Getting divorced is HARD. Although we would like to manage all things in life with stability and resilience there are many times through a divorce that even the most stable, positive, strong individuals are vulnerable and will experience the ups and downs of emotions.
Divorce is a process of grieving and part of this grieving process includes sadness, fear, pain, anger, bargaining, guilt and the internal struggle between denial and acceptance.
No parent wants to expose their kids to the pain or harm that divorce can bring but not everyone is aware of all the pitfalls and challenges that arise through a divorce process, which ultimately can set parents up for doing unwanted damage.
If you are invested to repair and prevent the emotional injuries that divorce can bring, you can set your kids up for greater resiliency and success. There are opportunities throughout the process and after divorce to improve upon your relationship with your kids and to improve upon your ability to protect them from the negative aspects of divorce.
The negative aspects of divorce include (but are not limited to):
- Putting your kids in the middle of your disputes
- Putting them in a position to judge one parent as right or wrong (to blame a parent)
- Putting your kids in a position to care for your emotional wellbeing and protect you from pain
- Confiding in your kids and looking to them for emotional support/approval/acceptance
- Asking your children to keep secrets from their other parent,
- Giving your kids a sense of insecurity that their relationship with you or your soon to be ex-spouse is not secure
- Bad-mouthing your spouse in front of your kids or in spaces where they can hear your conversations
- Talking to your kids about the details of your co-parenting or divorce issues (like money/bills, or parental decisions)
- Asking your kids to take on co-parenting responsibilities like sending messages to the other parent on your behalf
- Making them feel bad for spending time with the other parent, such as by telling them how much you will miss them when they are visiting with the other parent, (This is a common misunderstanding -parents often think this message simply shows how much they love and care for their kids but can inadvertently send a signal that you won’t be ok without your children and they should return as soon as possible).
The challenge in avoiding these harmful behaviors is having the “objective perspective” to recognize the harmful effects of your behavior in the moment it is happening. That is not easy to do when emotions are at play, and you can expect to make mistakes. The territory of divorce is often new to parents trying to navigate this terrain. So what then?
Be mindful and consider your children’s needs at all times during your process. Keep the pitfalls listed above in mind daily, when starting your day everyday, as a way to keep a radar on your intention to protect your kids from the challenges of your new journey through divorce.
Proceed with caution when speaking to your kids about divorce or about their other parent. Communicating with your kids is important at all times, but what and how you say things during your divorce should ideally be considered carefully before executing. Think about what you want to avoid (as listed above), and think about what your objectives are when discussing issues with your kids and what points are important to convey.
There are important messages to share with your children when entering a divorce process and these include:
- That the love you have for your kids will never change no matter what circumstances get in the way, and that your interest is to have a relationship with them always
- You might want to help them understand the difference between the love parents have for each other in comparison to their children. Love between two adults/parents/partners can change; that is not the case with parents and their kids
- That the divorce isn’t their fault, (the urge to lay blame and point fingers at the causes of emotional pain are automatic, but not helpful. For kids they often see themselves as the center of their world and therefore look to find fault within themselves first for causing the divorce. Help your kids by providing reassurance that they were not a part of your decisions, and acknowledge that your interest is to preserve the relationship and perspective your kids have of both of you).
- Ensure they know you want them to have a healthy and positive relationship with their other parent also and that you encourage that. Where there is no threat to their safety, children deserve to spend quality time with each of their parents. This can help preserve your children’s sense of security in their relationships with you and your spouse.
Even when going through divorce and emotions are strong, both parents need to set aside their differences and agree to work together to protect their children from the harshness of separation. Let the kids know that they can still count on both of you and that you will always be there for them.
Some of the most important things both parents can agree to work together to help their kids through these difficult situations include:
- Breaking the news of your divorce together- After deciding to go on with the divorce parents should plan to talk to the children together. Even though there is no one right way to share this information to the kids, it is ideal for both parents to be present and to agree on what message they will share with their children about the divorce. This unity proves to the children that their parents are mature enough to set aside their differences for their sake and helps them to feel secure that everyone knows what is happening.
- Communication-Agree to share important information about your kids with each other, such as school events, academic issues, reports from teachers, medical concerns or issues, and any information shared by professionals working with your kids.
- Creating a respectful relationship-Treating the other parent with respect and professionalism will go a long way to bringing up your kids in a secure and stable environment. From your actions, the kids will too follow suit and respect you both. In addition, showing confidence and support in each other’s parenting style, even if it might be different than your own preferred style, will help kids feel a sense of confidence and safety in each other’s care.
- Give them love-Some parents may be so bitter or stressed that they neglect their kids. This is the moment the children require love most from both parents as an assurance that they are not a burden to you and that they are not responsible for your break-up. It also shows that no matter what happens, they will be your priority.
- Manage your shared expenses and child support duties– Even after your divorce, you should both agree on how to work together to secure your kids’ financial standing. Ensuring that they have the same or similar lifestyle they enjoyed when you were all together.
- Maintain stability-Although divorce comes with changes, ensure that most of the activities your children enjoyed will continue because this helps minimize changes for them and helps them to adapt well to the new situation. Where possible, don’t remove them from the school or residence they are accustomed to. Being on familiar grounds helps them with the healing process as they will be on familiar grounds with their friends is good for them.
Going through a divorce is not only tough to spouses, it affects the children as well. Making decisions and taking steps with your children’s emotional health and wellbeing in mind at all times can help protect them through a divorce process and help you mitigate unintended emotional injuries. Working towards cooperation and effective co-parenting where you can work as a team will help your children adjust to the transition of two parents in two homes. Know when you need to reach out for support and guidance and take those steps to help you through it. As the saying goes, “it takes a village…” And that could not be more true when children are involved.
Author –Tammy Berman, LMHC