Q. My husband and I do not get along and I’m wondering, if we divorce, will it really screw up the kids, or is that just something mental health professionals tell us? Aren’t kids naturally resilient? What’s good ex-etiquette?
A. Kids face all sorts of trials as they grow and they may be affected by all sorts of things, but you can bet their parents breaking up remains high on the list.
Aside from mom and dad no longer living together, they will never again be able to curl up on the couch with both parents. They may have to move, and possibly change schools. A breakup should never be taken lightly.
The natural inclination might be to say, if you don’t want to traumatize your children, don’t break up. But kids can tell when their parents are at odds, even if there is no formal fighting going on. If there is fighting, unaddressed addiction, or even violence or some other form of abuse, then parting may be less traumatic than staying together. Ideally, demonstrating firsthand how to ride a relational rough patch using love, communication, empathy and forgiveness wouldn’t necessarily protect your children from trauma, but it would offer them comfort and a road map for problem-solving in their own relationships.
Do children have to know the specifics of the problems their parents face? I always suggest parents put themselves in their children’s shoes (“Use empathy when problem solving” s Ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 7). Ask yourself, would telling my children this information make them feel more safe and secure? Would knowing this information about me or their other parent help them sleep better at night?
This is when I hear, “Are you suggesting I lie to my child? He deserves to know the truth.”
Lying to your children is not appropriate, but you may not use the best judgment if you offer questionable information when you are hurt or angry. Let the dust settle first. Then consider, “Is this information my children really need to know?”
For some things, like addiction or abuse, if you think the kids don’t already know, you’re kidding yourself. If a parent is addicted and chooses to attend meetings and work the steps, making amends is part of recovery. That means you may have to talk to your children about your drug or alcohol addiction, but if you can, I suggest reaching out to a professional for guidance. Offering too much information or not enough can be equally as damaging. A professional can guide your family through the process and offer additional resources, specifically Al-Anon or Alateen.
Finally, to refer to the original question, yes, kids are resilient, but some are more resilient than others. Some take their parents’ breakup in their stride; others are affected for their entire life.
My take is this: You start where you live. Do your best to fix that first. You can always leave. You may not always be able to return. That’s good ex-etiquette.