Divorce can be an emotionally complicated and painful process, especially when kids are involved. I don’t believe, in my experience, that any parent goes into the divorce process with the intent of doing harm to their children. In fact, I believe that the health and wellbeing of children is often one of the precipitating causes of divorce. However, too often I have seen kids become inadvertent victims of divorce and the consequences of that are what bring them into my office, sometimes even years after the divorce is final.
In the midst of the emotional upheaval of divorce, parents can lose sight of how their actions are impacting their children, even though it should really be their prime focus. So, here are some tips that I often give to parents who are in the midst of or are just settling into life post divorce.
- Never disparage your former spouse in front of your children. He/she may no longer be your romantic partner, but they will always be your children’s parent and as such, will always be your co-parenting partner. It is important to remember that a strong relationship with both parents is vital for your kids and the way that you speak about your ex will heavily influence the type of relationship they have with your former spouse.
- Do not use your children as messengers between you and your former spouse. I have worked with a lot of kids who complain that their parents put them in the middle of their divorce. They have shared that it puts them in an uncomfortable position in which they know way too much about the conflicts between their parents, where they feel pressured to choose a side, and where they are given way too much power. No matter how challenging it is, it is crucial for parents to find a way to communicate with each other about parenting issues and decisions.
- Avoid using your children as your caretaker during or after the divorce. I have seen this occur frequently, especially when there is an older child. Divorce is a painful, complicated, and difficult process and can remain as such months and sometimes years after the divorce is final. Often, children will be tuned in to how you are feeling and will want to help and support you. However, it is important to maintain healthy parent-child boundaries around this support. I always recommend that the best way for a child to be supportive is for them to focus on themselves and work to do well in school and make good choices. All other support, especially emotional, should be provided by friends and family. If you do not have a strong support network, it is important to reach out to a therapist or other professional.
- Reassure your children that they are loved and that the divorce is not their fault. It is not uncommon for children to feel that they are somehow to blame for their parents’ divorce. Communicate to them that the divorce was a decision that was made by the adults and that it does not change how either parent feels about them. Be aware that you may have to repeat this several times and it is also important to reinforce it with actions.
- Provide consistency, stability, and support. Divorce can be a confusing and chaotic time for families. Kids may have to leave the home they grew up in or change schools and the new family schedule can be difficult to adjust to. It is important during this time to provide as much stability, consistency and support as possible. This includes rules and boundaries. Parents can sometimes feel guilt around the divorce and therefore will relax on rules, expectations, and consequences. However, this can be counterproductive and can cause more problems down the road. You can acknowledge your children’s emotions while still maintaining healthy expectations. This sense of structure and stability will go a long way to helping your kids adjust to life post divorce.
- Regularly ask yourself, “how will this decision/comment/behavior impact my children?” Often times when I am working with parents who are separated or divorcing, I find that I have to regularly bring them back to this question. As I mentioned above, divorce is a painful process and the emotions that come to the surface can cloud any parent’s ability to focus on the needs of their children. Sometimes parents want to lash out at their ex and as a result, unintentionally do damage to their children. Sometimes parents are so overwhelmed by their own emotions that they have trouble remembering the importance of attending to their kids’ needs. And sometimes parents just don’t think about how something will impact their children. I recommend making this a mantra and posting it somewhere in your house as a constant reminder.
- Be open and available. Kids will have a lot of strong feelings and many questions about divorce. It is important to be available to answer those questions, within reason, and provide support as they learn how to cope with the changes. Let your children know that you are always open to talk with them about how they are feeling. They may or may not take you up on the offer immediately, but they will know that you are there and available should they need.
I know that these tips can be challenging to follow, especially when you are in the midst of a painful divorce. If you feel that you are struggling to take care of yourself or your children, reach out to a family therapist. We are trained to help support the whole family through this process and ensure that each member’s needs are heard, validated, and met. If you are ready to reach out for help, contact Family Therapy Center of Bethesda today!