One of the things that often surprises parents is the idea that their kids pick up misconceptions about themselves and the divorce when a family breaks up. When some thought is given to what the lasting impact of this is, many parents are spurred on to help their kids through some sort of divorce recovery process.

What misconceptions?

You may scratch your head and ask, but what kind of misconceptions are you talking about? In the interview on Insight Live below, the host asks the same question.

In the Mending Chronicles parent guide, I outline the most common misconceptions I have come across in divorce recovery counselling with children:

  1. The divorce was my fault because of something bad I did.
  2. The divorce happened because I am a bad kid.
  3. Had I tried better, Dad/Mum would have chosen to keep us as his/her family.
  4. There is something wrong with me which is why Dad/Mum went off with her/him.
  5. It’s my responsibility to fix this.
  6. Dad/Mum doesn’t love me anymore, I don’t matter.
  7. There is a chance that Mum/Dad will leave too.
  8. No one is going to like me because my parents are divorced.
  9. I don’t deserve to be happy.

In my divorce recovery handbook for kids, ‘The Mending Chronicles of Liam and Emily’, I based Liam and Emily’s stories on these very misconceptions that I encountered. Liam feels that a bad choice he made caused his father to leave. Emily feels frightened that her mother may leave too. She also questions whether her father left because he didn’t love her anymore.

How does this happen?

There are various factors that contribute to kids developing these misconceptions. Firstly, due to the traumatic nature of divorce for children, their brains make up a story to try and make sense of what is happening. If we think about our own reaction to negative occurrences, we can recognise that tendency to come up with explanations. Brene Brown calls this ‘confabulation’, which she describes as “a lie told honestly”.

Secondly, to protect our children, we generally don’t give them all the facts surrounding a situation we are dealing with. Besides what we tell them, their knowledge of the situation is often supplemented by their observations, the occasional eavesdropping and their own experience. Put these all together with some strong emotions and the innocence of childhood, and it’s rather understandable that misconceptions flourish.

What’s the fallout?

Unfortunately, unless these misconceptions are addressed, they can establish roots in children’s minds and affect so many areas of their lives going forward. For example:

  • They can affect how a child processes the changes in their lives. I’m sure you can relate to having a misconception about a situation that stays in your mind and won’t let you move on.
  • They can affect a child’s self-image. Taking on a misconception that you are in some way wholly or partially responsible, bad or unlovable is devastating for any child’s tender self-image.
  • They can affect a child’s health. The saying, ‘the body keeps the score’, has proven itself true for many of us. Toxic thoughts can eventually manifest themselves through physical ailments, poor mental health and emotional health.
  • They can affect a child’s relationship with a parent. Misconceptions can do a lot of damage to relationships if not addressed. (This one makes me particularly sad.)
  • They can affect a child’s memories of this time in their childhood. A memory of a divorce is probably never going to be a happy one, but misconceptions can leave damaging scars that could have been avoided.
  • They have far reaching implications. Misconceptions that are taken into teenage years can really make a dramatic display at this time in a child’s life. If they are carried into adult years … well, ask any therapist how that turns out.

What can parents do?

This all looks rather bleak, but don’t despair! Many children do adjust well to the changes divorce brings and grow up to become healthy adults in sound relationships. It just takes some work to get there.

So, what’s to be done? The first and most vital thing is to be aware that children’s brains will create a story which potentially could develop into damaging misconceptions. A parent’s job is to watch and listen for signs. No one knows their children like a parent does.

You may ask what I mean by ‘watch and listen’, but really all it is, is creating opportunities for connection and conversation. It requires time and intentionality. A little bit of effort really can make a difference. Find moments in your day, for example, while driving in the car, at bedtime or on a walk. Ask questions that don’t have a yes/no answer but compel your children to give a more thoughtful answer. Ask for clarification to move the conversation along. Try not to be triggered or respond with scorn or anger. If you have managed to get this far, your child has probably been quite vulnerable and needs kindness and respect in that moment. For those who need a little help, I have created a printable pdf to nudge that conversation along. Download it here.

These moments of connection and conversation can happen with other close family members and friends too. If you feel too tender or overwhelmed, get your support team in to help. A previous blog article describes how to gather a support team.

My book, ‘The Mending Chronicles’ is an effective tool to use in creating conversation and connection around divorce. Liam and Emily’s stories are very relatable and the activities presented in the book help kids to reflect, problem-solve and express themselves. (There’s a short parent guide eBook too.) I know of several families who have given the book to the grandparents to work through with their children. Grandparents often have the time and almost always offer a safe space. 😊

If you feel ill-equipped to deal with what transpires in your conversations with your children, never hesitate to get in touch with a professional. Your child’s paediatrician, a therapist or a charity offering counselling are good options to try.

Ending on a positive note

Lastly, try your best to give your children an alternative truth to the misconception they have. I’m sure you will agree with the sentiment I hold to: they are Superstars 🌟 trying their best to adjust to change and deserve to be given a narrative of truth that will undergird their journey with courage and love.

Here’s some suggestions:
• Divorce is an adult problem that can’t be fixed by kids.
• Divorce is never caused by kids.
• Divorce doesn’t affect a mother or father’s love for their kids.
• Kids always deserve to be happy.
• Parents don’t divorce their kids.
• Families can change shape but the love never changes.
• The preciousness of kids doesn’t change with divorce.