What are some ways we can support our clients through a divorce when it comes to their children? Through the years, I have had dozens of conversations with divorcing couples whose love and concern for their children is and must be number one. Parents separating and who may eventually divorce must convey to their children that this change in the family has not been and never will be their fault.
When a marriage ends, children of all ages witness not only the parting of their father and mother and, when they are minors, the “back and forth” of custody and visitation, but they experience the crumbling of what, for them, is their life’s foundation. Some studies in recent years have indicated that children of all ages hold the hope that somehow their parents will get back together. The reality of divorce, however, is another story.
What can we do to give our clients appropriate support when it comes to their children during this difficult time? First, as always, be a good listener. Our role is not that of marriage therapist, attorney, or negotiator. Whether the person sitting in front of you is the husband or the wife, ask about the children. “How are you kids doing?” can lead to a second question that often tells you more than you might expect: “Tell me about the questions they are asking?”
This exercise of asking the mom or dad to verbalize back to you the questions their children are asking may give insight to find a place to support them. For example, if the parent says, “They are asking where they will live” or “My daughter just tearfully blurted out her fear of having to change schools, leave her friends, and move to another neighborhood or city.”
These questions reveal a powerful maxim taught me many years ago by one of my mentors: “Children are keen observers, but poor interpreters.” Hard wire that sentence into your mind and remember it always when you are around and/or relate to children, especially when their parents are going through a divorce. Listen carefully and speak back to your clients as much assurance as you can find the words to speak.
Second, encourage your client to talk out their own fears regarding the children. These fears will often find their way quickly to a financial concern. Women, generally speaking, do not fare well financially in the post-divorce world. Child support, as every woman has told me through the years, is never adequate. If there is alimony as part of the settlement, that additional income normally will not support a single parent with children. Some women will need to enter or re-enter the work force. This can be a daunting challenge in an already challenging time.
Our role as advisors in this situation is to encourage our clients – the husband or the wife – to talk out their concerns. When they do, they give us an invitation to become in an even greater, more helpful way their trusted advisor. This may be the open door to talk about budgeting, money management, debt issues, education planning, and resume review. All of these issues touch on what we do. And, in the middle of every issue, there are children who will be affected by the decisions their parents make.
Finally, if the children are early or mid-teens, suggest to your client that he or she bring your children in one day so you can meet them. A teenager has rightly been defined as “a child in an adult body”. Teens especially want and need more information than grade-school children. This meeting can say to these teenage children that they are old enough to handle some of the issues related to their parents’ decision. The financial pressures a single parent may face will re-define a family’s lifestyle. Teenagers need to be aware of how that may affect them. Your client may be grateful you are willing to go that extra mile to meet the children and let them know you are their parent’s advisor and friend.
Divorce affects families in so many ways. When children are involved, the pain multiplies and often lasts for years. No advisor can fix what is broken. What we can do is offer a higher level of support to stand with our clients and their family through a difficult time of transition and change. Though we may not have answers to all our clients’ questions or those children are asking, they will always remember we took the time and emotional energy to reach out to them with support and presence through a tough time in life’s journey.