A wise person once said: “Just because a decision is the right one doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt to make it.” For many people, divorce or separation from a partner is absolutely the right decision. But whether or not you want a divorce, it is a painful process to go through. Unfortunately, that is true for the children of divorcing parents as well. Let’s talk about kids and divorce and what you can do to help your kids through the process.
The good news is that helping kids through divorce and separation involves something you are probably already pretty good at: putting their needs first. That means, as far as possible, keeping your kids out of the conflict between you and your spouse as the divorce unfolds, and afterward.
Why It’s Important to Keep Kids Out of Divorce Conflict
It is well established that kids who are drawn into the middle of a conflict between their warring parents do worse than kids whose parents protect them from the ugliness of divorce. They may have more behavioral and emotional problems, and these problems may persist into adulthood, affecting their own relationships. Kids distressed by their parents’ conflict may act out in a variety of ways, struggle in school, or turn to risky behavior such as drug or alcohol use.
But just because children are not acting out in a visible way doesn’t mean that they are doing well. Many parents marvel at their child’s resilience during the divorce. But what appears to be resilience can represent hidden stress. Many children cope by being extra “good” when they sense their parents are in turmoil, either in hopes that they can bring their parents back together, or to avoid causing worry to their already overloaded parents. Instead of acting out their distress, they internalize it. That may cause fewer problems for their parents to deal with in the moment, but it is still harmful to the child.
In addition, when children are caught between their parents in the conflict of divorce, they often feel that they have to take sides. Children understand from a young age that they come from both their parents. Having to choose between parents creates an internal struggle. Children want to love both parents. When placed between their parents, showing love to one parent may make them feel like they are rejecting the other. And when one parent expresses negative emotions against the other, the child may worry that that parent also hates them, because the other parent is a part of them.
All of this sounds pretty dire, and it can be — but it doesn’t have to be. There are several things you can do to protect your child from conflict in your divorce. You don’t have to have a high conflict divorce. As a bonus, these tips will probably help you feel better, too.
Child-Centered Divorce: Protecting Kids From Divorce Conflict
Prioritizing your children’s needs is the hallmark of a child-centered divorce (or separation for never-married partners). The suggestions below probably will not surprise you, but they will go a long way toward protecting your kids from feeling caught in the middle of your conflict.
- Remember that your children need to love their other parent. No matter how badly your spouse has treated you, do not speak negatively about your spouse to your children or within their hearing. Give your kids permission to discuss positive experiences in their other home.
- By the same token, remember that your kids should not be your confidantes, even if they are older. It is natural that you will need to vent about the other parent, but never do so to your kids – talk to a counselor.
- Never ask your children to keep secrets from their other parent.
- Don’t interrogate your children about the other parent’s life, including anyone they may be dating. They don’t want to be their parents’ spies.
- Do not make your kids feel guilty about leaving you to spend time with their other parent. Also, do not assume that if a young child cries at parenting time transitions that it means they don’t want to see the other parent.
- Never ask your children to choose between you and their other parent.
- Do not use your children to carry paperwork or verbal messages to their other parent. Find another way to communicate with your spouse. Kids don’t want to be the messenger. They get the brunt of the negative reaction, and should not be put in a position of handling adult conversations and topics.
- Don’t discuss divorce business, such as court hearings, child support issues, or settlement negotiations, with your children. To the extent they ask questions about the divorce, assure them that you and their other parent are working out the details and that they do not need to worry.
- If you need to have difficult conversations with your spouse, don’t do it when you are exchanging the children, or anytime the children could be within earshot.
- Do not try to punish your spouse by withholding time with the children. Not only could this backfire on you in your court case, but it punishes your children, too. They may come to resent you for keeping their other parent from them.
- As far as possible, preserve your kids’ regular routines and minimize disruptions.
- Speak cordially and respectfully to the other parent (even if you don’t feel cordial or respectful). You will see each other at events important in the children’s lives – graduations, school assemblies and programs, games and practices – don’t make it miserable for them. Be nice.
- Get the care you need to support your children, whether that means therapy, a support group, or regular time with trusted adult friends. Putting your children first does not mean neglecting self-care.
- Reassure your children that the break-up between the parents is not their fault or responsibility, and that you and other parent love them and always will. Repeat as needed.
It can feel difficult to help your child through your divorce when you are going through such a difficult emotional time yourself. A simple exercise can help. Picture your child in twenty years, telling someone the story of their parent’s divorce. What do you want them to say? Surely you would want them to remember you as a source of support and stability during a challenging period. Do whatever you must in order to make that vision of the future a reality.
If you have more questions about kids and divorce, or how to have a child-centered divorce, please contact Melissa Graham-Hurd & Associates to schedule a consultation.