This is a topic that is very close and dear to my heart.
Why do children feel guilty when parents’ divorce? I asked myself this question a million times while I was going through my divorce and kept or reassuring my daughter that it is not her fault, or anything she ever did, and that we both love her dearly.
So why is it that children take on this role of responsibility and guilt? Children are born into this world not knowing any rules about life at all. They learn everything about life from the adults that surround them and from the feedback, or consequences that follow their actions or inactions.
Early on in childhood children learned that if they did something wrong it was their fault, that is why they automatically assume that when their parents are having issues or are getting divorced it must be due to something they did wrong. For many children it is very difficult to change their feeling of guilt because it has become their default position when problems occur in their family. It is difficult for the child to blame their parents because the parent is their source of correct behavior. After all, wasn’t it the parent who taught the child how to follow the correct rules? The child reasons at their developmental level, “How can my parent be at fault? I must have done something to cause this.”
So what can you as divorcing parents do to help your children cope with their misinterpreted guilt?
The first objective I have with my clients is to get both parents to understand that the welfare and emotional wellbeing of their child is paramount. Parents are adults and they have to work through their feelings of anger, hurt and resentment without expressing it or letting it out in front of the kids. If they can’t handle it alone they should reach out to someone for help, so they can be the role models they have always dreamed of being to their children.
The next step is for both parents to have an age appropriate talk with their child/children to help them make sense of the divorce. It doesn’t have to be complicated or detailed. The simpler the better. For example : “Mom and Dad cannot live together anymore, but we both love you very much, always will and will continue to take care of you.”
The framework statement of course will be much different for a 6-year-old than a 16-year-old child. Be sure to explain to your child/children that it is your choice and NOT their fault. As with my daughter you will need to have this conversation many times over and over, to assure that they actually process and hear it.
After having explained the situation to the child/children make sure to ask them to tell you in their own words why they think their parents are getting divorced. This will allow you to see how well your explanation has been absorbed. The 5-year-old child will understand divorce and responsibility with the mind of a 5-year-old. However, when they are 6 and their understanding of the world and causality has changed some, they will need to hear again why their parents are divorced and that they had no part to play and therefore no room for guilt. This process may have to be repeated and modified for the child well into high school.
Guilt over something you have no control over is a tremendously heavy burden. If they have a framework that makes sense to them and if they are told in different ways over the years, “It was not your fault, it had nothing to do with you, we both loved you then and we love you now”, their natural guilt will usually diminish.