Divorce is stressful for both parents and children. In large part the stress for parents is wondering how their child will cope with the divorce.
The good news is parents can do several things to make the changes easier on kids, leading to better adjustment.
Every family is unique, as are the circumstances surrounding separation and divorce. In our clinical work we realize how important it is to appreciate these specific differences and the different emotional temperaments of each family member.
There are, however, several universal factors that make a significant difference in the post-divorce lives of children. Despite divorce, you remain the parents of your children. Responsible parents will be there to share in their child’s life. There will be celebrations, medical appointments, sporting events, graduations, weddings, and perhaps even grandchildren. Remember, divorce is an adjustment process for everyone involved that can span many years.
The relationship a child has with her mother or father is unique, and parents should try to ease and preserve these relationships after a divorce. What you experience as spouses and what children experience in the process of a marital separation or divorce are very different. Your child does not have the same emotional history as you have as a spouse.
Children love their parents and will miss a parent when they are not with them. Children commonly grieve that their parents are no longer living in the same house together. Work to be empathetic about your child’s position. Your child’s emotional experience can range from anxiety, sadness and grief to relief that his parents are no longer together. From your child’s perspective, hearing negative comments from his parents about each other is troublesome and leads to additional problems.
Here are some important points to keep in mind:
Keep the kids out of it. The No. 1 thing parents can do to help their children make a positive adjustment to a divorce or separation is to protect them from ongoing conflict. Exposure to ongoing conflict between their parents is more harmful than the actual separation or divorce.
Separation and divorce for parents is frequently adversarial and emotionally charged. Both parents experience an array of strong, often painful, emotions that can be difficult to manage. However, as adults you need to take care of yourself and yet continue to parent and take care of your children and their needs.
Communicate directly with your fellow parent. Figuring out how to communicate as parents about your children after a divorce is critical. The forms of communication can range from meeting and directly discussing parenting issues to only using text or email. Over time some parents find as they rebuild their lives they improve on their methods of communication.
If parents have a way to communicate directly with each other, this helps keep children out of the middle of adult parenting issues. Do not ask your child to give his mother a message about next week’s visitation. And if Mom needs to change a pickup time for next week, communicate directly with the father, and don’t involve your child.
Maintain a boundary between adult matters and children. Family Court proceedings, money, child support, visitation problems, unpaid bills and tuition are all adult matters. Do not talk to your child about these issues or let her overhear you having a conversation about these concerns.
Accept that you cannot control much of what your ex-spouse does with the children. Even under the best of circumstances in a marriage, negotiating how to parent with a single voice is a major task, requiring compromise. With a divorce everything becomes more complicated.
Parenting after a divorce can be viewed as on a continuum from “parallel parenting” to “cooperative parenting,” according to JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, Ph.D., author of Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce.
In parallel parenting, contact between the parents is limited or eliminated. Communication is done only through texting, email or a third party. There is no flexibility or negotiation regarding visitation or residence schedules.
When there is a history of high conflict or domestic violence, parallel parenting is appropriate. In contrast, cooperative parenting is when parents are able to talk directly with each other and find compromise and agreement.
With cooperative parenting, there is more flexibility in visitation and residency. Over time some parents are able to move toward cooperative parenting. Even with cooperative parenting there will be some differences in house rules, such as bedtimes, chores, TV shows, food choices and allotted time a child is allowed to use electronics. Focus on what you will do or not do, and don’t spend a lot of energy and time trying to change the other parent’s position.
Children have trouble transitioning from one parent’s home to another. As a parent anticipate such difficulties and work to make transitions as easy and predictable as possible. When children are with one parent, they often miss the other parent. The age of your child may affect which parent or house he is most comfortable with.
If your child wants to take a new toy or gift to the other parent’s house, let him do it (and fight the impulse to comment on how the other parent should buy one for his or her house). If your son or daughter wants to call his or her mother or father during your visitation, or have a picture of his parent or carry a special toy back and forth, make it possible. When your child returns to your home, structure your schedule to spend some time with him; maybe have a snack together or play a game.
Reading books together is a wonderful way to help your child. Sitting down and reading a book on divorce with your child can give you a format and structure to help your child explore her feelings and develop an understanding of what divorce is all about. For young children, Dinosaurs Divorce, A Guide For Changing Families by Marc Brown and Laurie Krasny Brown and Two Homes to Live In, A Child’s-Eye View of Divorce by Barbara Shook Hazen are among our favorites. For older children, Why Are We Getting a Divorce by Peter Mayle is an excellent book.
There are many other helpful resources for you and your child. Many schools have groups where children share their experiences with peers also experiencing family changes. The community has numerous resources that offer support to you and your child. Contact Community Services offers Children 1st Workshops for separating or divorced parents; call 251-1400, Ext. 132 or visit contactsyracuse.org.
Parents help children make a better adjustment to divorce when they make the child’s emotional needs and perspective a priority.
Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their son in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist.