A divorce lawyer offers advice on how to tell your children about a divorce, how much to involve your kids in the divorce process, keeping parent and child relationships intact, and when to seek extra help.
Each year, about 1.5 million children deal with their parents’ divorce. Divorce is a transition that can be challenging for the entire family and especially for young children, who may be left feeling hurt and confused. Here, we spoke with Lubov Stark, Esq., a New York City-based divorce attorney, for advice on how to talk to kids about the D-word and keep the trauma of the process to a minimum.
How much (or how little) should parents involve their children in divorce proceedings?
Not at all. When you say “proceedings,” that means the intricacies of getting divorced. I’m not saying hide it from them. They need to know that Mom and Dad will live separately. But the less the children are involved—in details such as division of property or money or certain custody rights—the less traumatic it is for them, because you’re shielding them from the emotional trauma of the divorce.
Children are very impressionable, and they will likely have a strong negative reaction against the parent who is perceived to be the “bad guy.” When parents are in the heat of splitting up and dealing with the issues underlying the divorce, not everyone puts their children at number-one priority. A lot of people become so entangled in the financials of the divorce that they forget the strong impact it’s having on their children and the emotional ramifications it can have.
When is the best time to tell children about a divorce, and how should parents approach that conversation?
It depends on the age of the child. First of all, I don’t advise using the word “divorce.” That word comes with a lot of baggage and it’s a traumatic word, especially for older children. The parents need to tell the children as soon as possible when they’ve made a decision that they will be living separately, and both parents need to participate in the conversation. They should make it clear that this decision doesn’t have anything to do with their love for that child. And they should try to build up a very friendly atmosphere when speaking to the child about it.
How can parents keep their children from feeling like they have to choose between Mom and Dad?
It’s best for the child if parents agree to co-parent. Nobody can dispute the fact that a child should have a mom and dad who are both involved in his life.
There are some exceptions, [such as] psychological disabilities or substance abuse, but I’m talking about the average case where there’s no abuse. If there’s no other issues, parents should be able to co-parent their children and be even more sheltering of them because they had to go through that trauma.
However, there is frequently an imbalance, and that is created by one of the parties wanting the divorce more than the other. There’s a sense of resentment, a sense of anger, a sense of disillusionment, because the people entered the marriage with the hope and belief that they will live together and have children and grow old together—when that mental picture does not take the shape they envisioned, there is a sense of pain and frustration. And because of that, the parent who is most hurt will be more vocal, and that pain will be more visible to the child. Because of this, it is very important that both parents get counseling to help deal with that particular traumatic event, as it comes to each other and as it comes to the child. There are a lot of professionals who help people cope and get through these situations. Not everybody reaches out and goes to get help, though, because they don’t want to admit they need that help. But they don’t have the ability to rationally look at the situation, and a stranger—who has an education in this field and understands all the psychological and emotional ramifications of this kind of traumatic experience—can give you perspective.
Any other tips for parents going through a divorce with kids?
The most important thing to understand, for people who have children, is that there are several different relationships involved in a marriage. There is the interpersonal relationship between the two parties—the husband and wife or two partners. And then there’s the relationships these parties have with the children. When a marriage does not work out, it does not mean one has to destroy all of these relationships. And that takes some introspection. To get to that level of introspection, you need to speak to a counselor or psychotherapist or someone who can actually put that in perspective for you, especially for long-term marriages where it’s extremely difficult for the parties to reconcile with the reality of the divorce. Just because the romantic relationship is gone does not mean all of the related relationships disappear. There must be a middle ground that allows for successful co-parenting.
Lubov Stark, Esq., is the founder and principal of Lubov Stark LLC, a boutique matrimonial, divorce, and family law firm with offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Stark has been a practicing divorce attorney in New York City for more than 15 years. She received her law degree from Brooklyn Law School and her bachelor’s degree from Baruch College.
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