Divorce, Money, and How [Much] to Insulate the Children
One winter evening, when I was five, my mother announced we would be having a picnic for dinner. It was winter and dark outside, so I was dubious. She was unassailable. She spread out our regular picnic blanket in the living room by the fireplace, and when my father came home, the three of us ate a picnic-style dinner. The experience of eating with my parents on a picnic blanket on the floor on a regular weeknight for no purposeful reason at all was magical to me.
That evening, my mom gave me a little gift. It was a pair of plastic red lips that snapped open to two colored, scented lip glosses, one color contained in each lip. It was so unexpected. It wasn’t a prescribed present-giving occasion! But there I was, receiving something both unnecessary and so rather precious. The gift couldn’t have cost more than a couple dollars. I felt lucky and loved. There was a sense of holiday on an otherwise ordinary evening.
This happened shortly before we moved from that home.
If children are the casualties of divorce, how can we create a scenario that makes for no casualties?
That renders any metaphor of warfare altogether malapropos? Change is implicit in divorce, but change, well managed, need not cause harm.
Divorce impacts family finances. The same monies are now stretched, often thinly, across the expanse of two households. This is not easy.
But financial challenges often trigger more primitive fears of survival, shelter and safety. When these fears aren’t managed first by the parents (through addressing the facts, taking effective action, and self-soothing, for some examples), the adults’ overwhelm can flood the children, intensifying the current circumstances. That is, what was difficult is now experienced with life or death intensity. Once adults have entered this space, it’s nearly impossible for them to calm and reassure their children.
How can you insulate your children from adult concerns without over-sheltering them from the new reality of divorce? What is the line between protecting and misleading?
1. First things first. The challenge for the divorcing parent is to attend to and contain their own feelings so that they don’t deluge their children. If you, the parent, are significantly unsettled by the financial situation, address that before presenting anything to your children. It’s important that you are settled and in charge (not to be read as perfect) before leading your children. Once you have digested the new plan, then decide what message is most suitable to the developing people in your care (i.e., your children).
2. Launder the limitations before introducing them to the kids. Remove anger and blame from the factual narrative when delivering the message to the children. By sticking to the facts without endowing them with negative meaning, you can avoid imbuing the new financial situation with a sense of deprivation.
“We can’t do that because your father left us,” or “You can’t have that because your mother wants a divorce,” are examples of toxic expressions that harm children. The blame must be unfastened from the limitation.
3. Limitations need not be punishing. The problem is not whether the child is going to experience a financial impact from the divorce, but if the child will experience it as the fault of one or both of his parents, or even a result of some imagined deficiency in himself. Children can experience limitations without feeling unnecessarily punished by them.
Adjusting to certain cut-backs in the household can seem onerous, but the approach to it is what matters most. Ingenuity and creativity are better suited to this challenge than resistance and willfulness.
4. Team family. Parents can foster a sense of unity around common goals, valuing each family member’s contribution to the new plan, and thereby create a sense of belonging that is so needed. Saving can become about choices rather than sacrifice.
Discuss what will be removed with what will be put in place. If the whole family can be on-boarded to finding ways to save—for example, at the grocery store so they can then have the weekend at the beach—there can be a pulling together that invites everyone’s involvement and activates each person’s problem solving skills.
“This year we won’t be able to do that, but we will be able to do this…” is a very different message from, “You can’t have that, so get over it.”
5. Seize the opportunity presented. No parent wants their children to feel disadvantaged. If certain things need to be given up for the time being, there can be disappointment, anger and sadness. These uncomfortable feelings are unfortunately a part of every life, and helping your children recognize their feelings and manage them can be a much more valuable contribution to their development than travel ice hockey.
6. Changes are Temporary. Changes can be more digestible when they are understood as temporary. Help children hold the understanding that over time this “new normal” will be replaced by a new “new normal.” Heraclitus taught us that the only constant is change.
For now is a helpful phrase. It normalizes the situation and supports the children in knowing that limitations themselves have limitations!
Life is dynamic and good things will also be happening.
7. Keep in mind the larger goal. Remember that the changes are occurring not to be an end in themselves, but as a transition to a future that will be healthier for everyone over time. The divorce is occurring because something was very wrong in the current situation, and the intent is to have a happier and healthier environment for the kids and both parents in the near future.
8. Resist coloring as “bad” desired things that are currently unobtainable. The wished for thing or activity need not be cast as bad or ridiculous because it’s not affordable. Nor should the child be cast as spoiled or ungrateful for wanting it. What is wanted and the wanting need not be judged at all.
The truth that some desires may not be gratified can be addressed lovingly. In fact, a parent can express: “I understand that you want that very much, and I’d love to be able to do this for you, but unfortunately I can’t just now.” This expression of validation and the desire to give can be very affirming and supportive to your child.
Ultimately you want your child to feel valued and loved. This can be accomplished even when you are unable to provide everything you’d like. A child can feel very worthwhile knowing that something is wanted for them, even if it’s not manifest at present. If you’re able to acknowledge the child’s feelings about certain changes, the child can experience a secure, empathic attachment with you, the parent. In the end, this is invaluable, and outshines and outlasts a season of ski club.
If certain things need to be taken away for a time, other things can be added. A movie night at home in pajamas, with you, might be as delightful to your children as a dinner out. Children mostly want you, your time, attention, and affection; to know they are important to you and that you are for them. When you provide them with a consistent, loving connection to you, you furnish them with the sturdiness to be able to provide most everything else for themselves in the future.
Many years after our winter picnic, I learned that during that time my father had lost his job and the marriage had been strained. Perhaps my mom was calling on her creativity to bring some whimsy and sweetness into the day. She did. And so can you.
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