Helping the Children through a Divorce

Helping the Children through a Divorce

Going through a divorce may be the hardest thing that you and your children experience.  It is very easy to get caught up in the anxiety, anger, fear and negativity at any point along the way and feel overwhelmed.  You may lay awake at night trying to make sense of the fact that your whole world is turning upside down, and you have no control.  You may have no idea how you will make it financially, and how you will be able to protect your children and keep them safe, emotionally and physically.

On the other hand, you may feel relieved that this is the path that you chose, and you are confident in your ability to co-parent well and provide peace and financial security to yourself and to your children.  Regardless of your particular circumstances, however, the bottom line for those going through a divorce is to create a plan that will see you and your children through this time as well as into the future in a way that provides a foundation of hope and security.

One significant challenge of divorce is learning to live and parent apart; that is, learning how to renegotiate family relationships.  There are lost roles as well as new ones.  Either way, parents must renegotiate their relationship in a divorce, and what we have learned is that HOW parents divorce has a major impact on how the children adjust to it

So, how does divorce affect our children?  As a psychologist and divorce mediator, I have worked with many people whose parents divorced when they were young.  Some reported that their parents hated each other to the point where the kids were dragged into court and forced to choose with which parent they wanted to live.  The children grow up knowing that their parents hate each other, and they feel like they have to constantly choose between the two.  Clearly, the manner of divorce makes a difference in how the children are affected.   

There are a number of ways that a divorce can occur:

  1.  Both partners mutually agree to the divorce and are able to co-parent with great ease and friendliness.  Their lives overlap, and the time that the parents spend together is pleasant and often.
  2.  Both partners mutually agree to the divorce and are able to co-parent with a business-like and emotionally distant manner.  There is no negativity in front of the children, and the parents get along.
  3.  Both partners agree to the divorce, yet there is little trust, and the ability to get along is minimal.
  4.  One partner does not want the divorce, yet has to get one because the other partner wants to, and there is no other way.  
  5.  There is a perceived need to fight to the end.

Regardless of the type of divorce, adjusting to the role of co-parent is challenging.  Learning how to renegotiate our roles as parents takes time, patience, energy and stamina.  Again, this is not always easy, especially when one parent mistrusts the other and may not trust the other parent to properly care for the children.  That being said, there seem to be two main parenting options given the different levels of conflict: co-parenting and parallel-parenting.

Good co-parenting involves little conflict, and communication and behaviors revolve around the interests of the children rather than the relationship with your ex.  With a solid plan in place, parents are often able to navigate the many trails of co-parenting with relative ease and minimal discomfort.

Sometimes, however, this can be difficult to do, even with a solid parenting plan.  When it comes to the children and the parents taking turns caring for them, residual issues often rear their ugly heads, and problems arise and result in high conflict, even after the divorce.  You may want nothing to do with your ex, at all.  If one parent questions the effectiveness of the other parent’s ability to take of the children, this can create a great deal of stress.  

When these negative and high conflict relationships continue after divorce, the parallel-parenting model may need to be adopted. The goal of parallel-parenting is to protect the children’s relationship with both parents, while shielding them from conflict between the parents.  The higher the level of conflict, the more necessary it is to have as detailed and structured and specific a parenting plan as possible.  This type of parenting plan involves disengaging from the other parent and developing a “demilitarized zone” around your children, where there may be little to no direct contact with the other parent.  Whatever contact there is occurs via e-mail, texting, faxing, or regular mail.  In some cases, another person may serve as a liaison between the parents.

When extreme situations arise and co-parenting does not seem to be a viable option, and if the situation appears toxic for you and for your children, co-parenting should not be used as a way for this toxicity to continue.  There may be times when a relationship with both parents just isn’t feasible or healthy.  If you find that you end up being the only parent who is involved in your children’s lives, you and your children may need extra support in dealing with all of the issues that come up with a parent abandoning his or her children.

So, how else can we help our children?  The first and most important thing that parents can do is to let the children know that they are in no way responsible for the divorce.  There is nothing that they did to cause the divorce, and there is nothing that they can do to stop it. Children will usually ask why you’re getting a divorce.  In the beginning, you may choose to answer that you and their other parent had problems that you just could not fix, but it had nothing to do with them.  At some point, however, you may realize that what your children need most is not actual information as much as your acknowledgment that you know that it hurts and they feel sad.  

To reassure your children that they will be taken care of and loved is essential.  It is also important to not bad mouth the other parent, no matter how upset and hurt you may be.  This, over time, can lead to Parent Alienation Syndrome, and this may actually backfire on the parent who is encouraging this issue.  Under these circumstances, one parent undermines the relationship that a child has with the other parent.  Here, provocation may replace reason, and the aftermath for the child is often heartbreaking, as he or she loses what might have been a wonderful relationship with the other parent.

Giving your children verbal reassurance and love is always a necessary and positive thing; however, physical affection is also important.  Children usually know that their parents love them, but they may not always feel the love.  That doesn’t mean that you must smother your children with hugs and kisses and squeezes all of the time, but physical closeness has a way of reassuring your children of your love and availability.

At any point along the way, parents need to be aware of how their children are doing.  Most of the time, children can work through many feelings on their own or with your help.  However, there may be situations in which your child is struggling too much, and it is beyond your scope of ability to help him or her.  If your child is experiencing any of the following behaviors or feelings, it may be time to get professional help:

Infants and Toddlers:  Problems with sleeping, eating, or digestion; regression (i.e. bedwetting or accidents); unusual temper tantrums; crying excessively; lethargy; delayed development in areas such as walking and speech.

Preschool Children:  Aggression; unusual irritability; increased temper tantrums; separation anxiety or clinging that seems unusual; regressive behaviors; eating problems.

Elementary School Children:  Psychosomatic expressions of stress, such as headaches, stomachaches, excessive tiredness; school refusal or decline in academic performance; eating problems; depression and sadness; increased anxiety; problems with peers; suicidal talk or attempt.

Adolescents:  Depression; acting-out behavior including substance abuse, precocious sexual activity; suicidal thoughts or self-injurious behavior; uncontrollable anger; academic decline; eating problems.

The bottom line here is that divorce is hard on everyone involved.  Parents need to care for themselves as well as for their children.  The children suffer because of the parents’ decision to divorce.  Our responsibility as parents is to put the needs of the children in the forefront as we go through the divorce and afterward, and one of the best things that we can do is keep conflict between the parents away from the children.  If either you or your child needs help, don’t hesitate to ask for it.  Psychologists, psychiatrists, pediatricians, therapists, and school counselors are all good resources to utilize for your children, as well as for yourself.