Q: We are about to tell our sensitive 7-year-old son that we are separating and moving out of our home and into two separate places. I am so nervous. Do you have any advice? We are looking for family counselors to work with, but most don’t have availability for a few months.
We have waited as long as we can. We are both moving within our current stomping grounds, and he will still go to same camp, school, etc. Any previous mention of moving out of our house has brought lots of tears. The split is mutual and amicable.
A: I am sorry. Separating, moving and changing your life this much, no matter how “mutual and amicable,” can be quite difficult. And if you look into the literature regarding separation/divorce and children, it certainly is part of the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) list. When experienced during childhood, these events can significantly affect kids’ abilities to mature, and they can have an effect on their mental health and lead to a host of other problems.
Where does divorce fit in? Well, like everything in life, it depends. The level of dysfunction, abuse, fear and upset in the home, along with how acrimonious the separation is, can certainly lead to divorce being an important adverse event in a child’s life. But life isn’t that black and white: Every ACE — even the worst — can be helped with therapy and warm, loving relationships.
Why am I telling you this?
Our culture tends to be binary regarding separation and divorce: It is either a total disaster between the parents and, therefore, the child, or the parents are amicable and the child is “fine.” But that’s not all there is to it. How the child feels about the divorce is what matters the most. Does it matter that you are keeping his environment (neighborhood), camps, school and activities the same? You bet it does! Seeing the same supportive adults and maintaining a schedule can feel like safety to a child who may be reeling from a separation. But many parents will take on a “Your life is the same!” stance when a child may feel the opposite.
Parents also make the assumption that if the separation is amicable, the child won’t feel torn between the two parents. But even when parents express loving support for each other, a sensitive 7-year-old can feel the need to be loyal to one parent over the other. If there has been no sign of strife in the house, this can be even more confusing to your son. He can begin to question what he knew and how he understood your relationship. He may feel blindsided, and he or may not trust you, no matter how amicable you are.
I am not trying to freak you out or make you feel guilty. It is wonderful that you and your partner are clearly communicating and wanting the best for your son. More than anything, I want you to remember the power you have as parents. This isn’t just happening to your son; this is an ongoing and unfolding dynamic that I want you to feel empowered to confront as the years go on.
Divorce or not, take the time to learn more about the life of a sensitive child, and look for the signs of maturity and good mental health in your son. (I recommend books such as “The Highly Sensitive Child,” by Elaine N. Aron.) Not every behavior will be related to the divorce, so the more you understand about your son, the better equipped you will be to respond rather than react.
One of the most important factors to remember is that we are not going for a zero-sum game; your son isn’t meant to be “happy” or “unhappy.” Divorce has effects that are sometimes acute and obvious (often around holidays and vacations) and sometimes sneaky (small dinners and movie times), and your parenting work isn’t to fix or stop the sadness; it’s to welcome it in and sit with it.
As child developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld says: The more space we give an emotion, the less room it takes up. Your job isn’t to get your child to feel or not feel anything in particular; it’s to keep the emotions moving. If your son is angry, let him be angry. If he is sad, let him be sad. I cannot say this enough: Don’t assume how your son will react to this divorce, and know that all emotions are welcome.
Your job is to keep your side of the street clean. Don’t split loyalties, and never bad-mouth your co-parent. Keep your word, and keep your communications as clear as possible. Don’t assume how your son feels. Mindfully create spaces where your son can be honest with you (go for drives, play video games, etc.), and prioritize fun and joy. Life will change dramatically, but there will be unexpected joys that should be celebrated.
Play therapy could be a wonderful option, but don’t assume that it’s needed. Don’t panic, and remember: You are still your child’s best bet. The therapist doesn’t know your child like you do. You don’t need to be perfect; you simply have to show up with a full heart and with your eyes wide open. Good luck.