Whether you are a parent going through a divorce, a grandparent of children going through a divorce, a friend of such a child or someone who works with kids on a regular basis, knowing how to talk to children of divorce can be instrumental in helping them process what is going on in their world. These are some things you need to know about communicating with children of divorce. This list has been adapted from the list “The Art of Communicating With Children” from the book Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce the Sandcastles Way by M. Gary Newman (1998, Times Books Random House, p.13). I have added my own notes on how each item might look at parents and to children’s ministry workers.
1. Children want – and need – to talk.
Talking is essential to allow children to process the emotions they are feeling. Even if a child does not want to talk now, you can rest assured that they will want to talk at some point. Don’t be discouraged if this talking requires a little bit of prompting. For parents, understand that talking about what they are feeling is critical to your children. For children’s ministry workers, you should recognize that your environment may be the most “sane” 60 or 90 minutes a child of divorce experiences every week. Take advantage of that time to give them an opportunity to talk.
2. Any time can be a good time to talk.
Don’t wait only for “special” moments to talk. Some of the best conversations, and most thoughtful, will be spontaneous and unanticipated. For a parent, that can be on the ride to school, at you are reading to your child at night or over a shared meal. For a children’s ministry worker, these conversations can take place in the hallway, around a small group table or as children are waiting to be picked up.
3. Make an appointment to talk.
Although spontaneous conversation is valuable and to be encouraged, it is also important to set up special times when you can give a child your undivided attention. This is especially true to when it comes to addressing more serious topics. For parents, this means that you should set aside times with your child(ren) to talk. Make a standing weekly appointment and stick to it. Even though time is at a premium, you will not regret this one-on-one time spent talking to your children. For a children’s ministry worker, this may mean letting a child know that you are willing to stay after church to talk with them one-on-one in a more private setting (Note: Make sure that you are not violating any of your church’s safety policies in making your arrangements. It is a good idea to always have two people present when you are talking to the child – even if they are not engaged in the conversation).
4. Put yourself in the child’s shoes.
Take a minute to remember what it was like to be a child. If you were a child of divorce yourself remember what that felt like. If you were not a child of divorce, try to imagine what it would have been like at a very young age to have your world torn in two. Try to imagine how you would feel if you were put in the situation the child is in now.
5. Remember: most communication is non-verbal.
Give the child a warm hug. Smile when it is appropriate. Maintain eye contact with the child. Keep an open stance (do not fold or cross legs or arms). Maintain a calm and even tone of voice when you are talking to the child.
6. Let the child know you hear and understand what they saying.
Mirror and paraphrase what the child is saying by restating it and saying it back to them. This active for of listening lets the child know that you are really engaged in the conversation and care what they have to say.
7. Provide the child with words for their feelings.
One of the hardest things for children of divorce can be to put words with the things they are feeling. As you communicate with them, put words to their feelings, even if they have not expressed the emotion specifically. Helping children find words for their emotions is a significant step in the healing process.