Advice for Children

Client: “We told our teenager on Monday that we are separating. I am uncertain how to have read the expression on her face…maybe slight shock, or disbelief. We have had so many years of conflict, it’s hard to believe she was surprised! This has really unseated me…we went shopping on Tuesday and had a nice day, really some great moments, bopping around looking for cool stuff. But there was a pallor that was present all day.

“I want to be able to tell her why this happened, so she understands, but I don’t want to play the blame game. I can’t be completely honest, and so I think she is confused…and I am getting so stressed.

‘I don’t feel grounded when [my ex] is around, and I am sad and angry. Sad about all the losses, and also doing this to her when she is getting ready to go to college. Everyone is putting on their happy face but this is confusing.

My response: It’s always amazing to find out how much kids can be in their own heads, and not notice things going on around them. We think they know/sense what is going on between the adults – but they often do not. Being a teen especially, is an experience full of compelling drama – much more interesting than parents are!

best rules:

  • let her ask the questions – don’t bring it up nor volunteer information, other than what and as she asks you for it/about it.
  • remember that – psychologically/unconsciously – children feel that they are half their mother and half their father, so that if someone says ‘your dad is lazy,’ they hear it as “half of me is lazy.”  That can help to guide you to avoid the blame-game.
  • remind her that she didn’t do anything to cause this.

In my experience, children ALWAYS know the truth of their parents’ divorce.  She knows both of you, inside and out, and over the next 20 years she will ask more questions. There is time.

The challenge will be finding that balance between feeling you are being your authentic self – and protecting her.  She doesn’t need (nor want) details.  If you’re feeling sad – you’re allowed to tell her that, too.  It’s the end of a long relationship, and it’s very normal to have mixed and complicated feelings.  For all of you. But complain to your friends and your therapist – not to her.

The Children’s Needs Can Guide the Parents

I met with a couple who used mediation for their divorce, about 14 years ago, and wanted to resolve a conflict now for their restructured family. The mother emailed me to tell me that they were having trouble figuring out the credit that the father should get for the child’s room and board expenses while he is in college.

She implied that they were having a lot of conflict, and that the children spent almost no time with their father, and that the parents communicated infrequently, and only via text.

I feel nervous before the meeting, worried that the distance of the years that have passed would turn the whole thing into a screaming match. It turned out that both children have had problems, and that the parents have really pulled it together to support the children in a way that I found very moving.

The mother started out by saying that she also agreed that her receiving child support while her son is away at college, and she’s not feeding him, didn’t feel fair. This lowered the temperature in the room, because father felt understood, and he didn’t have to “fight” as hard.

They told me about how their son is having some challenges, and the mother found a boarding school program for him to attend. The parents weren’t speaking much at that point, so the mother just put together the money to pay for a year in boarding school. The father said, “she did an amazing job. She probably saved his life. I didn’t have the money to pay for my half of that school, but in the future, if I do, I will pay her back.”

Since they both acknowledged each other’s needs, the rest was simple calculation. We finished up, and they left. When I came out of my office, about 15 minutes later, I saw them standing together outside, up the block, talking to each other.