scare the crap out of any parent. It's not all wrong except that it's not the full story. We say divorce is the what? But then there's the how, how we do divorce.
The stats relate to divorce equals problems for children. Struggle, heartache, pain for our children, for our babies, even when they're not babies, I call them all babies. But the how is how you get there. That is what is missing from that conversation. That's what's missing from those statistics. We say all divorce equals pain for our children.
Now, difficulty for our children, of course, because they're going to be impacted but I'm going to argue that on the conservative side, the how is at least 50% of the equation in terms of how your children are going to be able to adjust to their parents divorcing, 50% is the circumstance of mom and dad or two parents are getting divorced. The other 50% is how we do that.
If we do it well, your kids are going to be able to come out the other side maybe even a little stronger, maybe even a little better boundaried, maybe even able to adjust to change a little bit better. They may be more equipped on the other side. They may be thriving in a whole new way on the other side of divorce, but you can't help them see that or get there when we don't handle our adult business like emotional adults, like grownups.
We're going to talk about that. This is going to feel like a little bit of tough love, but we're going to talk about it in the context of other examples we've seen. Let's talk about some of the bad examples. I mean, I feel like we almost all have seen this because divorce is so common now, we all know many people who are divorced.
When you start looking at their story and how they did it, or how their partners did it, we all have seen this, even if it's just an acquaintance, not a family member or a close friend. We've all seen examples of two exes who argue in front of their kids. Even if it's not in front of their kids, they're arguing in the vicinity of their kids and their kids know it and they hear it. Even if they don't want to hear and they put on their earphones, okay, because they don't want to hear it but they know it's happening. That's bad behavior that is going to impact our kids.
We've seen examples of where two exes cannot communicate with one another. Then what they do is they put the kids in the middle and they make the kids communicate for them. Here's what that sounds like. “You tell your mother that next time you come over here, she needs to make sure you have your soccer equipment with you.” Now the kid has to play telephone between mom and dad because mom and dad can't communicate.
Because we can't have conversations about the children that we brought into this world, now we've placed the children to be the adult in the relationship and be the communicator between us. Of course, the kid is going to struggle. We've seen couples who badmouth one another. I literally just saw this morning, Kevin Costner is in the process of getting divorced and his wife is saying publicly, “He's just money hungry. He's just all concerned about money.”
She said everything she said because the public people gets put in the public atmosphere and literally when I read that, I was like, “Their children are going to read that.” We're all tempted at some point and badmouth our partners, but we don't all do it.
Every time we do, it is destructive for our children when we badmouth our partners. It might feel good for like a split second for you but once you, or if you ever realized the impact to your kids, you would never feel good about that. Some exes can't even be in the same room together.
Now think about the downstream impact of that. Your child is graduating high school and you only get two seats in the stadium for two people to come see you graduate, and you're scared to death about your mother and father or your parents being the only two seats sitting together at your high school or college graduation and you're stressed out about it, not even present for your own graduation because you're thinking about, “Oh, my God, oh, my God, what's happening? What's happening? It's going to be a total sh*t show between those two.”
Or you get married and you're like, “In the seating chart, we have to make sure that my parents don't sit anywhere near each other because they can't be in the same room together.” Or then they have grandbabies, “Now we have to have two separate birthday parties for our first grandchild, because we can't be in the same room.”
This is the downstream impact of when we can't handle things well as emotional adults, we burden our children to be able to pick up the slack for that or adjust their lives accordingly because of that. We've also seen examples of where one person falls apart.
Let's say there's divorce and one person doesn't want it and one person does. The person that doesn't want it literally just crumbles, goes into the fetal position, crying all the time super upset. Well, so any child does not want to see their parents shattered, that automatically puts them into caretaker and parent mode of their parents. Now we've swapped roles, and we didn't even do it intentionally. If you are their stability, and you're crumbling, now, they're not stable. Now they're not safe.
What it also does, and this is the tragic part, is that when one person is crumbling, well, now the child is looking at that and saying someone has to be to blame and you're the one that made this decision and so you must be the one to blame. Now, they're the victim, the one that's crumbling, sad, and crying all the time is the victim and the one who made the decision is the villain.
Now in the midst of this divorce where I lose my family unit that I'm so accustomed to, that I as a child took for granted, now, I lose one of my parents too, because now I emotionally detach, judge them, or make them out to be the villain in my mind. Now I don't have the same relationship with them or any relationship with them potentially because now I don't agree with what they did because I'm seeing the pain of their decision on my other parent.
Imagine that. They lose their family unit and they lose a relationship with their parent. There is no health in that anywhere. I don't care what side of the story you are on. Along those same lines, I could probably go on a little rant here, but I'm not going to because I think it's fairly obvious, and yet we still do it, which is the example of where we share intimate details of our grown-up relationship with our kids.
Even when our kids are grown, they have not lived inside of a 20, 30, or 40-year marriage and gone through the same experiences you have. Your children have no place in the middle of the details of your marriage, and therefore, your divorce.
Here's what I'm referring to. I have had many clients where let's say that they had an affair, and their spouse is so hurt by that affair that then they go tell the kids. Now think about why you would tell children that their mother has cheated, that their mother has had an affair. Why? So that you can be the victim and she can be the villain.
They might say things like, “Your mother is leaving us to go do this.” No, she's not leaving the kids. She's exiting the marriage. But you're bringing the kids in as a point of manipulation to try to change the decision, change the outcome by getting the kids to guilt her. All of this is so destructive.
If you stand back from it, and you just think about it hypothetically, it is all our unhealed sh*t that we are now putting onto our children. Then we wonder why all the statistics say that divorce equals children suffering. It's because of how we handle the divorce.
Now, there are better options. I'm going to give you some of those options. I'm going to give you some of those tools to help you do this better. Because sometimes, divorce is inevitable and sometimes it is the right answer for you and your marriage and even your family. It can be the right answer. But how you handle it will have a direct impact on how your kids come through this and how much or how little they struggle with this change.
Now almost every parent on the planet says, “I would do anything for my children. I would walk in front of a bus for my children.” Almost every parent would say that. If you're a parent, would you agree with that? You would do anything for your children.
Now I'm going to ask you some hard questions. If you would do anything for your children, if you would walk in front of a bus for your children, then are you willing to have a hard conversation with your soon-to-be-ex for your children? Yep, it's uncomfortable. Yep, it might even cause some big emotions on your part or their part. But so that your child doesn't have to be the moderator between two adults, are you willing to have the hard conversation?
Are you willing to see a coach or a therapist so that you can process your thoughts and your emotions as you're navigating what is one of the top five stressors you will ever face in a lifetime, which is divorce? You need support too. When you get support, then you're able to show up as a better parent for your kids.
I know sometimes people are like, “Oh, I don't need a therapist, or I don't need coaching. I don't need that.” Yeah, you probably do. If you don't, your kids need you to do that. You have to get over the belief that there's something wrong with you if you have a therapist or if you have a coach, there's nothing wrong with you. There's actually something very healthy and very right with you because you're not processing all that emotion in front of your kids, or god forbid, using your kids to process that emotion.
You're using a professional and paying a professional to help you process your own feelings and navigating this massive change in your life. Let's get a little harder. Let's say now you're divorced. You do anything for your kids, you'd walk in front of a bus for your kids but will you treat your ex with respect when they're not treating you with respect?
Will you treat your ex’s future partner with kindness and respect instead of making them out to be a villain, someone else's showing up in your family's life and your ex's life that now will get to love your children if they will let them be loved? Are you going to shut that down because of all of your insecurities?
This is what I mean. We say we’d do anything for our kids, but then we don't do some of the basic stuff when it comes to divorce because we're so in our feelings. We're so hurt and we haven't processed any of it so it comes out in really irrational and immature ways.
Here are some other things that I want to share with you. First of all, yes, of course, talk to your kids. Listen more than you talk. When you're going through a divorce, you're going to want to listen more and you're going to want to ask more questions than give answers.
Now, if you have answers, give them answers, give them comfort. Don't tell them intimate details about your marriage and/or the divorce. Don't badmouth your partner. Don't do that. But if it is a more general question about what has happened or what is going to happen, that's really what they want to know, they want to know, “Am I safe? Am I going to be okay?” it's okay also if you don't have all the answers.
You don't have to have the answers. There are some answers when it comes to relationships, especially when they fall apart that you won't have every answer. Maybe someday you will because in hindsight, we're able to see things differently. But from where you are today, you don't have to have every answer.
If your kid asks a question and you don't have the answer, just say, “You know what? I don't know, honey. I don't know. I don't know if I'll ever have that answer,” and yet life calls us to keep going forward even when we don't have 100% information.
I'm being called to do that right now and you're being called to do that right now. That's what we're going to do and it's okay. It's okay. We can move forward not having every answer. Or if they ask you a question and you don't know because you hadn't considered it, you can say to them, “You know what, honey, I don't know. But I'm going to give that some thought and I'll come back to you. Give me a few days to think about it and we can talk about it again, okay?” You don't have to have every answer.
Now another tool that I want to share with you, this is a Martha Beck tool, and it's a very simple tool, but it is so effective in these situations with kids. She calls it the 5 Whys. Essentially, if you can remember when your kids were little, and they would pull on your pant leg and say, “Well, why, Mom? Why? Why does this happen? Why?” and they just keep asking why, why, why until you're finally like, “Because I said so,” we're going to apply that same philosophy here.
Because what they're going to present as where they're struggling with the divorce is not necessarily going to be the real thing that's going on for them. I'll give you an example. This is a real example.
A mom was talking to her child and the child was like, “I don't want you to get divorced.” So she started asking the first why. The five whys are asking why, some version of the why question up to five times to get at what's really going on. That's how you just keep digging. Think of it like a shovel. You're just digging a little bit deeper and a little bit deeper.
The child is like, “I don't want you and Dad to get divorced,” and she's like, “Okay, darling. I mean, I understand that. We don't actually want it either. This is not easy for us. But tell me, why will it be so bad if we are divorced?” The child said, “Well, because then I'm going to have to be at two different places. I'm going to have to have two different rooms.”
She said, “Okay, well, why would it be so bad? If you had two different rooms, two different rooms at two different homes but you loved both rooms. You felt really comfortable in both rooms. Why would that be so bad?” “Well, because I don't want a new dad.” That's what the worry was. It wasn't about where they were going to lay their head down at night. It was about the ultimate fear that I'm not going to have my current dad and you're going to replace him with some other dad.
But by asking those questions, she was able to get at what was really at the heart of the matter for her child and now she can address that and go, “Darling, that is never going to happen. That is never going to happen. Your dad is always going to be your dad. I am always going to be your mom. That is never going to change. Might there be other people in our lives in the future? Yes, potentially. But that doesn't mean that they will become a new mom or a new dad for you. They're just another person around to love you. That's all.”
Once you know what's really going on, then you can address that. Now I think it is okay for your kids to see you struggle. You don't have to put on this brave Stoic face. If you are going through a divorce, it's okay for you to be sad once in a while. It's okay for your kids to see a tear or two. I think that that's healthy for them to see that this is not easy for you.
Where it gets unhealthy is where you crumble, where you break down because you are their source of safety and stability. If you are not safe and stable, then that means they're not safe and stable. Then they try to fix that and make it better for you. Now they're the parent and you're the child and we switch the roles inside this relationship and that's not healthy.
A little bit of tears, a little bit of struggle is no big deal. A lot of struggle, that's where we've got to reach out to the people who can support us in the way that they're trying to do.
Then the last thing and very practical thing to help your kids come through this is routines, routines, routines. That’s what creates stability and stability is what creates a feeling of safety. The more that they know how it's going to look and what they can expect, then the safer they're going to feel.
I always tell people, “I want you to make two lists. One is a list of all the things that will change when you divorce for your kids,” this is from your kid’s perspective. The other is the list of all the things that will not change. I want you to get into the minutia on this because I want the list of all the things that will not change to be at least twice as long as all the things that will change.
Mom is still going to be dropping you off at school. Dad is still going to be picking you up in the afternoons. You are still going to eat your favorite cereal for breakfast. You're still going to have the same friends. You're still going to go to the same school. I want you to get into every intimate detail because I want them to be able to see there's a lot of your life that is not going to change and there are some things that will.
That knowledge calms them. It's when we don't have the answers that we create a lot of scarier answers. It's the not knowing that creates much more fear than the fear that is created from the things that we do know that will change.
Here's where I want to leave this. If you have to walk through a divorce, and you have kids, and I don't care what age they are, I have had clients who their kids are in their late 20s, early 30s and they still struggle with their parents’ divorce, sometimes people are like, “Oh, just wait till they're 18 and out of the house and then they won't care or they won't be impacted.” Yes, they are.
Kids don't just lose all sense of emotion or feeling when they turn 18 or move out of the house. Will they have to potentially share their space or go between two homes? That's the only difference. Their prefrontal cortex is going to be more further along so they might be able to understand a little bit more but it doesn't mean that they're not going to struggle. Your kids are going to be impacted by your divorce. There's no way around that.
Of course, they are just like they're impacted by your marriage, whether it's good or bad, they're impacted by your marriage. They too will be impacted by a divorce. But it doesn't have to be horrible. I have seen my clients where their kids come out the other side of divorce, thriving in entirely new ways that they weren't doing when their parents were together and it's because of how they handled it.
They handled it like mature emotionally healed adults. That's what we've got to draw from. Most people don't think about that. When they're going through divorce, they think about their lawyers, they think about money, they think about supporting themselves.
They think about their kids. But when they say they’d do anything for their kids or they always put their kids first, you are going to be asked in a thousand different ways, are you really going to put your kids first? Are you really going to put your kid’s needs above your emotional outbursts or your emotional needs right now? Are you really going to do that?
I want you to just be able to stop, pause, take a breath, and ask yourself, “Who am I going to be in this moment? Am I going to show up as the mother or the father that I want to be for my kids even though I'm navigating something incredibly difficult?” I hope that has given you a lot to think about and I hope it's given you a good perspective so that you know that you have a hand in impacting your kids as they navigate your divorce. Until next time, take really good care.
If you're listening to this podcast because you're struggling to decide whether to stay or go in your marriage, and you're serious about finding that answer, it's time to book a Truth & Clarity Session with a member of my team. On the call, we'll discuss where you are in your marriage and explore if there's a fit for you and I to work together so you can make and execute the right decision for you and your marriage. Go to clarityformymarriage.com to fill out an application now.