• Zelena van der Leeden, MC, CDC®

Sheltering Children from Divorce Drama

Updated: May 5

On the eve of our first post-divorce family holiday, I found out that my brother was kidnapped. He is an elected Member of Parliament, but Venezuela lives under the ruling of a dictator who has over 300 political prisoners. We decided not to cancel our trip because we have been planning and saving for a long time. We also chose not to tell the kids that their uncle is missing and luckily for us, we have over 3 years experience sheltering our children from drama because of our divorces.

When I met Jake, my life and business partner, we were both going through high-conflict separations. We had over 30 court appearances in 2 years and to say we lived under an incredible amount of stress is an understatement. We had no control over the actions and reactions of our former spouses, but we chose to do our best to protect our children from adult matters.

The roller-coaster of emotions that a person facing divorce endures can take a toll on their physical and mental health and children can pick up on your energy and mood very quickly. We were lucky to have an amazing support system that included 8 mental health professionals (yes, EIGHT). We consulted with a child psychologist on a regular basis, our children had individual therapy, we had our own therapists, a couple's therapist plus the school social worker and my yoga therapist. We read every book recommended by our mental health professionals and we also became Certified Divorce Coaches.

Photo by Fizkes via iStock.

We listened to the advice of professionals and focused on giving love and attention to our children. Every expert (and many judges) indicated that children should be sheltered from adult discussions, but it was not easy. When someone hurts you, or worse, hurts your children, your reptilian brain takes over and you go into survival mode: fight, flight or freeze. Many feel the need to involve the children in every aspect of the divorce: "your mom did 'x' ", "your dad said 'y' ", "he/she is an asshole". Logic is nowhere to be found until you are able to close the stress response cycle which is done finding healthy outlets to release frustrations: yoga, cycling, dancing and counseling.

Divorce is hard on adults, but it is even harder for children because their whole life changes overnight and they have very little say and control over their new reality. If you are in a high-conflict case, little ones can feel pushed to side with one parent. They tend to feel guilt and sadness which can take a toll on their mental health and trigger anxiety and depression.

You may disagree with the behavior of your former partner, but you can choose how you behave during your parenting time. Sheltering children from drama does not mean that you have to hide your feelings and have a fake smile on your face for the rest of your life. Learning to: identify, voice and accept your emotions is a key part of growing up. Toddlers throw tantrums because they can't express what they want or need with words. When we say things like: "Oh! You are very angry because you want the ball, but we have to go", the child starts to match words with behavior. They also learn how to react from us which is why they tend to copy our mannerisms and repeat everything we say.

It is important to note that choosing not to involve children in adult matters, does not mean that you have to hide your feelings. Children experience a lot of the same worries and frustrations and it is important that they feel it is ok to express them. The tricky part is teaching them how to express emotion in a healthy manner. Punching a hole through the wall because your ex just served you with a notice of motion will clearly send the message that you are angry, but the way you are expressing the anger will likely scare the crap out of them and if you continue to punch holes, they will learn that this is how you should express anger.

When we were feeling overwhelmed by the actions of our former partners, and the kids were around, we would create a fictitious situation to give them some context. We would say things like: "I am so frustrated with my boss right now. He sent me an email asking me to do extra work and I wanted to enjoy my evening with you guys…" Or, "I am sad because I watched a really sad movie and it made me cry, but I am sure a big hug will make me feel better." A little white lie backed up by a teaching moment can go a long way. The details of an adult matter might be hard to comprehend by a child, but showing them that it is ok to feel different emotions and how to regulate them will help them develop their emotional intelligence.

As coaches, we hear clients argue that kids should know what the other parent is up to so they can see who they really are and how bad they are; but remember the reptilian brain? Most parents going through divorce are operating under a tremendous amount of stress and are unable to think straight. If their natural response is to fight, they might choose to prolong litigation, withhold parenting access or start a loud discussion in front of the children during exchanges. If you go into the same mode, you might threaten to file your own motion or show up at their house and cause a scene trying to take the kids. If you are dealing with a parent who is mentally ill and/or abusive, chances are, your former spouse is unable to think straight and choosing to express their emotions with negative actions. They might have not been raised by a caregiver that read parenting books and helped them name and express their feelings in a healthy way. Maybe they are receiving advice from friends and family instead of from mental health professionals. It can take up to 3 years for people to accept and adapt to life after divorce and it is almost impossible to be at your best all the time when every single aspect of your life is going through a change.

When you slip and act irrationally, you eventually realize that you overreacted and hopefully you will learn and grow from your mistakes. Being kind to yourself is a sign of self-love and an act of compassion. If you can practice mindfulness, you will be able to explore your triggers and choose to seek help if you are having a hard time finding appropriate ways to express yourself. In the coaching world we often talk about your best self, but I like to call it your true self. Like Rousseau, I choose to believe that we are inherently good but our environment and experiences affect our perception and modifies our thoughts and behaviour.

All this to say that keeping your children up to date with divorce proceedings might lead them to form a negative opinion about you and your partner. You might think: I am not doing anything wrong! But remember that

every time you say something bad about the other parent, your child might resent you. Maybe your former spouse is a good parent, or a good enough parent according to your children. Maybe they are not a good parent, but your children will reach that conclusion eventually. You do not need to point it out because it might backfire and they might end up putting you in the "bad parent" box. One day they will grow up and might ask about the divorce and will choose if you want to tell them your version of the story. Until then, let them enjoy their childhood. Focus on being a good parent and be there for them so they can grow up knowing that they can always trust you and that you have their best interest at heart.

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