Separation or divorce Essay

The death of a significant person or a much-loved family pet isn’t the only type of loss that children may face at some point during their growing-up years. Many children also have to work through the grief associated with a parent’s separation or divorce. Despite the massive amount of research that has been conducted in this area, the experts are still battling it out over the long-term effects of separation and divorce on children. Some experts, such as University of Virginia psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington, have found that the majority of kids come through their parents’ divorces relatively unscathed: her research has shown that, within six years of the divorce, 75 to 80 percent of kids from divorced families are as happy and well-adjusted as children from so-called “intact families.” The research of other experts, including California psychologist Judith Wallerstein, has painted a decidedly less rosy picture. Wallerstein has repeatedly made the case that the negative fallout from divorce is something that children may carry with them well into adulthood. One thing the experts do agree about is that the way the breakup is handled has a major effect on the way the children cope, both in the short-term and over the long-term. Here are the key points to keep in mind if you and your partner are thinking of parting ways: • Don’t tip your hand until you’re sure you’re going to follow through with your plans. There’s no point in upsetting Talking the Talk 219 your child unnecessarily by talking about your plans to separate from your partner if you subsequently end up changing your mind. • Give careful thought to your timing. It’s best to avoid making your announcement right before your child has to go to bed or the night before a big track meet or test at school. Your child will need some time to absorb the news. • Break the news at a time when both partners can be there so that one parent doesn’t get stuck playing the heavy. You want your child to get the message that this was a mutual decision, not merely one parent’s doing. If it isn’t possible or practical for both parents to break the news 220 The Mother of All Parenting Books together, then the parent who has played the most handson role in parenting should be the one to break the news. The child will likely find the news a little easier to take if it is delivered by this parent. • Make sure you provide your child with some sort of concrete explanation about what went wrong. If you leave her to fill in the blanks on her own, she may find ways to blame herself for the breakup. Obviously, you don’t want to hang out all your marital dirty laundry in front of your child, so you’ll want to keep your explanation simple and to the point, perhaps something along these lines: “Your father and I have decided we would be happier living apart instead of living together and fighting all the time. What happened was a problem between us. It had nothing to do with anything you said or did. Even though we will no longer be living together as a family, I will always be your mother and your father will always be your father, and we will both always love you and take care of you.” • Make sure that your child understands that she didn’t do anything to cause the breakup. Your child is more likely to feel this way if she has overheard you and your partner arguing about parenting issues. She may conclude that fights about her were what caused the two of you to part ways. • Be sure to reassure your child that both parents love her and that nothing will ever change that. It’s important to stress that the love between a parent and a child is unconditional: you’re not about to divorce her, no matter what. • Realize that it can be difficult to predict in advance how your child may react to the news. Your child may be depressed, withdrawn, angry, spiteful, or uncooperative—or she may react in some other way entirely. Talking the Talk 221 • Let your child know that she has a right to feel angry or sad or whatever else she is feeling, but be prepared to set limits on her behavior. She needs to know that rude and hurtful behavior directed at either you or your ex will not be tolerated. There are other, healthier ways of dealing with painful emotions. • Get ready for a lot of tough questions. After the basic facts have had a chance to settle in and the initial shock has worn off, your child is likely to approach you with an entire laundry list of questions about how the divorce is likely to impact his or her life—everything from where she will be living to who gets “custody” of the family dog. Although some of her questions may seem downright bizarre—you may wonder why she’s so hung up on finding out where her bathing suit is going to be stored in the off-season—her fact-finding mission will slowly but surely help her to make sense of her new world.

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