As a Child Therapist, I see a lot of children from families navigating divorce. This is a good thing because research suggests children from divorced families are more likely to develop issues with self-esteem, mental health, and relationships. Part of my job as a child counselor and play therapist is to help parents navigate divorce and this difficult transition in a way that helps their children remain healthy and resilient. As such, I often need to point out issues good parents frequently make that put their children in the middle and result in negative outcomes.
The 3 Common Mistakes Navigating Divorce:
1. Making the Child the Messenger:
Many parents have good intentions regarding communication with their child’s other parent and often do a great job of emailing, texting, or communicating in person. However, even when communication is open and consistent, parents accidentally put their children in the middle by making them a messenger. This looks a lot like “Tell your mom I won’t be picking you up this Thursday for dinner,” or “Be sure to tell your father you already had enough sugar today.” Although seemingly harmless at the time, these requests place an undue burden of responsibility on the child and if conveyed incorrectly can cause further distress to a child. Instead, I recommend that parents use all possible avenues of communication necessary to convey even minor messages directly to the other parent rather than through the child.
2. Saying “I’ll Miss You”:
Many parents are surprised when I mentioned this particular mistake. While seemingly benign (and perhaps even true), these phrases and other similar ones can add emotional burdens to children. For example, they may feel guilty for enjoying their time with the other parent, feel the need to care for or reassure their parent, or have difficulty separating during exchanges. Rather than “I’ll miss you,” try saying “I love you,” which is often what parents are really trying to communicate anyway.
3. Sharing too much about adult topics:
This particular mistake is a difficult one to navigate and sometimes needs the help of a professional counselor or parenting expert. Divorce comes with many big emotions and often, especially at the beginning, one or both parents may have strong feelings about the other parent. Additionally, many parents worry if they do not share details about why they separated, children will be angry at them. This is especially difficult if the children are angry at a spouse that was betrayed or abandoned. In these cases, many parents opt to “tell the truth” and hold tight to their belief they “shouldn’t lie to their children.”
Instead, I encourage parents to leave adult topics to the adults. There are many truths we protect children from such as details of how they were made. In the case of divorce, we want to protect them as well. What your child needs to hear instead is “Mom and Dad couldn’t work it out, so our family will look a little different. We will always love you and be here for you.”
While this list is not all mistakes commonly showing up with children in divorce, these are three of the more common ones I work on addressing with parents as they navigate this difficult time. If you or a loved one is currently going through a divorce with children, I highly recommend involving a child therapist who is familiar with the effects of divorce on children and helping families be as healthy as they can during the transition.
About the Author:
Kelly Peyton, MA, LPC-S, RPT-S, Clinical Director at Katy Counseling in Katy, TX serving children, teens, adults, and couples. To learn more about Kelly and the counseling services she offers, please visit: https://www.katycounseling.com
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