The way parents talk about divorce can help or hurt kids

Marriage is archetypal, not only for its participants but for the children born thereof. For children, marriage is an archetype of all things safe, warm and constant about the world.

There is so little in this life to count on. But at least one thing is certain: Mom loves Dad. Dad loves Mom. Life is good.

Divorce shatters a child’s worldview. The consequences of the shattering ripple across time. Every birthday. Every holiday. Every graduation. Every wedding. Every birth. Every death. Every funeral. Forever.

I did not say the shattering must necessarily be always and permanently negative. Nor did I say the shattering will or must ruin a child’s life. Children are walking wonders of resiliency. As in any tragedy or suffering, children can and do find their way to health, wholeness and happiness.

But it is a shattering. Any hope for wellness begins there. We resist the temptation to put a happy face on it. We tell the truth. Divorce stinks for kids.

Yes, in some cases, children will experience relief when their parents divorce — relief from constant fighting, tension or, in some cases, relief from behaviors that move beyond mere marital emptiness and become emotionally or physically threatening or actually violent.

But hear me: Even in the case of children relieved by their parents’ divorce, the wish for a contiguous family legacy dies hard. It is common for children even years later into adulthood to quietly grieve their parents’ estrangement, to find themselves still nurturing in their not-quite consciousness a clasping after the picture of an enduring commitment and loyalty, or even the hope that such a picture might one day be reawakened.

The way divorcing parents, extended family and the surrounding community talk about divorce to children can greatly aid, abet and speed healing and wellness. Or it can greatly protract and impede healing and wellness. If the former is our goal, we find ourselves working a very complex equation of variables.

Talking to kids about divorce is part social science, part mental health intervention and part intuition. In the end, it must be imperfect, flawed, itself a reflection of the very brokenness that is divorce. For most divorced parents, it feels like a “making it up as we go along.”

But there are some useful guidelines:

* Divorcing parents do well to adopt a posture of grave doubt about their ability to keep the pain of divorce separate from communications with children. The former has a terrifying tendency to leak into the latter. To twist it. To poison it.

Surprise! Divorcing couples tend not to like each other. Desperate grief. Churning resentment pingponging with crippling guilt. In their best moments, divorcing parents tend to live out of a thinly contained enmity. What they think they see and know about their divorced partner is often more their own twisted projections than actual, reliable information about the whole person they once cherished and loved.

I urge divorcing parents to be in a more or less constant state of consultation with trusted friends, family and skillful professionals about anything they wish to communicate to their children about the divorce.

I say trusted and skillful — both critical attributes. Many of our friends and family “love us” by allying with our enmity. Astonishingly, there are even some therapists who think divorce support therapy means uncritical alliance with this enmity. Comforting for our ego, yes, but usually not representative of the whole truth.

* Keep in mind the developmental appropriateness of communication about divorce. The way we talk about life to 5-year-olds must be very different from our communications with older adolescents.

* Be alert to what your children already know, what they have witnessed, overheard or surmised. Children are psychic, two-legged tape recorders. Parents chronically underestimate what their children have already ascertained, to their later regret and embarrassment.

* Don’t categorically stonewall. This will cost you credibility, confuse your children and leave them helpless to move forward.

Yes, there are plenty of things kept rightly private from your children. But children deserve and need more than sappy feel-good presentations

We’ll conclude this discussion next week.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas. His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to skalas@review journal.com.

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