How Do I Help My Children During a Divorce?
Question: My wife and I separated six months ago and will be divorcing. We have three children, ranging in ages from 4 to 11. What are your suggestions for ways to help them with the divorce?
Answer: This is an emotionally challenging time for everyone in your family. Each family’s circumstances differ, but the following are general guidelines that should be useful.
Keeping children out of the middle
Your children must be free to love and feel proud of both parents. Feeling such love and pride is necessary for children to feel loved, lovable and proud of themselves. Children’s healthy growth requires that they be able to keep their parents on a pedestal, although the pedestal should gradually get closer to the ground as children progress through childhood and adolescence. Somewhat idealizing parents is essential for a child’s sense of safety and ability to identify with their parents’ good qualities.
Put simply, children grow to feel good about themselves when they feel good about their parents and good about their relationship with their parents. Imagine how difficult it is for a child to keep one parent (parent A) on a pedestal if the other parent (parent B), whose opinion the child thinks the world of, does not value or even like parent A. It is an almost impossible task. It is of only limited value for parent B to encourage a child to love and value parent A if parent B does not also demonstrate in feelings and actions that parent A is a likeable and worthy parent.
Although parents often tell children that they were not responsible for the divorce, the marriage indeed may have been affected by the burdens of raising children and shifts in roles and expectations. Children will sense this, and it contributes to the common worry that they were responsible for the divorce.
However, if parents can show that they have a supportive and caring relationship around their co-parenting function, children can recognize over time that whatever the reasons were that their parents could not get along, it must not have had to do with them.
Supporting a child’s relationship with another parent involves many things, including truly feeling good about the other parent, sharing information — and pride — with the other parent as lifelong co-parents, and supporting the child’s involvement with the other parent while not in that home. Granted, it can be incredibly challenging to achieve this relationship. The achievement of such a supportive relationship may be seen as a long-term goal. It takes time to transcend hurt and blame and gain perspective.
Focus on the good in the other, and on their efforts. And don’t be discouraged. Every inch of progress toward this goal moves your child another inch out of the middle of lingering marital problems and you and your former spouse into a post-marital parenting co-relationship.
Making decisions in the child’s interest
After a separation, parents need to get on with their lives, which involves continued change. Children undergoing a separation and divorce have endured excessive change and are reeling for some time, often years. Everything parents can do to minimize continued change, for as long a period as possible, is in the best interests of children.
A child’s best interests may conflict with parental desires. The following are some of those considerations that are important for the best interest of the child. Every parent must determine how to weigh and balance these contradicting needs, and how much compromise and sacrifice to make on behalf of the children.
- Moving. When parents move out of the area, it places increased burdens on a child, the parent-child relationship and, often, the co-parenting relationship (although in high-conflict situations, greater distance can help cool off situations). Scrutinize the motives for leaving the area. Employment opportunities and advancements are generally involved, but personal motives, such as wanting to have a new start or get away from the other parent, may be part of the reason.
When actions are driven by the residue of marital discord, decisions that affect the child are being made on the basis of parental problems — the essence of having put the child in the middle.
- Marriage and relationships. Children need time to adjust to the new realities and relationships with each parent as a single parent. They need time to ponder and settle into their best current understanding of their parents’ relationship. Any new relationships on a parent’s part, often further complicated with the new partner’s children, vastly complicate a child’s adjustment to a new reality.
Children vary in the amount of time that they reel from a divorce, and those who are still stabilizing their relationships and understanding will benefit from time before they confront yet another major challenge. Also, the younger the children, the more time they need to accept and understand their new realities. Most children clearly benefit from at least a year without the introduction of a new “friend.” However, even more time is generally better and often very important
- Custody. Custody arrangements are a major early concern for parents. In general, the guidelines for younger children are more specific than those for older children. Regular involvement with each parent, as much as possible, is always desirable.
Short visits, phone calls and e-mails are ways to maintain daily contact, depending upon the child and age. Mutual parental support is the key here and, ultimately, much more important than the nuances of the custody arrangement.
Working on behalf of children always entails sacrifices; when a child’s mother and father do not live together, even greater sacrifices are required because the circumstances place a significant burden on a child’s development. Divorce is not easy for anyone, but when parents are able to prioritize their child’s needs in their feelings, decisions and actions, children can emerge from the travails of divorce emotionally healthy and prepared for a full and successful adult life.
The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood in Cary is a private, nonprofit agency that promotes the healthy emotional well-being of children and their families.