Be Honest With Children - Youth Mental Health Day

By Diane Benussi

For parents whose marriage is disintegrating, the biggest worry will be how this will affect the children.

The bald fact is that no one knows how an individual child will react or be affected by their parents’ separation. However, I firmly believe that youngsters who are locked into an unhappy marriage suffer dreadfully. If a divorce is handled sensitively and with the children’s needs to the fore, kids end up better adjusted.

Thankfully, the majority of parents are sensible and mindful of their children’s fragility. On the other hand, divorce is a harrowing time for the adults involved and, if they’re not careful, the distress of their children can get sidelined.

It is vitally important, then, that separating parents talk to their children – together if possible – and let them know what’s going on.

Even very young children are aware of what divorce means. They often know – or, at least, sense – more than their parents about the process. If they are of school age, they will be mixing with other children who have gone through similar experiences, so they know the score.

The kids at school will have lots of tales to tell – a lot of them good! They will talk of getting two sets of birthday presents, two lots of holidays and two Christmases. Never forget – children are mercenary creatures!

What I tell clients in this situation is that it is better for their children to have two households of happy parents who enjoy seeing their kids than being part of one household where the parents ‘shut down’ while they are together and, in so doing, close off from their children.

So, if you are contemplating or are in the throes of divorce, how and what do you tell your children?

Firstly, be honest. Couching what you say in euphemistic language is counter-productive. You may think you are shielding your kids, but all you are doing is confusing them even more. Children are not stupid. Whatever their age, it is best practice to explain, as simply but as truthfully as possible, what is happening and how the youngsters’ lives are going to change as a result. Children are very resilient and, however upset they are that their parents will no longer be living together, they will cope with the blow if they feel they are being told the truth.

That’s why it’s important for both parents to talk to their children and, whatever their personal differences, to sing off the same hymn sheet.

It is common for children of divorcing parents to blame themselves for the split: they often imagine Mummy or Daddy has upped and left because of something they did – or didn’t do – so it is crucial for parents to emphasise, time and again if necessary, that their divorce is about their own ‘failings’ and nothing do with their kids’.

It is equally important for both parents to stress their love for their children and their ongoing support for them. At such a delicate time, kids need to know that both their parents will still be there for them – even if one parent isn’t around physically on a day-to-day basis.

Divorce affects children – there’s no doubt about that. How much it affects them depends upon the care and consideration of their parents.

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