Divorce and a Young Child
By Randy Kessler
A discussion about divorce with a young child is unfortunate but, in today’s world, much more common than perhaps it should be.
Circumstances beyond our control — some would argue whether divorce is within our control — often require such a conversation, which must be handled with a great amount of tact and thoughtfulness. Such a discussion with a young child about the fact that his or her parents will no longer be living together is truly sad but also an opportunity to set the tone for the child’s future relationships with both parents and extended family.
So how and what do we do? Therapeutic help and guidance can be invaluable. While not therapists, divorce lawyers see these problems over and over, and based on that, I offer my opinion as a minor but I hope useful contribution to the planning for such a talk.
As lawyers, we are taught to simplify things. We must simplify complex legal statutes to make them easier for our clients to understand. We must also often simplify complex financial situations so that judges can understand what a marital estate is composed of and divide it fairly. We must simplify our legal documents so that the legal arguments can be easily and quickly digested. They are referred to as “briefs,” after all.
But how do we help our clients explain divorce to a 3-year-old?
That is something parents must deal with and must get right to help their children. Whether explaining divorce to a 3-year-old, a 6-year-old or a teenager, it is never easy, especially when it’s your own divorce. And while I think I have some good suggestions, it is beneficial to work with a therapist you trust to help guide you through that most difficult but most important discussion.
If you must discuss divorce with a teenager, at least the concept is familiar. But to explain the concept of divorce to a child who does not yet or has just begun to understand the concept of marriage can be overwhelming. There are many good books (e.g., “When Dinosaurs Divorce”), but there are so many questions.
As a nontherapist but someone who has seen more than my share of divorce in my practice, my best suggestion is to maintain a united front. Children want their parents to love each other and to get along.
At the very moment a child must learn that parents cannot get along well enough to stay married, it might soften the blow to see that they can at least get along when it comes to their children.
Unfortunately, I see much too much of the opposite behavior — parents trying to beat each other to the punch to tell a child one side of the story.
Children want their parents to love them (and to love each other). If one parent disparages the other to or in front of a child, doesn’t that encourage the child to do the same (disparage the other parent) to ensure the love of the criticizing parent? And isn’t that wrong?
Remember, the child is the sum of the two parents, so anything negative said about the other parent is in essence a complaint about a part of the child.
So as hard as it may seem, take a joint approach. Remind your child repeatedly how much you both love him or her. And as hard as it may be, compliment the other parent in front of and to the child. It may be hard, but certainly you can do it.
Think about your own parents — how nice it was (or would have been) for your own parents to be sweet to each other and to talk respectfully and positively about the other.
Aren’t those the memories you want your child to have? Explain it together, politely and with as much love as you have ever expressed. You can do it. Your children deserve it, and you have the capability.
Randy Kessler is the founding partner of the family law firm Kessler & Solomiany (www.ksfamilylaw.com) in downtown Atlanta, a former chairman of the American Bar Association’s Family Law Section, and the author of “Divorce: Protect Yourself, Your Kids and Your Future.”