Divorce: Protecting Your Kids
If you're getting divorced, you'll be heartened to know that the research shows kids can cope with a divorce and come out ok. But often they don't. In fact, many children whose parents make the decision to divorce are emotionally wounded in a way that lingers throughout their lives.
Children whose parents are divorced:
- Don't do as well academically and are less likely to go to college, partly because they don't have a parent to pay for it.
- Are 25% more likely to abuse drugs by age 14.
- Are twice as likely to get divorced themselves.
The good news is that we know what the risk factors are that leave kids scarred. The bad news is that avoiding these risks takes enormous maturity on the part of both parents. The top risk factors for kids when parents divorce are:
- When parents keep fighting
- When one parent abandons the child or doesn’t stay in close contact
- When the child’s economic situation deteriorates
- When one or both parents "fall apart" and stop being responsible parents
- When a new step-parent is harsh, rejecting or abusive.
How can you protect your child?
1. First, reaffirm with the other parent that your child’s emotional health is your mutual priority. You may not be marital partners, but you will always be child-raising partners. Keep reaffirming this to yourself every time you get mad at your ex. Keep re-affirming it to your ex as you model maturity in all of your interactions.
2. Avoid fighting with your ex, even during the divorce negotiations. This will take great maturity, but think of it as in the best interests of your child. If necessary, go to counseling together.
3. Model maturity to your kids throughout the divorce process by quickly resolving the financial issues and moving on. For this reason, try to avoid litigation and instead use mediation.
4. It is in the best interests of the child for both parents stay involved in the child's life. That might mean shared custody, or it might mean that the kids live with one parent but see the other parent very often. This dramatically increases the chances that your child will grow up emotionally intact. Just keep telling yourself that kids need both their parents. Would you be a great single parent? It's irrelevant. What's damaging for your kid is feeling abandoned by the other parent.
It's also important for both parents to understand that babies under the age of two should not spend the night away from their primary caretaker. Even children ages two to four years old experience some risk from overnight visitation. It is possible to support the other parent's bond with the young child without the destabilization of overnights during the first two or three years.*
5. Remember that your child did not get divorced. Most of the time when a parent loses contact with a child after a divorce it is because of the conflict between the ex-spouses. He is still related to, and needs, both of his parents. Be happy when he has fun with the other parent. Don’t make him feel guilty for loving his other parent. Your job is the opposite, to nurture his relationship with his other parent.
6. Before sitting down with your child to announce the divorce, plan what you will tell the kids so there are clear answers to any questions they have. As much as possible, plan to keep the child's life as much the same as possible – home, bedroom, school, activities, friends, etc. This is important to give your child some stability during a very hard time.
7. Sit down together with the kids when you tell them about the divorce. Tell them that you both did your best to save the marriage and that the decision to live apart was made by both people. Don't put the blame on either partner. Don’t apologize for the decision. Instead, say that you think that even though there may be a tough transition, the divorce will give everyone a better life in the long run. If your child has seen you fighting, you can refer to that. Otherwise, just say that you are happier living apart, which will make you better parents when you live apart. If your child says you are destroying the family, stress that each of you is still in a family with your child, and that you will stay connected as the child’s parents.
8. Reassure kids they are not responsible for the separation. Emphasize that this is a decision that you will not reconsider.
9. Reassure kids that you both still love them very much and that you both will be there for them and be an active part of their lives.
10. Commit to your kids that as much as possible will remain the same in their lives (home, room, school, activities, friends, etc) and that both parents will be there to support kids in their endeavors (shuttle them to sports games and see school performances, for instance.)
11. Tell kids they can see the other parent whenever they want to. Make this easy for them. Your goal for the kids is stability and as much time with each parent as possible. Give them cell phones so they can have a relationship with each parent that isn't mediated by the other.
12. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
13. Don’t ask children to choose who to live with. Never ask your kids to take sides, even subtly.
14. Let your child rage, cry, and vent. This will feel like a death to them, and in fact it is: the death of their family. Resist the urge to defend your decision. This is not about you, it is about them. They're entitled to their feelings.
15. Never say negative things about each other to the kids.
16. Never talk about each other in front the kids, even if they're across the room and you're on the phone with a friend. They will hear every word. Never say anything in front of your kids that you don't want repeated to your ex.
17. Maintain appropriate boundaries with kids in your discussions, not just
about your spouse, but about everything. Don’t let your child “take
care” of you. Find adult support.
18. Show up, no matter what is going on with your ex. Be aware that children need time with each parent more than ever during a divorce and be there to spend time with them. Make sure your child still feels connected to you when she is with the other parent by staying in touch via phone, skype, email, texting.
19. Be there whenever your child needs to talk. Listen, and reflect back what you hear: “Sounds like you’re pretty mad at Mom and me that we’re getting divorced.” Let your child have his or her feelings, don’t try to argue. You can expect to have to repeat this conversation in various forms over time, as your child adjusts.
20. Expect Big Emotions. This is a huge adjustment for your child. When he cries about the smallest thing, be aware that he is carrying around a backpack full of grief and anger that needs to come out somehow. Don't make him feel analyzed by telling him that he's really mad about the divorce, but simply empathize: "You are so upset because you really want to do ____ and I won't let you....I'm sorry you can't do ____, Sweetie. We're having a really hard time these days."
21. Help him develop a positive "understanding" of this big transition. One way to do this is by making a book for him. Start with when he was born, using family photos, emphasizing how much you both love him. Say something like: "Mom and Dad decided that they could not live in the same house any longer.....So Dad moved to his new place on ____ Street (use photo of your son and dad happy in new place)..._____(Your son's name) loved the ______ at the new place and loved playing _____ with Dad at the new place and making popcorn together......Sometimes he was sad and missed the old days.....but he and mom still did _____ together every Friday night.....and both mom and dad always celebrated his birthday." You get the idea. Anything positive you can say about the new arrangement, say it, for instance if it means he can have a puppy, or a goldfish, or if he now has TWO of a special toy, one for each house. Make sure you finish with how Mommy and Daddy are much happier now, and both love him so very much.
22. Consider counseling, or become actively "therapeutic." Play therapy is a terrific way for kids to process big emotions and develop a positive way to understand what is happening. And of course you can do some of that at home as well, using stuffed animals to "act out" a family that is separating and sad, for instance. Another helpful way to process is to read books about divorce (see the recommendations below) and to tell him stories about boys whose parents got divorced, and who felt sad, but both parents still loved them and everything worked out.
23. Maintain family routines, rules, schedules, and structures. As much as possible, maintain family rituals. Keep both parents involved for big occasions.
24. Don’t relay messages through your kids.
25. Remember that if your ex has a new girl or boy friend, your job is to insure that your ex still relates to your child. Now that this new person is part of your child's life, your goal is to help your child have a positive relationship with that person as well. Negativity toward the new flame will always be counter-productive and could drive your ex away from your child. If your ex has another child, stress the positive sibling relationship.
26. Take the high road. If one parent acts irresponsibly, the other may be tempted to also (by badmouthing them, for instance). This temptation should be resisted, as it is always bad for the kids. So even, for example, if you are the custodial parent and your spouse stops paying child support, don’t share this info with your kids. It will make them feel even more abandoned and unloved.
27. What if your ex abandons your kids? There is no denying that both parents are important. If that parent is loving, supportive, and positively engaged with the child, the effect will have positive ripples for the rest of that child's life. If that parent is harsh, the ripples will be negative. If one parent leaves the child, whether by choice or by fate, there will be a loss that will stay with the child forever. As with all loss, the child is changed forever, and the emotional work is very real. But with enough love and support from you, your child can survive, and even thrive.
Tell your child that his dad (or mom) is having such a hard time that he can't get in touch with his love right now, even for his child. Emphasize that the parent leaving has NOTHING to do with the child, and that any parent would be lucky to have this child. Stress that the parent is a mess right now, so his love is covered up, but that the love for your child is there deep inside and maybe someday the parent will get their act together. Expect grief and acting out. Stay compassionate. Your love will pull your child through.
28. Remember that negative presence is worse than no presence. Research repeatedly shows that when a parent treats a child in a harsh or critical way, it is worse for the child than if that parental figure leaves, as long as the remaining parent is loving. The child may grieve the loss of the parent, but that grief can heal with enough support from the remaining parent, whereas the constant negativity is permanently disabling to the child.
29. Put off dating for awhile. If you do develop a relationship, don't be in a hurry to introduce your new flame to your child. Your kids have already lost their family. They need time to get used to the idea of a step-parent. It won't help them to get close to a potential step-parent only to lose them. And not to throw cold water on the idea that you could find Mr or Ms Right, but the single most active letters on this website are on the page "My husband (their stepdad) hates my kids." I don't want you to join that forum, so please summon up every bit of patience you can as you think about your own romantic future. As we all know, it's easy to act in haste when you're on the rebound, and it's harder to get out of a relationship than to get in.
What I'm prescribing is a tall order, especially for parents who still have issues about their ex (and who doesn't?)! If you need to get some counseling to help you work through your own feelings about the divorce, don't hesitate.
* Jennifer McIntosh, PhD, describing the McIntosh, Smyth and Kelaher (2010) study:
"Regardless of socio-economic background, parenting warmth or cooperation between parents, the shared overnight care of children less than four years of age had a significantly negative impact on the emotional and behavioural well-being of the child. Babies under two years who lived one or more overnights a week with both parents were significantly stressed. In their general day-to-day behaviour. These babies were more irritable and worked much harder to monitor the presence and to stay close to their primary parent than babies who had less or no overnight time away from their primary caregiver. A similar profile was found with older infants, aged 2 to 3 years, living in shared-time arrangements (35% – 50% overnights with each parent). In this age group, the study found significantly higher rates of problem behaviours (e.g. crying or hanging onto the primary parent when leaving, refusing to eat and hitting, biting or kicking the parent) and poor persistence in activities and
exploration compared with young children with fewer or no shared overnights." (Australian Association for Infant Mental Health 2011)