Since the news broke a few weeks ago about the Brangelina breakup, there has been much speculation about how things might play out for the former couple and their kids.
According to recent reports, both have stated that the well-being of their kids is their No. 1 priority. However, in the midst of FBI investigations, temporary custody orders and drug/alcohol testing, it’s questionable whether Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie will be able to walk down the “conscious uncoupling” path that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin publicly committed to in 2014. Only recently, Pitt was permitted a 90-minute supervised meeting with the children after not seeing them for nearly three weeks. Although the cause behind the split is unknown, clearly there is considerable tension between the two.
Of course, it’s not only A-listers who run into these kinds of problems. When emotions are running high and strong, even the most well-intentioned parent can lose sight of just how stressful and confusing divorce can be for children. As a divorce coach, I routinely advise parents to think carefully about the beginning steps.
How you start has a big impact on where you and your kids end up.
While I’m not one to use doom-and-gloom scare tactics with my clients, there are times when parents need to be able to sit with the hard truths to keep a clear perspective on how this change really feels for kids.
Here are a few truths worth considering about parenting kids through divorce.
1. This is gonna hurt
I know this may seem like a no-brainer to you, but in reality most parents have no idea just how deeply divorce is felt by kids. It shakes them to their core and shatters their world.
Seeing them hurt will shatter your world, too. You’ll want to make it better. You’ll want to fix it, but you can’t. It’s really hard to sit back and watch those babies you love hurt, but there’s no way around it.
No matter how much you love them, no matter how skilled you are as a parent, you won’t be able to take all the hurt away.
Please know that even though you can’t make it better, you have the power at any given moment to make it infinitely worse.
Hang on to that. There will be times when not making it worse will be the only thing you can do. It may also be the one thing that gets you through those moments when you need to dig deep, suck it up or bite your tongue.
2. Divorce will suck for your kids
Be OK with that. When you’re feeling helpless, you might be tempted to offer a quick upsell on the benefits of this new family arrangement. Don’t.
While two birthdays, two vacations, two Christmases would make any self-respecting kid swoon, two schedules, two different sets of rules, two ways of being parented, two sets of stuff you schlep back and forth, doesn’t.
Allow them the chance to feel sucky, to hate divorce, to get angry and be sad. Tell them you think it sucks, too, and it’s OK to talk about how bad it sucks. Hug them tight while they cry at night.
Make sure you let them know that even though it doesn’t feel like it right now, you know they’re strong enough to get through this.
3. You will need a tribe
As a divorce coach with more than 15 years under my belt, I can tell you there’s no magic bullet. Getting your kids through the rough spots takes more than love. There will be times when you will have to swallow your pride, look past what feels unfair and find ways to compromise or give a little ground to make things better for your kids.
While you may be very committed to your children, sheer will power alone won’t get you there.
In order to be the parent your kids need you to be, you will need support.
Reach out to people who will listen and support you instead of fanning the flames. Surround yourself with people who love you and your kids, and can offer a soft place to fall when things get to be too much. Find someone you can turn to for an objective point of view. From time to time, you will need to see a situation through another set of eyes.
Find your people, and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
4. You’re going to mess up
Even with the very best of intentions, no matter how careful or enlightened you are, you will make mistakes. Be gentle with yourself. No parent gets it right 100 percent of the time.
When you fall off the wagon, dust yourself off and own it. Come clean with your kids, and do what’s needed to make things right. Children are incredibly forgiving, and they will love you for trying your best.
The key to parenting well isn’t avoiding mistakes. It’s not making the same ones over and over again.
5. You won’t know it all
Now that you’ve split up, you may think you have the inside track on how your kids feel and how they’re handling divorce. After all, who would know them better than you?
The funny thing is, divorce can really muck up those parenting superpowers. When the emotions kick in, it’s not so easy to separate how you feel from how your kids feel.
In those early days, everyone is reeling, which makes it hard to be emotionally objective.
You should also know that during this time, your kids will be super-sensitive to how you’re feeling. They don’t want to rock the boat or make things worse than they already are. To keep the peace, they may tell you they’re OK or act as if they’re fine, even when they’re not. They might tell each parent different things. Of course, it’s only natural that each of you will think you are hearing the truth and that the other parent doesn’t know what they are talking about.
Do your kids a favor, and don’t assume.
They’ll also silently navigate all kinds of awkward situations that really stress them out. You will be probably be clueless about this. At school plays they will worry about who they should walk up to first, weigh whether they are looking at each parent an equal amount of time at their baseball game, or struggle with being fair to each parent when they plan how and where they will celebrate their birthday.
Pay special attention to those little details when special events come up. Try to see the world through their eyes, and do what you can to remove any unnecessary stressors for them.
If you want to pull back the curtain and find out what divorce really feels like for kids, watch programs like the documentary "Split" – here’s the trailer.
You won’t ever look at divorce the same way again.
Try to see the world through (your children's) eyes, and do what you can to remove any unnecessary stressors for them.
6. It really is until death do you part
Don’t fool yourself in to thinking that even though you’re divorced those vows mean nothing. When you have children with someone, they mean everything. No matter what happens from this point forward, you will always be the only mom and dad your kids will ever have.
There will be countless occasions and once-in-a-lifetime moments where they will need you both. Make it easy for them to have happy memories of having you both in the same room for birthdays, graduations, weddings and the birth of their own children.
Find some way to make peace with what has passed because how you really feel about each other will be painfully obvious to your kids. You may think you’ve got them fooled, but children are extremely perceptive. They will pick up on the occasional slights, the off-handed remarks and the impersonal-yet-polite exchanges.
Taking the high road is no easy task.
When you find yourself struggling, think about what message you’re sending your kids when you can be nicer to a total stranger than the person you share children with.
7. They’re not all right now, but they can be
There’s a silver lining to this dark cloud: Kids can handle hard stuff.
They’re often much more resilient than we think. And the truth is, most kids come through this stronger, more capable and wise beyond their years.
Here’s the catch: How they get through this tough time and move forward in life as happy, healthy human beings depends on you. With the choices you are making right now, you aren’t just shaping their today, you’re shaping their tomorrow.
Do your best to choose wisely.
Work on getting through this yourself so you can be all there for them.
Love your kids more than the hurt you hold in your heart.
Breathe deep when things get tough.
Open your mind before you open your mouth.
Keep checking in and talking with your kids. Let them know they’re not to blame. They didn’t cause this, and they can’t fix it.
Make sure they know it’s OK to ask questions about why, but some of them you might not answer.
Most important, remember divorce is change in a family, not the end of a family.
You will always be Mom and Dad, no matter what.
When in doubt about how to move forward, ask yourself, “When my kids look back on this time, what will I have done to make them proud?”
Divorce is tough, but it‘s not the end of the world.
To quote one of the kids from the children’s documentary "Split, “It’s like a roller coaster. When you’re on the top, you feel so happy. It’s fine the way it is right now. But when you’re on the low part of the roller coaster, you know you’re frustrated.… As time goes, you might feel a little bit sadder. But soon you’re going to get back to the top and be happy.”
Does this hit home for you? Weigh in and share your thoughts.
Christina McGhee is an internationally recognized divorce coach, speaker and author of "Parenting Apart: How separated and divorced parents can raise happy and secure kids." She also spends her time doing outreach and speaking about the documentary "Split" as a subject-matter expert and team member.