Some clients come into my office highly concerned about how their divorce will affect their children. Others are engaged in all-out war with their spouses and drag their children into the mix, even though they don’t intend to. Not all parents may recognize this, but their words and behavior during a divorce can go a long way toward shielding children from trauma—as their family undergoes dramatic change—or amplifying it.
Children don’t ask for a divorce, yet they are deeply and permanently affected when it happens to their parents. They are vulnerable to the negative fallout of their parents’ conflict: the arguments, accusations, the verbal abuse between parents, and in some cases, physical violence against one parent and/or against the children. What can parents do to protect children from the ill effects of the divorce process? Here are 9 ways the courts and mental health professionals consider especially important.
1. Present a united “positive” front about the divorce
When each parent tells the children his or her side of the story, or only one parent offers an explanation, children inevitably hear subjective and often negative opinions about the other parent. Instead, decide together how you will tell the children, what you will say, and when. Sit down together with your children. Each of you should tell them that Mommy and Daddy have decided that it is best if they separate and establish homes and lives apart from one another. You and your spouse may have conflicting stories about why and how a divorce is happening, but children don’t need to know all the gritty details (they probably know a lot of them already). Children need to know that Mommy and Daddy love them and will take care of them even as you set up two households.
2. Make sure your children know that they are not at fault
Tell them they are not responsible for your decision to live separately and to obtain a divorce. Many children jump to the conclusion that their conduct somehow caused the family breakup— that if they had behaved differently, maybe Mommy and Daddy would have stayed together. Reassure your children that they are not at fault to keep guilt from spiraling and causing needless emotional harm.
3. Find out what role age plays in how children experience divorce
Children under the age of 9 or so depend heavily on their parents for care and companionship. When parents divorce, young children often wonder if their parents could stop loving them as they stopped loving each other. They fantasize that Mommy and Daddy will reunite— as a way to cope with the painful losses of their family unit and the absence of one parent while they are with the other one.
Adolescents tend to respond to divorce by withdrawing and rebelling. Feeling hurt or abandoned, they may break rules, thinking they should focus less on obeying Mom and Dad and more on taking care of themselves. In both cases—young children and adolescents—routines, rituals and a sense of family order can help them adjust. With the help of a parenting coordinator, create a visitation schedule that works for everyone, then stick to it to establish a routine. If you cannot replicate old family rituals—at holidays or special times—create new rituals your children enjoy.
4. Give children a sense of security about their future
Tell them that Mommy and Daddy are going to live in separate homes, with space for them at both places, and that they will spend time with both parents (no one will “disappear”). Then do your best to make that a reality. Create a parenting plan that keeps both of you present and important in their lives. If the children or a parent must relocate because of the divorce, set up plans for the first visit. Children need to know their routines—school, birthdays, sports, play dates, music—will continue, and their parents will still be part of their lives.
5. Don’t bring your children into the conflict with your spouse.
When parents use children as pawns (“I can’t come to your soccer game because Daddy will be there”) or weapons (referring to a child as “mine” instead of “ours”), it leaves them feeling conflicted and as though they did something wrong. Don’t air your conflicts with the other parent within earshot or eyesight of your children. Don’t ask your children to be messengers between you and your spouse (“Tell Mom I have to cancel next Saturday”). It is your responsibility as coparents to communicate with each other.
6. Choose a “child-friendly” divorce process.
Another way to minimize children’s exposure to the conflict with your spouse is to choose collaborative divorce or mediation instead of litigation as the process you use to divorce. Litigation results in parties being oppositional, filing acrimonious papers in court, and attacking the other to obtain an advantage as the custodial parent. In collaborative divorce and mediation, the first order of business is working out a parenting plan together, with the help of a mental health professional, to address custody and visitation. You, the parents—not a judge—are in charge of your children’s future. Collaborative divorce and mediation provide a place for divorcing spouses to address the issues without focusing on fault, guilt or blame, and truly trying to serve your children’s best interests and needs.
7. Children love and need both parents. Don’t alienate them from your spouse.
No matter how angry you are at your spouse, do not disparage or denigrate that parent in front of your children or try to recruit them to your side. They love both of you and need both of you in their lives after divorce. There is now significant research and authority (legal and psychological) showing that words and conduct designed to alienate one or the other parent deepen the pain that children experience during a divorce. And that may contribute to a lasting negative legacy in your children’s emotional future, including inability to love, trust, and fully engage in a healthy emotional relationship.
8. Pay attention to your children’s need for emotional support
If your children are showing increased sadness, anger, and/or anxiety once they know their parents are divorcing, they may need counseling. What they do not need is to be your therapist or confidante—this puts them in the role of the parent trying to help you with your feelings instead of being helped with their own. If they need support, please seek some assistance for them with a neutral professional whose primary concern is the child’s best interest. There are many resources available, from private counselors to school or community programs addressing the impact of divorce on children’s lives.
9. Seek out other resources for help.
There are many excellent resource materials—books, articles, websites—dealing with children and divorce. Some are guides for parents and some are addressed to children. The children’s school may have a support group for children of divorcing parents. Make use of such learning tools for the benefit of your children.
We work regularly with therapists, parenting coordinators and other mental health professionals. Please contact us for a recommendation that suits your needs.
A few resources we recommend:
Split (movie/DVD) SPLIT was made from children’s point of view, with 12 children talking about how it feels when their parents part.
Uptoparents.org A free website designed to support separate and divorced parents
Child Centered Divorce Network (childcentereddivorce.com)
Divorce Poison, New and Updated Edition: How to Protect Your Family from Badmouthing and Brainwashing by Richard Warshak
© 2017 Mary F. Kelly