There’s no getting around it: divorce is hard on everyone going through it. You may feel like you have nothing left to give. If you have kids, you also know you need to be there, providing extra love and assurances to your children.
The good news is that there are ways to support your children through divorce. And that support (from both you and your spouse) makes a big difference in how they cope.
Decades of research shows that children respond negatively to parental conflict. They exhibit increased behavior issues and more aggression.
Unfortunately, at a time when you’re at the end of your rope, your children need your calm and consistency more than ever.
Here’s how we can help. We’ve pulled together some of the best practices for helping your children cope with divorce. By following these guidelines, you’ll put your kids in the best position possible.
Keep it Amicable
If there’s one thing all the experts agree on, it’s that children are better able to cope with divorce when their parents are civil. That means no badmouthing, fighting, or blaming in front of their kids.
Keeping things amicable may not be easy. In fact, the divorce process itself can stir up negative feelings if spouses (or their attorneys) set out to “win.” When parents focus on winning their divorce, kids are almost always the losers.
Courts make custody rulings based on their understanding of the best interests of the child. But the divorce process may have already done a great deal of damage. A child may find themselves in the middle of fights born from a desire for punishment or retribution rather than what’s best for the child.
Working with an amicable divorce attorney helps keep the focus on moving forward and protecting your children. Therapists that focus on co-parenting can also help parents learn how to work together.
You’re going from spouses to business partners (in the business of raising your kids), and changing that relationship takes work.
Divorce presents significant change and uncertainty for your child. Provide them as much reassurance and clarity as you can.
First things first: share the news with them as a couple. This joint effort helps a child understand that no matter what’s happening, both of their parents love them. It also sends the message early on that they don’t have to choose between you.
Many children fear that their parents’ divorce is their fault or, at the very least, a reflection of their parents’ love for them. Even if you assure them that’s not the case at the beginning, you’ll need to reassure them again. Younger children especially have a harder time understanding why marriages end. They’re more likely to internalize their pain and confusion.
These comforting words are especially important if a parent disappoints them, for instance by not showing up for a visit or an event. You may be tempted to use it as an opportunity to explain the other parents’ faults or air your own grievances about them. Avoid this temptation.
What your child needs at that moment is to know that their parent still loves them and made a mistake, a thing that all grown-ups do from time to time.
Extra clarity can also provide a sense of safety during divorce. Explain to your children how things will change or stay the same. Tell them who will be living where and whether they will still go to their school and activities as normal.
Children respond better and report greater self-esteem when they spend time with both of their parents during and after a divorce. Reduced time with one parent can heighten a child’s sense that they have lost that parent’s love or that they may be a cause of the divorce.
Except in situations of abuse, children need time with both of their parents. Even if you think the other parent makes bad choices (too much junk food or screen time), your child is better off spending time with them.
Your ability to share time may rely on my first tip — being amicable. According to Dr. David Knox, research shows that fathers are more likely to avoid visits when there is conflict during transitions. Children who are closer to one parent may need encouragement to spend time with the other parent. They may worry they’re being disloyal to their primary caretaker and need assurances that loyalty is not required.
For instance, let’s imagine that Derek’s mom has moved out. He can tell his dad is having a hard time. Though no one has said as much, he’s pretty sure his mom cheated. Whenever his mom comes to pick him up, his dad makes snide comments and storms out of the room. Derek worries that seeing his mom is causing his dad more pain, so he starts saying he doesn’t want to go.
The medical community has identified this type of scenario as parental alienation. Unfortunately, research shows that losing the relationship with one parent is detrimental. Although Derek’s dad is going through a lot, he could help Derek by encouraging him to see his mom. He can emphasize that the divorce is between a mom and a dad and not about Derek. If he’s able to greet Derek’s mom civilly at the door and send the kids off with a wave, even better.
If you simply can’t make it through a hand-off without making hurtful remarks or crying, say your goodbyes before your spouse or ex shows up. Tell your child as genuinely as possible that you hope they’ll have a great time and you’ll be excited to see them when they return. Then quietly excuse yourself to another room when the doorbell rings.
This is not the time to buck up and go it alone. For your child’s sake, you need as much support as you can get. “Put your own oxygen mask on first” may be an overused analogy, but that’s because it’s so true.
If you don’t have a safe space to vent your frustrations, you’ll be more inclined to share difficult thoughts and emotions with your child. Crossing that boundary is never a good idea, even if your child seems very mature or like they want to help or “side” with you. Talk to a therapist or trusted friend instead.
Asking your child for emotional support during your divorce puts them in a terrible position. They are not emotionally equipped to help either of their parents through this change.
You can also seek support for your child. For instance, your child may appreciate seeing a therapist so they can talk through their feelings privately. You might also choose to enlist the help of family or friends who can spend extra time with your child. Of course, the caveat here is that anyone who’s hanging out with your kid should also be as neutral and amicable as possible.
Co-parenting with an ex can be difficult, especially during and immediately after a divorce. You and your spouse are doing what you need to do to move forward and have better lives and relationships. It may ultimately be the best thing for you and for your family.
But remember: your children didn’t choose this. They’re relying on you to help them navigate their loss and confusion. Committing to an amicable divorce process is the first step in making sure you’re helping your children cope with divorce.
We’ve helped many couples with children have amicable divorces and move on to become successful co-parents. Contact us today if you’re looking for an amicable divorce attorney who helps reduce conflict and drama during this difficult time.