I’ve been working with separated and divorcing parents for a really long time (like 20+ years long). During the span of my career, there’s not much that catches me off guard.
However, when I asked a young woman who was an adult child of divorce, “If you could give one piece of advice to divorced parents, what would it be?” her answer was truly a mic drop moment.
Let me explain. Ten years ago, I was introduced to award-winning filmmaker Ellen Bruno. At the time, she was raising funds for a documentary called Split, a film for kids and their parents. For those of you that haven’t seen the film, it shares the real-life stories of 12 amazing kids and offers an intimate and unfiltered look at how kids think and feel when parents part.
All it took was one look at a rough cut, and I signed on as a subject matter expert for the project. Since its debut, parents, and professionals have enthusiastically embraced this profound and touching film.
As the years passed, Ellen couldn’t help but wonder if those original 12 kids had more to say. It turns out they did. And those stories have become the inspiration for a brand-new sequel, Split UP: The Teen Years.
Spoiler alert… her new film is FASCINATING.
Fast forward to today. I’m taking part in a pre-release screening for Split UP and interviewing Ehryn, one of the original kids from SPLIT, who is now a young adult.
When I asked her, “If you could give one piece of advice to divorced parents, what would it be?” This is what she had to say.
“Let your children know there was once love.”
After parents split up, one of the issues children of divorce struggle with (often silently) is “Where did the love go? And was it ever there to begin with?”
When parents choose to go their separate ways, they tend to hone in on all the things that didn’t work. They might focus on all the issues that sent the relationship into a downward spiral or choose to highlight all of the less than desirable traits of their former partner that they tolerated for years.
For children of divorce, their parents’ separation doesn’t just change a family. It also calls into question the concept of unconditional love. They struggle to understand how the two people they love the most can no longer see good in one another. It also leaves kids wondering: if my parents can fall out of love, what will it take for them to stop loving me?
While parents may tell children that the love shared between two adults is different from the love shared between a parent and a child, when a parent’s behavior doesn’t match up with a child’s experience, it leaves them feeling unsettled and confused.
The other issue that co-parents sometimes overlook is that your children’s life story doesn’t start with your divorce.
Those beginning stories (before they were born) — that’s where their stories start.
More than anything, your children want to know that they came from LOVE. That there was a time when their parents had hopes and dreams — a desire to be a family.
Yes, that changed along the way. Perhaps the message our children need to hear is that two good people don’t always make a good couple. Maybe they need to see that while you may not be good together, you can still have respect for each other as parents and give value to the love that was once shared.
So how can parents bridge the gap for their kids between what once was and what exists today?
Here are a few tips to consider:
1 Honor the good
Again, keep in mind that your children’s story doesn’t start with your divorce. Find ways to share memories and stories to share with your kids that honor the good. Maybe tell them a story about when they were born, put together an album that contains pictures of both of their parents, or pass down an item from when you were a family in one home.
You will be amazed at how much it will mean to your child.
2 See what your kids see
If saying something nice about your co-parent feels totally impossible, try seeing what your kids see in their other parent. When Alec comes home from camping with Dad and talks about what a great catch he made when they went fishing, you can say, “Sounds like Dad is a lot of fun to go camping with, and you really enjoyed fishing with him.”
3 Make peace with the past
If I had a penny for every time, I uttered, “Kids know more than you think….” I’d think I’d be rich enough to give Amazon gazillionaire Jeff Bezos a run for his money.
Lots of parents assume that the intense anger and dislike (hate) they feel for the other parent is totally under wraps and that their kids are clueless. Sadly, that’s rarely the case.
Even when parents keep it to themselves, kids pick up on all the unspoken tension, eye-rolls, jabs that are played off as jokes, subtle slights, and non-responses when they mention the other parent’s name.
It’s been said that holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. For your kid’s sake (and your own) find some way to constructively process the hurt and anger so you can move forward with your life. Keep in mind making peace with the past doesn’t mean you have to forget or forgive. It just means you’re letting go and moving on.
Please know I get none of this is easy.
Some days, it takes a lot of coparenting grit and commitment to step into that space. However, you have a chance to give your kids a gift that will last a lifetime when you do.
Have you done something to let your children know there was once love?
Christina McGhee, MSW is an internationally recognized divorce parenting expert, speaker and author.
Throughout her career, she has educated both parents and professionals on how to minimize the impact of divorce on children. In her book, PARENTING APART: How separated and divorced parents can raise happy and secure kids, Christina offers parents useful strategies for dealing with the “real-life” everyday challenges of coparenting.
Most recently, Christina launched an online program, Coparenting with Purpose. Designed to provide moms and dads with an easy, convenient way to access critical information, it’s filled with practical tools and solutions for managing the most common coparenting problems.
Married for over twenty-seven years, Christina and her husband live outside of Houston, Texas. As a mom of four (two bonus and two bio) children, she has acquired extensive on-the-job training as a chauffeur, negotiator, short-order cook, scheduler extraordinaire and finder of all things lost. To find out more, check her out at divorceandchildren.com.
DISCLAIMER: The commentary, advice, and opinions from Gabrielle Hartley are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice or mental health services. You should contact an attorney and/or mental health professional in your state to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.