• Thu, Jan 2 - 10:00 am ET

10 Things You Must Say To A Child Of Divorce Today

childI am a child of divorce, although I’m not divorced as an adult. Still, becoming a parent has given me the chance to reflect on a lot of hurts I have from childhood, starting way back from when my parents divorced when I was 10.

The real kicker is that I know almost all parents hope not to get divorced, and if they find themselves in that situation, they most likely worry how it’s going to affect their children. But many times, kids like myself try to cover up how they really feel inside so that they don’t get hurt in the chaos. As a result, I have many, many unresolved issues that I’ve been holding on to for decades that are just now coming to the surface.

I’m saying all this because it’s important to know that if your child is acting “fine” in a divorce, then they probably aren’t. And many times, even the most obvious things are left unsaid because they seem so obvious. But really, these obvious things should be said to your kid again and again and again until you are 100% sure they believe it. Trust me on this one.

1.    It’s not your fault.

This seems really cliché, straight from Good Will Hunting, but keep it at the top of your list. As Dr. Phil says, kids have an uncanny knack for figuring out how a divorce is their fault. As illogical as it seems, I’m still struggling with this as an adult.

2.    There’s nothing wrong with you.

Taking it one step further, a kid may feel like they were “bad” or unlovable, and that’s why a parent left. Come to think of it, this is important to say to any child of divorce—even if a divorce happens after kids leave the house.

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3.    You don’t have to be perfect.

I was convinced that if I never did anything wrong again, my parents would keep loving me, even after divorce. Today, it’s really hard to shake that perfectionist mentality, and I hate it.

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4.    You’re not alone.

If you’ve never been a child of divorce, you may not know what this feels like. But when one parent moves out of the house, kids may automatically feel alone and isolated—I know I did.

(Image: cheezburger.com)

(Image: cheezburger.com)

5.    You’re safe.

Similar to #4, moving into a different home after divorce, away from my dad, left me with a lot of fears about feeling safe in my own home. To add insult to injury, we also had a minor break-in right after my parents divorced when I was in middle school, making me feel even more afraid of something terrible happening to my family.

6.    Your thoughts still matter.

If a parent brings a new spouse or significant other into the picture, this point is really, really important. With a “new parent” in the mix, it’s easy for kids to feel like they’re old news and their thoughts aren’t important anymore.

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7.    I will always put you first.

Parents need to voice this to their kids in a divorce time and again because divorce quickly gets complicated. Even if a divorce was five, 10, or 15 years ago, kids need to know that they are their parent’s top priority so that they feel safe—at least, that would have helped me.

(Image: tumblr.com)

(Image: tumblr.com)

8.    You aren’t like me.

Children of divorce may shy away from commitment because they never want to experience rejection first-hand again. It helps when a parent can admit their faults and tell their kid in a constructive way—just because I got divorced doesn’t mean you will.

(Image: tumblr.com)

(Image: tumblr.com)

9.    I still care about Mom/Dad.

This may be a hard one for many parents to say, but no kid wants to feel like they’re in the middle in a divorce. Obviously, it’s never recommended to badmouth the other parent, but it would have helped me feel more secure if my dad wasn’t constantly bashing my mom after the fact.

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10. I’m never going to divorce you.

This is a weird thing to say to a kid, but it must be said. Parents, don’t underestimate how much your child will internalize your divorce, no matter how amicable it may be. As a kid, I just wanted to know that my parents were never going to cut me out of their lives like they did each other. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Promise

(photo: Getty Images)

You can reach this post's author, Bethany Ramos, on twitter.
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  • Carinn Jade

    Oh this post was beautiful and heartwrenching. I’m not a child of divorce but I still could have used some more of 1-3 (we were very poor, my parents fought, there was a lot of tension from not being able to make basic needs). These are so powerful.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Thanks, Carinn!

  • LadyClodia

    Yeah this is hard. My parents divorced when I was in 3rd grade, so I guess I was 8. Of course looking back I understand the things that they did and why they did them even if I don’t agree with everything. A lot of these things on the list they definitely did not do; some to the point of it being a serious problem. Especially the “I will always put you first,” and “You’re safe” because while after my mom remarried my stepfather wasn’t the problem, situations that they put us in definitely were.
    I was always an anxious child, but after the divorce I had panic attacks (which I didn’t know that that’s what they were until I was an adult) and suicidal thoughts along with the general anxiety. I never went to therapy or anything for it, and I’m pretty sure that my parents didn’t know some of it. They must have known about the panic attacks, but they didn’t know what they were either. Otherwise, I think I came out of it OK. My brother was only 5, and I know that he took everything A LOT harder.

  • Fuzzy ‘n Broken Mirror

    so “You could have prevented this” isn’t a good idea?

    • Kay_Sue

      Not unless you have a good bit of spare change for a good, solid therapist.

  • Kay_Sue

    This was really heartbreaking to read. Thanks for sharing.

  • Momma425

    This is beautiful.
    My ex and I split before my daughter was a year old, so even though she doesn’t remember a time where the two of us were together, she still asks questions and gets sad sometimes. When I got married, it was really hard for her- some days it still is. It has nothing to do with my husband- but what little kid doesn’t want their parents together? When she first started asking questions, she was 2 and a half- it was because most of her preschool friends has parents who were married. We got a book, and read it to her at both houses. My ex drives me CRAZY and I can’t stand him usually, but in front of her, we act like friends because she deserves nothing less.

    • Kay_Sue

      The first summer my stepdaughters stayed with us, the older on (she was seven, going on eight at the time) had a total breakdown about how she missed her daddy when she was with her mommy, and her mommy with her daddy and then (because I was watching them while my husband was in class that evening) a heap of guilt on top when she added “But I really like you too!” It was seriously one of the most heart-wrenching thing I’ve ever been through. She barely remembers her parents being married, but you are totally right–I think every kid has this idea of what a “normal” family is, and they do wish that their parents were together.

    • Janok Place

      Obviously you, as a step parent, have done a multitude of things right to have that little girl’s trust and love. She confided in you, and I bet she really needed that.

    • Kay_Sue

      Thanks. They make it easy, honestly.

  • Evenaar

    Very nicely said, however, I do have something to add: How about, instead of or next to, telling a child they are “safe”. You ask them how they feel? Do THEY feel safe? Or loved? Or listened to? I remember being very frustrated as a child being told I was safe and loved and that I was top priority. Even though I felt I really wasn’t.

    I think that often, during a divorce, people are at their most fragile. At a time like that it must be really difficult to invite “criticism” from your children. To listen to their pain when you know you “caused” it. But I think it’s important. I knew it would have hurt my parents’ feelings to tell them I felt like I was a burden on their path to getting over the divorce. My dad told us we would be “put first” and a few months later married a woman he loved terribly but who could not accept the fact he had children. If I would have told him how that made me feel he would have been terribly sad, or maybe even angry. So I didn’t. It did not even cross my mind.

    Now I think that sort of openness could have saved me a lot of pain. Even if it would have been difficult, In the long term it would have been so much better for my relationship with my parents and sister. At the very least I would not have had to bear it all myself. But kids don’t come up with that sort of stuff themselves, parents have to teach them that there is also a place for their negative emotions. Even when those emotions hurt others, sometimes they just need to be heard.

    We made ourselves so lonely trying not to make things worse.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Yes, I so agree, and thank you for adding that point. Asking questions about feeling safe and loved is even better. And I REALLY agree with this: “We made ourselves so lonely trying not to make things worse.”

  • brebay

    The problem comes when you try to abide by the “never speak badly about the other parent” rule but that parent ignores the kids, doesn’t call, doesn’t visit. It has to be someone’s fault; if you stay silent, the kids will decide it’s their fault. I wrestled with this one for a long time. before settling on “You dad is basically a good person, but not everyone is cut out to be a parent. He can’t give you what he doesn’t have, he loves you, and he doesn’t love anyone more than you, but he probably won’t ever be the dad you wish he was, and I’m sorry.” I also remind them of athletes, presidents, and other people they admire who were raised by single parents and turned out great. It’s a tough one, but you can’t just say “Oh, your dad/mom is a great, fantastic parent who loves you,” and then let them wonder why, then, this great parent ignores them after the divorce. My kids have done well with this. They love their dad, they know I want them to love their dad, but they’ve adjusted their expectations. He’s no longer a role model, and they know that someone is at fault, and it isn’t them.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Very, very true.

    • SA

      I think that is a wonderful way of handling it. My FIL on the other hand speaks so horribly about my MIL (and has my husband’s entire life) it has always placed so much stress on him and now there is the fear of what my child will start to understand and take away from these conversations as she gets older. We are going to have to have a long discussion about what one grandparent can not say about the other one. I think the way you handled that situation is with love and leaves room for them to deal with their feelings without having to hear words of hate or feel bad for still loving their father.

    • DeanaCal

      It’s also difficult when only one parent tries to follow that rule and the other doesn’t. My ex was an alcoholic, narciccistic, controlling, and emotionally abusive. I tried to sheild my kids from everything, and they didn’t know how bad it was. When I filed for divorce, he made sure to let them know that it was my decision to break up our family, because he didn’t want the divorce. Nine years later, my relationship with my now-18-year-old daughter is really difficult. She blames me for everything because in her eyes I put my own happiness first. Mostly because I never said a negative thing about her father, but he never hesitated to talk negatively about me.

    • brebay

      That’s shitty, sometimes I worry about that too. It may be easier for her to direct her anger towards you because she knows you’re the safer one. I hope she grows to see the truth, or that you can get into family counseling with her, you don’t deserve that and hopefully she’ll see the bigger picture as she matures.

  • Jessica

    Thanks for including those of us whose parents divorced later in life! While I don’t have the same issues, there is still some mourning for the family we were.

  • Janok Place

    My dad can be a bit of a flake, he’s a musician. Nuff Said. It took my mom a long time to start seeing me and my feelings, troubles and struggles with her second marriage (and following divorce). One thing that she always, always did right was support my dad when I was in ear shot. She always confirmed the fact that you don’t have to be a bad person to make the wrong decisions. Good people make mistakes, it doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking of you or don’t love you. Dad was always good at seeing me, acknowledging my feelings. I was lucky, mom always thought of parental responsibilities… dad always remembered what it was like to be a kid. They both had their short comings but ironically, the same differences that drove them apart helped keep my world together.

    • Bethany Ramos

      It’s so nice to hear more positive divorce stories. And what a good point – remembering what it feels like to be a kid!

  • LiteBrite

    I want to print this list out and give this to two friends of mine who have started the divorce process. I have a feeling that it is going to get ugly sooner rather than later, and sadly their young son is going to be in the middle. Even more sadly, I don’t think either is above using this child to piss off the other parent. I see serious therapy in this poor kid’s future, and no, I’m not being snarky when I say that.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Man, that sucks so hard to see that happening :(

  • Roberta

    A HUGE yes on #10. Half of my family is divorced, my own parents included. And one if the things I ended up internalizing from this divorcing family was that if two people who love each other can decide to stop being a family, then the same must apply to the kids. It took me longer than I like to admit to get over that.

    To those who are divorced, especially those with kids, it ain’t easy. But thank you for treating your ex with dignity around your kids, for listening to them, and for still sharing the parenting, even if one has primary custody or whatever. Just because the love is gone doesn’t mean the kids have stopped loving both of you (despite what they say when they are pissed to high heaven).

  • AugustW

    I would add finding a way to include the phrase “you are so much like your mother/father” in a positive context. We hear it so often as an insult, but it’s nice to hear that you have positive traits in common with the other parent as well.

    • Bethany Ramos

      YES.