Helping Your Children Cope with Your Divorce
The second phase of the process is for you and your former spouse to become cooperative, respectful and supportive co-parents so that you can focus on your children’s best interests while allowing your children to have an ongoing and healthy relationship with each of you. For more information, see How to Co-Parent After Your Divorce.
The third phase of the process is the subject of this article, which provides suggestions and guidelines for helping the children transition from first being told about the divorce, through the divorce process itself until your divorce has been finalized and you and your former spouse have established two separate households from which you will coordinate the co-parenting of your children.
Here are some suggestions for helping your children to make the challenging transition.
Take care of yourself first:
Flight attendants instruct parents to put on their oxygen masks before putting them on their children. At first, this may seem like a contradiction; however, if you pass out from lack of oxygen, you won’t be able to help your children. The same principle applies to parenting in general: if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of your children because you will be too stressed, tired, frustrated, angry, worried, etc. Therefore, make sure that you are physically and emotionally strong enough to cope with the divorce–work out or take a walk; go to therapy; seek support from friends and family; do something you enjoy. If you aren’t strong, your children will feel the need to support and take care of you, thus adding significantly to the challenges they already face. As Health and Wellness Coach Ellen G. Goldman notes: when you take time for yourself, “…you can come back to your responsibilities with greater focus, commitment and enjoyment.”
Psychologist Dr. Sonya Friedman points out another benefit of taking care of yourself first: “The way you treat yourself sets the standard for others.” Therefore, by taking care of yourself, you are demonstrating to your children that you can be strong and positive, and that you will not allow the divorce to overwhelm you. Consequently, your children can likewise focus on taking care of themselves rather than taking care of their parents.
Separate your spousal and parental roles:
Divorce creates a fundamental change in your relationship with each other: you no longer are both spouses and parents: your spousal roles have been terminated. However, it is natural to continue to harbor such negative feelings as anger, hurt, distrust and frustration towards your (ex) spouse. It is important to remember that these feelings relate to your personal, adult relationship, which is now separate and distinct from your relationship as parents.
Set aside your personal, adult feelings and focus on your children’s needs. As Rosalind Sedacca, CCT, founder of Child Centered Divorce, notes: “When parents let the negative emotions they’re feeling towards their spouses…influence their decisions about child-custody issues, they are sabotaging their children.” Therefore, if it is helpful, think of your co-parenting relationship as a business partnership: treat each other with respect and courtesy; be cooperative, flexible and understanding, but remain emotionally neutral. If you can do this consistently, it will greatly increase your ability to successfully follow the other suggestions described below.
Manage Your Negative Feelings:
Even if you are able to separate your spousal and parental roles, it is normal that you continue to harbor negative feelings towards your spouse. However, don’t let the children see or hear you express anger, disappointment, criticism, etc. towards their other parent. Such behavior sets a bad example for your children while creating conflict that will undermine the children’s sense of stability and threaten their need and right to have both parents actively participate in their lives. Such behavior also creates loyalty issues for the children: they may feel compelled to protect the “good” parent (who is doing the criticizing) from the “bad” parent (who is being criticized), or conversely, to protect the “victim” (who is being criticized) from the “villain” (who is doing the criticizing). Whichever way the children react, the result is still the same: displaying negative feelings towards the other parent is damaging to your children.
If you continue to have difficulty controlling your expression of negative feelings towards your spouse, seek the guidance and support of a therapist or other trained professional. As Jo Edwards, director of Resolution, an organization dedicated to non-confrontational divorce, notes: “It’s not so much the fact of parental separation, it’s the conflict” that causes children the most harm.
Continue To Reassure Your Children:
When you first told your children about the divorce, you should have reassured them that: both of you will continue to be involved in their lives as their parents; both of you will always love and take care of them; and the divorce was not caused by, nor could it have been averted by, them.
Once the announcement of the divorce starts to become a reality as you establish separate households and divide up parenting time, your children’s fears, conflicts and insecurities will be confirmed. Any hope that the marriage could be saved, that both parents would stay together, that the nightmare of divorce could be avoided–have vanished. Therefore, it is important that both of you continue to reaffirm your love for your children, and reassure them that you will always be their parents, and will always protect and support them. Such reassurances are essential if your children are to emotionally survive your divorce and become well-adjusted, happy adults.
Maintain the status quo:
Divorce is upsetting, disruptive and confusing for the children–practically every aspect of their lives seems to have been turned upside-down. Therefore, stability and predictability are particularly important to them as they learn to adjust to your divorce. To the extent financially and realistically possible, keep the children in their current house and school, and involved in the same activities (sports, dance, etc.), at least through the current school year. To ease the children’s spending time with each parent once you have established separate homes, do your best to maintain the same schedules and routines that prevailed prior to the commencement of your divorce. Establish similar rules, expectations, routines and consequences for both households.
Stay Connected With Your Children:
Research has consistently concluded that the two biggest factors affecting how children will fare when their parents’ divorce are: (1) the level of conflict between the parents, and (2) the extent to which both parents are positively involved in their children’s lives. The issue of parental conflict is discussed elsewhere in this article, but the issue of parental involvement is addressed below.
The word “divorce” is derived from the Latin “divortium,” which literally means to separate and turn away. When adults divorce, they separate from each other emotionally, physically, and financially–to the extent possible, they become totally independent from each other and often have little or no contact with each other once the divorce has been finalized.
Even though divorce is an adult process whereby spouses literally turn away from each other, the process often extends to the parental relationship as well. Some parents get so caught up in the adult issues and stresses of their divorce that they have little time, energy, or emotional strength to devote to their children. Other parents simply give up because they are so discouraged by the reduction of their time and contact with their children. These parents–especially the ones who have moved out of the “family” home–often feel that they have “lost” their parental status or influence already, so there is no point in trying to maintain an active connection with their children.
Because they need their parents’ love, support, encouragement, etc., one of the greatest fears for children is that their parents will “divorce” the children, since they are divorcing each other as spouses. Therefore, it is crucial for your children’s emotional health and overall development that you stay connected with them, no matter how far away you live, or how diminished your parenting time may be. You can communicate with your children by phone, e-mail, text, or Skype. Attend school conferences and events, sports and extra-curricular activities. Be a coach or Scout leader. Pick the children up at their other parent’s home and drive them to school, or pick them up from school and return them to their other parent’s home. Whatever opportunities you may have, stay connected with your children and let them know that you will always be their parent, will always love them, and are always available if they have questions or simply want to talk.
Continue to be a Parent:
Parents who are preoccupied with the emotions and challenges of their divorce often have a diminished capacity to parent their children. Physically and emotionally exhausted, the parents may become impatient, distant, irritable, or overly sensitive. They may ignore their children’s complaints, concerns or behavior because they feel too overwhelmed with their own problems to devote time and energy to the children.
Many parents relax or even totally disregard the rules and consequences which were integral parts of their parenting routine before the divorce began. Because the structure and stability of the intact family are being undermined by the divorce, the children need parental guidance, rules, boundaries and supervision more than ever. Children want and need you to be in charge and in control as a parent because your strong parenting may be the only certainty and security the children have. Furthermore, children see your taking the time to be a parent–with rules and consequences–as a sign of your love and caring for them.
Similarly, don’t reverse the parent-child roles by allowing or encouraging your children to take care of, support, or protect you. Don’t rely on your children to be your confidant; don’t discuss adult issues with them; and don’t put your children in adult roles such as “the man of the house,” or the “mother” to your younger children.
As an adult, you have family, friends and professionals to help you cope with your issues, whereas your children rely on you–as their parent–for support and guidance.
Develop a Clear and Comprehensive Marital Settlement Agreement:
Before the court will grant your divorce, the court must approve the marital settlement agreement that both of you developed with the help of your mediator. This document sets forth the terms of your divorce, including both your parenting and financial commitments, until your youngest child graduates from high school or college. Therefore, it is essential that the agreement be comprehensive, unambiguous, and easy to understand. If you and your former spouse/co-parent should ever disagree about any significant issue–such as a change in the parenting schedule–you can first try to work out a satisfactory compromise. However, if you are not able to reach a compromise, then you will always be able to defer to, and rely on, your marital settlement agreement. Not only does this eliminate arguments and bitterness (after all, both of you agreed to the terms before you got divorced), but it also eliminates uncertainty so that the children can rely upon a consistent and stable parenting schedule.
Don’t Put the Children “In the Middle”:
Putting your children “in the middle” is the same as putting the children “between a rock and a hard place,” which is an adage used to refer to a dilemma: a situation offering only two choices, neither of which is acceptable. Your children are put “in the middle,” when you directly involve your children in adult issues that should be strictly between you and your children’s other parent. Sharing any of these details with the children can not only damage their relationship with their other parent, but can also make the children believe that they caused the divorce and are therefore responsible for fixing the problem. Your children’s dilemma is that, no matter what they do, they will upset or disappoint one of their parents. It is well established that children need both parents, but putting the children “in the middle” forces the children to choose one parent over the other.
There are many ways that parents put their children in this dilemma, including: using the children to negotiate with the other parent; using the children as messengers or spies; and openly criticizing the children’s other parent.
In my article How to Co-Parent After Your Divorce., there are numerous examples of how parents put children in the middle, along with suggestions for keeping your children from becoming involved in adult issues between their parents. If you continue to follow those suggestions after the divorce is final, you will not only be protecting your children, but you will also be fostering a strong, respectful co-parenting relationship.
Support your other co-parent:
While you are going through the divorce process, you will naturally focus more on separating from your spouse than on building a co-parenting relationship with that person. However, the foundation for a good co-parenting partnership begins with how the two of you tell the children that you are getting divorced. (For more information, see Telling Your Children About Your Divorce.)
As you develop the parenting plan language for your final settlement agreement, and as you begin to physically and emotionally separate from each other as spouses, you will be able to shift your focus from each other as spouses to your future role as co-parents. By concentrating on what is best for your children, you can build upon the foundation established when the two of you jointly told the children about your divorce. The key to effective co-parenting is to work as a team, and support each other’s equal role as a parent.
There are many ways to support each other as co-parents: facilitate each other’s relationship with the children; respect your co-parent’s role as a parent; communicate openly and often with each other. There are also behaviors that you should avoid if you want to establish a strong co-parenting relationship: don’t criticize the other parent to, or in front of, your children; don’t interfere with the other parent’s time with the children; don’t let the children decide whether or not they want to see the other parent.
The majority of your co-parenting relationship begins when your divorce has been finalized and you have established separate households. Therefore, in my article How to Co-Parent After Your Divorce., I have set forth in detail numerous suggestions of how you can support each other, as well as numerous examples of behavior to avoid, in order to establish and maintain a strong co-parenting relationship.
Keep new relationships separate:
Let the children adjust to the divorce before introducing a new “significant other” into their lives. Your children are still mourning the loss of the family and your prior marital relationship, so introducing someone new will only upset the children, make them resent that new person, and compel the children to protect their other parent who they see as being “betrayed” and “replaced” by you. Also, children worry that if you can end your relationship with their other parent, you can just as easily abandon or ignore your children.
To balance your need to protect your children with your need to get on with your personal life, try to coordinate your parenting schedule so that both you and your new significant other have the same time free, without children. With a little juggling, you will be able to carry on a relationship without compromising your children’s needs.
Set a positive example:
- (a) By choosing mediation rather than litigation, you are demonstrating to your children that you and your spouse can address and resolve your differences in a constructive, respectful and cooperative manner. This make the divorce process much less stressful for everyone, and it will greatly reduce the children’s fear that they might have to pick one parent over the other.
- (b) Avoid playing the role of martyr or victim–show the children that you can be strong, resourceful and self-confident; that you do not need them to take care of you, but that you are there to be their parent and take care of them.
- (c) To the extent possible, continue to live your life as you had done prior to the start of the divorce. Show your children that, despite the turmoil and the uncertainty of the divorce, “life goes on” for you, and therefore, it will go on for them, too. This will help your children realize that divorce changes their lives, but it does not have to destroy them.
- (d) If the divorce radically changed or even destroyed family traditions (such as holiday celebrations), engage the children in creating new traditions. This is fun and exciting for them, and will help them to focus on the positives of the future rather than the losses of the past.
Don’t try to buy your children’s love or loyalty:
Don’t play the “Disneyland parent” with gifts, vacations, permissiveness or other rewards in an effort to outdo the other parent or make that parent appear to be mean, stingy, or insensitive to the children. This puts the other parent at a disadvantage, especially if they have neither the time nor the means to provide these extras to the children. Furthermore, this tactic teaches the children that materialism is more important than love, caring, and personal involvement–all of which your children need more than anything else.
Be available for your children:
- (a) Listen to your children carefully, and answer their questions openly and honestly without judging, criticizing, blaming, or shaming. Help your children to formulate their thoughts and offer their suggestions for improving the situation.
- (b) Acknowledge and validate their feelings, which usually include sadness, fear, anger, guilt, and shame. Be sure to keep your comments age-appropriate; avoid private, adult issues; and do not criticize, blame, or diminish the other parent.
- (c) Don’t wallow in self-pity, helplessness, sadness, or anger–the children need your help with their own feelings, and should not have to reverse the parent/child role by listening to your concerns and taking care of you.
Have fun with the children:
Make popcorn and watch a movie together; bake cookies; go for a walk; play games–anything that you and your children can enjoy together. These activities will help reduce the stress and sadness of the divorce while demonstrating to your children that they are still an important part of your life.
Having initially established a positive, cooperative and respectful foundation for your divorce by following the suggestions set forth in Telling Your Children About Your Divorce, and having then re-affirmed and built upon that positive foundation by following the guidelines set forth in this article, you are now ready to apply everything that you have worked so hard to build together so that you can learn How to Co-Parent After Divorce.