I was in elementary school when my parents divorced and my dad moved out. I remember being confused – how could a family suddenly be not-a-family? I was sad – not only did I miss my dad, but I saw that mom was hurting. And I was ashamed, concerned that somehow my friends would judge me and my family because of the split. As I grew older, I began to internalize some of the events and developed a feeling that I wasn’t enough.
There’s no doubt about it, their divorce impacted me.
And not all of the effects were negative.
In fact, I now credit their divorce (and the way it was handled with me) with being the source for some of the most important messages I received in childhood.
I know that divorce is the last thing you ever wanted your children to experience. But there are ways to make the best of it.
Seven Vital Lessons Divorce Teaches Children
From the first moment you gazed into your newborn’s eyes, a need to protect them from all harm has permeated your every cell. Yet no matter how deftly you wield your shield, you cannot block all of life’s slings and arrows from reaching your child. And for many children, their parent’s divorce is the first major emotional injury they face.
It’s difficult to watch your child suffer. Their pain ricochets through you like an unreturned racquetball in an empty court. You feel helpless as your normal platitudes and kisses fail to sooth this particular wound and guilty that you failed to protect them in the first place.
It’s easy to focus on the harm that divorce brings to children. After all, it’s no secret that the dissolution of a household is traumatic to all of its inhabitants and that children have a tendency to internalize and personalize the marital issues around them. Yet pain is not the only offering from divorce; it also provides opportunity. The following are seven vital lessons that children can learn through divorce:
1 – Loss Is a Part of Life; We Inhale Love and Exhale Grief
Everyone remembers their first major loss – whether it was the death of a childhood pet, the passing of a grandparent or the separation of their parents. This manner in which a child’s first experience with grief is handled sets the stage for how loss is perceived for the rest of their lives.
Divorce provides an opportunity for children to begin to accept that life is filled with beginnings and endings. It is an occasion for them to become familiar with the particular nature of grief as they learn to ride its ebbs and flows.
It is a classroom of sorts, a time for teaching about the importance of remembrance and ritual and for discovering the power in letting go. It can be a time for learning that it’s okay to feel all of the emotions. And also to not feel anything at all.
Divorce is a time of rending, yet it also can be a time of sewing the guiding threads into the fabric of your children’s spirits. Let this experience give them the courage and the wisdom to face life’s other hardships and unavoidable losses.
2 – Change Is Inevitable and Always Awkward at First
I remember being so sure – “I will ALWAYS love Cabbage Patch dolls.” “I will want waffles for breakfast for EVER and EVER.” And of course, as I told my friend confidently one day, “My parents will NEVER divorce.”
And then inevitably, my interest for dolls was traded for an enthusiasm for pop stars, I grew tired of waffles and my parents split up. Because, as I was beginning to learn, change is a certainty.
Kids (and most adults) struggle with change. They become irritable or withdrawn as they adapt to a new school or even a new teacher. They grapple with the transformations of their friends and friend-groups as the years progress. When the hormones hit and the growth spurts stretch their limbs, they rattle around in their new bodies until they finally settle in.
Divorce is a time for acknowledging the challenge that accompanies change, as the whole family learns to navigate a new reality. It is an opportunity to address the constancy of transformation and the balance of learning when to steer and when to let go. When the focus becomes more on adaptation rather than resistance, change becomes easier. And it’s possible to dance even before you’ve fully found your sea-legs.
3 – Humans Are Fallible (and Parents Are Human)
Like many kids, I put my parents right up there with Wonder Woman and Superman when I was little. They were all-powerful, always knew just what to do and could do no wrong. And then one day, my father sat me down and told me he was moving out. Which meant that somehow my parents didn’t have everything figured out.
I remember becoming fascinated with the hidden internal life of the adults around me. I started to catch the little twitch of uncertainty in my teacher’s eye as she disciplined the class troublemaker. I noticed the tinge of fear on my doctor’s face as she escorted a family back into the waiting room. And I became aware of the sadness and hesitancy within my own parents as they ended their marriage.
In some ways, learning that adults didn’t know everything was a scary realization, as the metaphorical safety net lost some of its bindings. Yet it was also comforting to discover that I wasn’t expected to undergo some sort of super hero training before I could obtain my adult status.
Divorce is a window for children into the lives of adults. It’s a time to normalize the human experience and remove the shadow of shame that can follow on the heels of a perceived failure. During divorce, you can not only show your children that you’re human, you can give them permission to imperfect as well.
4 – Wishes Are Not Enough and You Can’t Control the Way the Wind Blows
“Close your eyes and make a wish,” we’re told every year through childhood. Later, we’re cautioned that if we reveal the desire, it won’t come true. But we’re rarely told the truth that wishing isn’t enough and that there are some things that we cannot influence.
Kids often grapple with understanding the difference between wanting something and having something. They can’t yet comprehend the limits of budget or the constraints implied by time and distance. This same illusion of desire can easily follow divorce, as children believe that they can bring their parents back together through mere will alone.
It’s a painful awareness, that simply wanting something to be true cannot make it so. Yet, it’s a valuable lesson and one better delivered early in life. Because the sooner a child understands the limits of their influence, the sooner they can begin focusing on tuning the instruments within their own orchestra.
5 – When You Own Your Own Stuff, Nobody Else Can Own You
Your kids learn from watching you.
When they see you implement and uphold boundaries, refusing to be the doormat for some else’s dirty shoes, they learn that it’s okay to say “No.” When they witness you being gracious in spite of pain, they begin to understand the power of kindness. When they watch you take a deep breath and take a big leap, they learn that you can act in spite of fear. When they notice that you avoid blaming their other parent and instead you find a way to make it work, they learn the limitations of victimhood.
During the uncertainty and sorrow of divorce, you can teach your children the power of choosing how you respond. You can model for them how much a reaction – or non-reaction – can alter a situation. And you can help them learn to take the responsibility for their own choices and responses because once they can do that, they can do anything.
6 – Life Can Be Hard, but It Goes On
When learning about their parent’s upcoming divorce, many kids first response is a question, “But will [my birthday, Six Flags, my recital, etc.] still happen?” Part of this comes from the natural self-centeredness of children and part of comes from their need to know that their life, even if it looks somewhat different, will still continue.
Divorce provides an opportunity for children to learn that life, although difficult at times, still goes on. The dog still needs to be fed, the homework must still be completed and summer vacation is still on the horizon. Life is a series of moments. Some bring smiles and some bring tears. And there’s always another moment waiting in the wings.
7 – A Parent’s Love is Bigger Than the Sky
“If you can fall out of love with daddy, can you fall out of love with me?”
Those were the words my client’s daughter uttered after learning about the upcoming divorce.
“Never. A parent’s love for their child is special. It is bigger than sky and deeper than the deepest ocean. It goes on further than the furthest telescope can see and shines brighter than brightest star. I know a lot of things have changed, but my love for you never will.”
And right there, in those words, is the biggest lesson you can give your child through divorce. That no matter what, you will always love them.