The bad news is that divorce is traumatic for kids; the good news is that the impact depends on how well the parents are able to shield their children from negativity. Research shows that divorce is associated with multiple problems for children including depression, aggression, health problems, low self-esteem, diminished academic performance, and troubled relationships. On the other hand, research also shows that some basic, good-hearted parenting patterns can protect children from the worst of these effects.
Your children will weather a divorce better if you can remember this simple, overarching principle: it’s the parents’ job is to protect and support their minor-aged children and not the other way around.
While you may feel a great amount of emotional strength flowing from the commitment you have to your children and the love you share, this attachment should not to be confused with an adult support system.
Susan Silk, a psychologist, devised a helpful graphic to help people coping with a major life crisis. Silk drew on her experiences as a breast cancer patient to create her “ring theory of kvetching.” While the ring theory was originally devised to help people dealing with cancer, the model has been successfully applied to all sorts of life difficulties, such as divorce, death, and major changes of any kind.
Susan Sandberg, the author of the bestselling book, Lean In, brought attention to the model in her 2017 book, Option B, about the sudden death of her husband, Dave. One of her primary concerns was shielding her kids from the worst effects of losing their dad at the very same time that she was going through her own grief process.
“…[write] down the names of people in the center of the tragedy and draw a circle around them. Then draw a bigger circle around that one and write the names of the people who are next most affected by the event. Keep drawing larger circles for people based on proximity to the crisis…When you are done you have a Kvetching Order.
Wherever you are in the circle, offer comfort in and seek comfort out. That means consoling the people who are closer to the tragedy than you are and reaching out for support from those who are farther removed.” (source)
The main principle of the ring theory of kvetching order is that support, caring, and comfort flow in. Kvetching, complaining, requests for empathy, feelings of anger or hopelessness only flow out.
How does this apply to divorce? The kids who fare worse during and after divorce are the ones whose parents put themselves at the center of the trauma ring and their kids in the first circle.
The kids who fare the best during and after divorce are the ones whose parents put them – the kids – at the center of the trauma ring and who literally shield the children from harm by putting themselves – the parent – in the first ring.
If you, as a divorcing parent, want to protect your child from the most negative effects of divorce, then you need to send comfort and support and caring in toward your kids, but look out toward the next ring when you need somewhere to kvetch, request empathy, complain, or voice criticisms of your ex-spouse. If you are a grandparent or concerned friend reading this article, this ring diagram will also help you know where to turn for comfort (outer rings) and where to offer support and care (inner rings).
To make this ring theory more concrete, this article will conclude with some practical strategies for applying this ring theory to your life as you seek to protect your children from the worst effects of divorce and separation:
1- Do know the statistics. Don’t be paralyzed by them.
You might start seeing divorce statistics swimming in your morning coffee, so to speak, as you become hyper-aware of every headline big or small which catastrophizes the effects of divorce on children. Remember, these statistics are not representative of the complex individuals in your care. People throughout history have risen above great challenges to succeed and live happy purposeful lives. Prepare your kids to thrive and have the confidence that they can do hard things.
2- Do seek support. Don’t seek it from your kids.
Look outward in the ring of kvetching for your support. Don’t turn to your kids when you need a word of encouragement. Don’t turn to your kids when you are confused or angry about divorce negotiations and need a shoulder to cry on or a place to vent. Don’t ask your kids to validate your decision to divorce, but do ask a trusted relative. Don’t ask your kids to give you a pep talk when you’re discouraged, but do ask a good friend. Don’t express all of your worst fears to your kids, but do confide in a therapist.
3- Do show your kids authentic emotion, even grief or discouragement. Don’t ask them to fix it.
If you are such a stoic that you become a cardboard cutout of yourself, you aren’t modeling for your children how to live with vulnerability and authenticity. If you find your kids comforting you or worrying over you, tell them exactly what you hope for them. “I hope you can see that I am sad right now, but it’s not your job to fix it.”
4- Do facilitate visitation. Don’t quiz your children about your ex-spouse or ask them to deliver messages.
Don’t ask your kids’ opinions about your ex-spouse or about what you should do next. Protect your children’s childhood by not asking them – or letting them – take responsibility that doesn’t belong to them.
5- Do tell your children that the divorce is not their fault. Don’t assume your children know this already.
It may be 100% obvious to you that your trusting young child has nothing to do with your divorce. Unfortunately, many divorced parents make the mistake of thinking that it’s also 100% clear to the child. Research shows that many, if not most, children feel guilty about their parents’ divorce and believe that they were part of the breakup. Tell your child clearly and repeatedly that the divorce was not their fault.
6- Do avoid criticism and negativity. Don’t criticize your ex-spouse in front of your children.
Children, even very young children, know that they are part you and part your ex-spouse. Criticizing your ex-spouse in front of your children can be very damaging for their self concept and won’t convince them to love you more than they already do. In fact, criticizing your ex-spouse in front of your kids may make it harder for them to trust you to keep a soft heart for them when they make the inevitable mistakes or disappoint you. Remember, children are very good at ‘listening-in.’ Protect your children by not talking in half-whispers when you know they can hear most of what you’re saying and by talking after you believe they’ve gone to sleep.
7- Do minimize your child’s exposure to fighting. Don’t fight in front of your kids.
Have your disagreements well out of earshot. Research has shown that it’s often the fighting rather than the divorce that has the most negative effects on kids.
8- Do pay child support. Don’t make excuses.
If you are a non-custodial parent, pay child support for the well-being of your child. Divorce often creates a financial setback for children that compounds the emotional one. Shield your child from this challenge by staying up to date on your child support
At every step of your divorce, whether you are considering divorce solutions, in divorce mediation, or finished with the process, your responsibility as a parent remains paramount. Look for support in an outward direction in your ring of kvetching. Offer support in an inward direction on the same ring, lavishing love on your children who rely on you. Remind yourself that your children’s interests – not yours – belong at the center of the trauma ring, and act accordingly.