Editor’s Note: This is one in a two-part series on discussing divorce with Catholic children.
by Jim Otremba
Divorce is a very painful reality that inflicts its hurt on so many people. We need to pray for families who are being devastated by divorce, and especially pray for the children who live with this pain.
To be sure, some children I have worked with in my profession have told me that they are glad mom and dad got divorced because the arguing and bickering is not as bad. Less arguing lowers the children’s stress hormones, helping them cope.
But, even though they say that, children are hardwired to attach to two loving parents: a loving mom and a loving dad. When that loving attachment is not there, pain and confusion can settle inside a child. It is a difficult topic, but here are five ways to talk to children about divorce.
Children Are not the Reason or the Problem
Make sure children know they are not the problem. Divorces can never be blamed on the children, even though some parents try to do that. Children going through the divorce process often feel shame because of a perceived something they did which caused mom and dad to get a divorce.
The antidote to that type of shame (and most things in our life) is the truth; the truth always sets us free (Jn 8:32). We need to remind and reassure our children that the divorce is not their fault. The truth is that mom and dad were not able to make their marriage work because of many reasons, but the children are not and can not be one of those reasons.
Reassure with Actions: Mom and Dad Still Love You
Tell children mom and dad still love them even when they are divorced and no longer married. It is so critically important to tell children this truth, but more important to live out this truth. Reassure your children that even though you are divorced that does not change your love for your children, and then prove that love through loving actions and attitudes.
Consider still going to Mass together as a family. If that is too hard, perhaps meet up together before or after Mass to show your child that you are all still on the journey of faith together. If you have more than one child, you might want to coordinate taking one child at a time on a special outing to Mass, using the quiet moments to and from church for talking about his or her feelings.
Validate Pain Resulting from New Family Dynamics
We can never force a child to like a stepparent, it is a slow process that needs to be earned. Forcing a child to like a stepparent can impede the natural trust that slowly is built through loving actions and attitudes over time.
One can never force a loving relationship and do not expect that your children will “get along great” with a new stepparent just because mom or dad does.
It takes time and love to build true, authentic relationships, and they cannot be forced or coerced. A good way to validate this is say something like, “I see it is very hard for you to get along with your new stepparent. I’m so sorry about that, do you want to share more?”
Then listen and validate the pain you hear. Never try to cover up this issue, validate it. If needed, get some family therapy from a trusted Catholic or good Christian therapist.
Validate Children’s Pain with Understanding
Do not try to sugarcoat or ignore the necessary grieving that has to happen. This can be very challenging for parents to do for so many legitimate reasons (which is all the more reason why parents need to heal). But even though it is very difficult to do, it can help your children to go through the grief and to heal when a parent doesn’t minimize the pain with platitudes.
Instead, simply say to your children, “I am so sorry for your pain, it is so hard to be a child and see your parents go through a divorce.” When they cry, offer a tissue and tell them it is OK to cry. Do not try to make it all better with advice, but instead validate the pain by acknowledging it.
Mom and dad must minimize arguing and bickering around the children after the divorce. Hard to do? Absolutely, but for the sake of your children please go get some counseling and/or spiritual direction to work through any hurts you may have from the marriage so that when you need to be around your children together, there will be a guaranteed zero arguing.
I always tell couples going through divorce that they need to develop a civil relationship with each other for the sake of their children, because they will always be mom and dad.