When couples divorce, children experience not only the end to their parents’ marriage, but the ongoing pain that goes with it.
How do advisers support couples through a divorce when it comes to their children? Through the years, I have had dozens of conversations with divorcing couples whose first concern is their children.
When a marriage ends, children witness not only their parents’ separation and, when they are minors, the “back and forth” of custody and visitation, but the crumbling of what, for them, is their life’s foundation. Some recent studies have indicated that children of all ages hold the hope that their parents will get back together. Reality, however, writes another story.
How might advisers support couples through this difficult time? First, be a good listener. An adviser’s 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 your 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 a parent to verbalize back the questions their children are asking may open a door for support – 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 engaged with children, especially when their parents are going through a divorce. Listen carefully and encourage the person to keep talking.
Second, invite parents to voice their own fears regarding the children that may lead 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 stressful time.
Advisers encourage clients – the husband or the wife – to talk out their concerns. When they do, they give an invitation to become – in an even greater, more helpful way – their trusted adviser. This may be the open door to talk about budgeting, money management, debt issues, education planning and résumé review. All of these issues touch on what advisers 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 a parent that he or she bring their 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 that may bubble up in the future.
The financial pressures a single parent may face will redefine a family’s lifestyle. Teenagers need to be aware of how that may affect them. Parents may be grateful that an adviser is willing to go that extra mile to have such a meeting.
Divorce affects families in so many ways. When children are involved, the pain multiplies and often lasts for years. No adviser can fix what is broken. What an adviser 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 advisers may not have immediate answers to every question, they will always remember advisers took the time and emotional energy to reach out to them with support and presence through a tough time in life’s journey.
The writer, who lives in Augusta, is author of Cadence of Care: Imagining a Transformed Advisor-Client Experience, and can be followed on his blog at www.timowings.com.