A friend recently texted me some sad news: her aunt and uncle are divorcing. Naturally, she is worried about their five children – her cousins. She asked: What can I do to help them? This is my reply, as a child of divorce who has listened to people like me and read the research for years.
1. Don’t Sugarcoat
To console us, well intentioned people may say, “Your family isn’t ending, it is just changing” or “Now you get two homes and twice as many gifts!” The truth is saying things like that is actually harmful.
Why? Because divorce hurts us – regardless of our age and the reason for it. When people make light of it, we feel like we shouldn’t feel so bad. In fact, we may think something is wrong with us for feeling this way. Further, we tend not to trust people who sugarcoat because it’s clear they do not understand how painful it is to watch your parents’ marriage fall apart.
Instead of sugarcoating, call divorce what it is: A tragedy. A really hard thing to endure. An injustice for the children, even in extreme cases where it is necessary. Because every child deserves a healthy family and two parents that choose to love each other and stay together.
2. Listen to How They Feel
Sadly, we often aren’t asked how we feel about it all. The focus is usually on the parents, not us. As a result, we bottle things up inside. Even if we’re in pain, we don’t talk about it. And since we don’t, people assume we’re fine.
So, ask them how they feel about it. Give them the chance to express their emotions. If they struggle to put them into words, help them. Research shows that the more specifically they can describe their feelings, the better it is for them. If they don't speak about how they feel, it may come out in anger or other unhealthy ways of coping.
And naturally, really listen. Don’t listen to respond with the “right” answer, listen to really understand them.
3. Validate Their Pain
A friend recently told me the story of a little girl who told her teacher that her parents were divorcing. Her teacher said, “I’m so sorry.” The little girl responded, “Oh no, it’s okay.” Thankfully, the teacher didn’t stop there. She said, “No, it’s not okay. It’s stinks. It’s not supposed to be this way.” The little girl began to cry and finally admitted how hard it was for her.
Sadly, it is often rare for someone to validate our pain. So tell them: it’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to feel those uncomfortable emotions. If they feel frustrated, angry, abandoned, betrayed, not good enough, or rejected, that’s actually normal given the situation. Instead of stuffing those feelings away, they need to give themselves permission to feel it all.
Say things like, “This isn’t the way it is supposed to be,” “I’m so sorry, this must be really hard,” or “I would feel that way too.”
4. Tell Them: It’s Not Your Fault
After giving a talk to college students, one student told me that her dad still blames her for the divorce that happened about 10 years ago. Hard to believe, I know.
Now, I doubt most parents blame their children for the divorce. But as the children, we may be tempted to blame ourselves for the divorce. Or we may think we could have prevented it.
So, tell them: the divorce is not your fault. You did not cause it. And there is nothing you could have done to prevent it.
5. Be There for Them
When something bad happens in life, we naturally want to fix it and take away the pain. But often, the best response to another’s pain is simply your presence. Just be with them in the pain, as psychotherapist Megan Device explains so well in this video.
So, make sure they know you are there for them. Tell them they’re not alone and they can talk to you when they need.
And in whatever way is appropriate, make sure they know they are loved. Because chances are, they feel pretty unloved right now.
6. Encourage Them to Journal
Encourage them to write about what's happening and how they feel about it. In her book Emotional Agility, Harvard psychologist Dr. Susan David explains the benefits of writing about emotionally significant events in our lives.
In short, studies show that those who write about emotionally significant events experienced an increase in physical and mental well-being, were happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Thousands of studies have confirmed these and many more benefits.
So encourage them to write. If they need it, buy them a journal.
7. Give Them a Break
They may need a break from home if things are too intense. They may need to stay with you, a relative, or a trusted family friend. It could be for a weekend, a week, a month, or even an extended time.
8. Tell Them: God Doesn’t Want This
If they’re religious, they likely struggle to understand why God would let this happen.
It’s important they know that God does not want this to happen. He hates that this is happening. In fact, the Bible says he hates divorce (see Malachi 2:16). And he's right there with them in the midst of the pain.
9. Help Them Set Healthy Boundaries
They need to know it’s okay to set and enforce boundaries with Mom and Dad. For example, if Dad is saying bad things about Mom, they can and should say, "Dad, it hurts me when you say those things about Mom. Would you please not talk about Mom around me?"
Also, make sure they know that as children, they are not meant to be their parents’ emotional support. From experience, I have seen how damaging that can be for the children.
So, boundaries are needed. Encourage them to say things like, "Mom, I know this is really hard for you. But it's really difficult to hear all of this. Would you please talk to a friend or someone else about all of this? I want to love you, but I need to do it in another way."
10. Show Them Good Marriages
Seeing our parents’ marriage fall apart usually makes us believe that love and marriage don’t last. And so, we may run from it. Even if we overcome that fear and try to build lasting love, our concept of love and marriage is broken. Simply put, we don’t have a roadmap for love.
This can’t be fixed overnight. And now may not be the right time to address this. But one way to heal our broken concept of love and marriage is to show us what a good marriage is supposed to look like. Not in theory, but in reality.
And so, if you have a good marriage (not perfect, good) invite them to spend time with you and your family. If not, arrange for them to spend time with a good couple and their family.
This Advice Isn’t Enough
While the advice above is helpful, it isn’t enough. They need more help. That’s why Restored exists: to help children of divorce. We offer practical guidance on how to cope with and heal from your parents’ separation or divorce and everything that follows. And so, invite them to listen to our podcast, read our blog, or join our private online community.
We believe they shouldn't have to face this alone. We’re here to help.
The advice above assumes there is trust between you and the person whose parents are separating or divorcing. Not the case? Start by building a relationship, so they trust you. Be vulnerable with them, so they feel comfortable opening up to you.