Many couples enter a marriage expecting they will never get divorced. This is easy to…
Divorce and Children
If you have children, and many couples divorcing do, it is important you discover how your divorce and your relationship with your ex following divorce affects your children. Your children can still grow up in a secure and loving relationship and environment provided you take proactive steps to secure their health and wellness, both physically AND emotionally.
The key is taking “time-out” literally to take your children under your wings and understand from their vantage point what divorce is and why you and your partner are leaving each other. For many children, this idea is confusing at best. Teenagers are often angry and tend to side with one parent or another. This can be hurtful for parents. Younger children may wonder why one parent has seemingly “disappeared” in other situations.
Parents with “sole custody” may have to face hard questions, like, “Why didn’t mommy or daddy come to see me?” These statements can make your heart break, and make you want to lash out with frustration.
The first step toward helping your children is recognizing your children’s feelings, acknowledging their validity, and then taking proactive steps to react to your children and work with your children in a positive and uplifting way.
Understanding Divorce from A Child’s Perspective
Our children are our future, and because of this it is important we respect and nurture them. While you may feel you are the most important person in your relationship, your children should take precedence over all others when couples divorce.
Children are often more confused than parents when it comes to divorce. Many simply do not understand why their loving parents would fall out of love. Still others worry their parents won’t love them, or don’t love them because they leave one another.
There have been many studies exploring the impact divorce has on children. The results of these studies vary, because many different elements impact how your child or children may react to divorce. When carried out responsibly, divorce may have a lesser impact on your children than you expect , and may serve to unite the family in a stronger, more sensible and powerful manner.
Remember also that every child, just like every parent, is different. So, while one child may understand very simply that divorce will help you become a better parent, another may hold anger against you for leaving your partner. Understand this is normal. Divorce is very confusing, especially for young children.
What impacts a child’s ability to cope with divorce most often includes:
- His or her age.
- His or her mentality and personality.
- His or her maturity level.
- The child’s emotional stability before the divorce.
- The access a child has to friends, other family or support structures to help them cope during and after a divorce.
Consider each of these elements and how they might affect your child or children. A younger child may require only simple words and extra love to get through the early stages of divorce. Older children may need more complex answers. A therapist may help you work with your children to help them understand divorce, and help them individually cope with their feelings about you or your partner during and after a divorce.
If you remarry at a later date, you may find this introduces a new dynamic into your family, one that once again sends you looking for help and answers to many confusing questions. As long as you keep an open mind, and are confident of your love and ability to connect with your child, you can help them overcome any frustration, anger, confusion or sense of guilt they may feel following divorce (or remarriage).
When It’s Better To Stay Together
Many couples feel they have to “stay together” for the sake of their children. Realistically however, many people later find that doing so may prove more harmful than beneficial for their children.
There are many cases when divorce is the best way to promote the health and wellness of the family unit. There are also many cases that show it is often not in the best interest of the family to “stay together” simply for the sake of the children.
Cases in point:
- In a situation or family environment where ongoing abuse, whether physical or emotional occurs, it is often best for a couple to separate to avoid prolonged mental anguish among their children, not just to fulfill their own needs.
- When handled correctly, divorce may be the best arrangement if partners truly have grown apart but can respect each other. Children will not learn to develop healthy relationships if “mom” and “dad” are together in a home but always angry or separate from each other. This actually teaches children poor relationship skills. By deciding to divorce and approaching it sensibly, and by communicating openly with your children together, you teach your children more about healthy relationships than you do by “sticking with it” just for the sake of the kids.
- Divorce can actually have a positive effect on the family dynamics, especially if both partners are happier following a divorce and do not insult one another while around the children. Rather than trying to compete for children’s love and affection, it is the role of the parent to show children that both parents are equally supportive and interested in their child’s well-being.
- Divorce is appropriate often when it prevents abuse between family members, or when living together creates more tension than it does support for the children in a relationship.
- Your children may come to resent you later in life if you divorce once your children are grown, and then tell them you only stayed together “for the sake of” them. They may adopt unnecessary feelings of guilt, leading to even more problems.
If you truly feel you can work out your relationship with your partner, then seek the guidance and support of a therapist. Many couples do this anyway before ultimately deciding that divorce may truly be their best course of action. But by no means should you ever throw up your hands and agree to stay together “just” for the sake of the kids, because in the end, you may be doing more harm to your children than good.
How Children Feel During Divorce
Children and teenagers have many different feelings during divorce. It is important you understand these feelings so you can address them in an open and communicative environment. Above all else it is important you do not dismiss your child’s feelings, because this can lead to resentment and can actually destroy your relationship with your child, by pushing them away and causing them to internalize their feelings.
So make sure you let your children know their feelings are valid. Everyone has feelings, and it is healthy to express them in a productive manner. What are some of the more common feelings children have during and after divorce? It is common for children to feel confused, angry or even guilty during divorce. Some children may blame themselves for their parents divorce. This is especially true of younger children, who may not have the mental maturity or ability to understand why their parents are separating.
What to Expect from Your Child
Most parents have concerns about their child’s welfare before, during and after divorce. What many parents fail to consider however, is their child’s unique opinion of, or perspective and understanding of divorce. No two children are the same as mentioned before. Younger children feel much differently than older children when it comes to divorce.
What is the simplest way to uncover your child’s worries, concerns or feelings? The best way is to ask your child how they feel. This is the first step toward helping your child deal with a divorce. It is important your children understand that while you will not be together, you will still love and support your child. It is important you address any specific fears your child may express about your divorce. If, for example, your child thinks he or she is at fault, it is very important you work with him or her to help them understand it is not.
Often parents find seeking the help of a counselor can be helpful during this time. A qualified counselor or therapist may work with your child or children independently, with you, with your partner and with the entire family unit, even if you are already divorced.
The most common reaction young children have is to be on their best behavior and try to encourage acts that will get you and your partner back together. If there is no possibility this will happen, it is important you make this clear to your children, so they do not live with an illusion of false hope. Again, this is a time when a trained psychological counselor or marriage and family therapist can help you work with your child to understand they are still loved, needed and will be supported even after a divorce.
Parents must also remember that children are part of a divorce, not just people standing on the sidelines. Their opinions about divorce and the family environment should be considered in family decision-making processes.
Unless your partner presents a danger to your children (is abusive, clinically insane or presents some other real danger) it is important you remember to include your ex and your children when talking about the best approach to divorce and maintaining stable family relationships, even outside a formal marriage.
Many researchers, including the National Institutes of Health, have examined the impact divorce has on the emotional and psychological wellness of children. A child’s response during the various stages of divorce, including pre-divorce, during and post-divorce may vary significantly. You may find your children “act out” in unusual or violent ways, because they have trouble coping with the stress of divorce. Remember, just as you feel stressful about a divorce, so too does your child.
Here are just a few common behaviors noticed among children during and immediately following a parent’s divorce:
- Children who were once quiet and seemingly independent may start acting in outrageous ways, participating in impulsive behaviors or acting impatient.
- Children may start expressing anger toward you, the parent they may “blame” for the divorce or others.
- Children may cry a lot because they blame their own actions for your separation.
- Some children engage in destructive behavior.
- Other children will start to “test” each parent when staying with them, to see what they can get away with.
- Older children may get involved with alcohol or other illegal substances to cope with divorce.
- Some children may experience depression or withdraw from former friends and peers.
- Other children may push their feelings inside and appear overly positive. In cases like this it is very important a parent talk with the child to help them reveal their true feelings, because suppressing them will only result in more pain further down the line.
The good news is you can take active steps to help strengthen your relationship with your children and help them overcome challenging behaviors during this time. The more aware you are of the possible actions or reactions your child may have to divorce, the better prepared you will be to respond to them when they happen.
You should encourage your ex to also learn about the different ways your child or children may respond to divorce, so at the very least, you can attempt a united front when helping your children “cope” with their emotions.
Action Parents Should Take To Support Their Children
Before, during and after your divorce there are many action steps you should take to help your children cope and thrive.
Here are some very simple action steps you can adopt and behaviors you can demonstrate that will ease your child’s discomfort and help them through this difficult and challenging time:
- First, make sure you and your partner spend valuable time with your children. Make sure you are readily available during times when your child or children want to communicate.
- If your child has questions about your divorce, don’t ignore them and try not to talk around them. Children are very intuitive and smart. The best way to answer them is to answer them honestly, in a way that is appropriate for their age and maturity. If you are not sure how to do this, you might consider seeking the advice of a trained children’s therapist, one who can help you and your partner come up with positive statements to reinforce your love for your children.
- Make sure you take care of your own emotional health and set an example to your children. If you have a hard time coping, don’t rely on your children for emotional support. Seek the advice and help of friends, family and a trained therapist. Children suffer a lot during a divorce, it is too much to ask them to cope with your emotions, so do not place additional burden on them by asking them to do so.
- Always remain calm when talking with your children so you do not upset them even more when divorcing your partner. Do not let your own angry feelings toward your partner accidentally fall to your child.
These are all positive action steps you can take to help your child cope better emotionally with your divorce. Just as important are action steps you should take to prevent your child from experiencing the ill-effects of a divorce. Everyone knows a divorce can sometimes get ugly.
Your partner or ex may be the last person you want to see on a daily basis. That is all right, but it is important you do not express your distaste for your partner openly to your children, especially if they have great love for your ex.
Don’ts Of Divorce
Not all divorces end well. Sometimes couples argue incessantly and are better off living alone than with each other. Many divorces involve custody battles where one parent fights to have sole authority over visitation rights and the child’s welfare.
If you find you are in the middle of a “messy” divorce, there are still some important “don’ts” you should adhere to when around your children. If you violate these rules, you compromise the welfare of your children.
Remember, divorce is not a time to be selfish when it comes to your children.
- Do not talk poorly of your ex when in the presence of your children. For example, do not refer to your ex as, “That lousy no good bastard.” Your child, especially if young, will not understand why you feel this way and may think this is normal in all relationships. They may also start to harbor resentment toward you for speaking poorly of your ex.
- Do not feel upset if your child appears to have a “favorite” parent. Even in warm and loving relationships, children at times seem to favor one parent over another. It isn’t your job to “win” your child over. Children are not prizes. Accept your child’s feelings and make every effort to let your child know you love and support them no matter what.
- Don’t give in to your child’s every whim just to keep them placated or because you feel bad because of a divorce. You won’t replace feelings of guilt by buying your child new toys. Buying new gifts so you maintain “favorite parent” status is also not appropriate. Instead show your love and affection through meaningful, shared time with your child.
- Embrace your child’s feelings. Do not tell your child it is wrong or right to feel a certain way. Children are people too, and we are all entitled to our opinions.
- Do not argue with your ex while in the presence of your children. You should also try to remain relaxed when around your ex. Children automatically pick up on stress, and will react accordingly.
- If you find you are not able to stand the very presence of your partner initially, arrange for a mutual friend or family member to act as an intermediary during visitation times so you will not exude stress or act out when your ex visits with or comes to take the children to their place.
- Never EVER lie about your ex or try to trick your children into thinking their parent is a bad person. Just because you didn’t get along doesn’t mean your children can’t get along with your ex.
- If your ex is a violent partner, it IS in the best interests of your children not to be in their presence, and you have sole custody, work with a counselor to help your children understand why they are separated from your partner, or only allowed supervised visits. Your counselor can help you figure out ways to help children understand why things must be this way without hurting them.
- Do not stay with your partner “just” for the sake of your children, because by doing so you raise your children in a dysfunctional home, one that is just as dysfunctional as a home where the parents are divorced.
- If you do start dating someone else, do not expect your children to lovingly embrace them immediately. They may see this person as an intruder, or blame them for your divorce.
- DO understand that it is important you provide your children with a safe, honest and reliable living arrangement, one that will disrupt their lives as little as possible while accommodating your need for separation.
Remember, your child is part of your future. Do what you can to help raise them in an environment that is stable, even if that environment includes divorcing your partner. There are many children whose parents divorced that manage to grow up and have healthy relationships. It can work, if you put a little effort into your children and your future.
How To Help Children Cope With New Relationships
Many people who experience a divorce will at some point have an interest in dating again. They may even want to remarry. It is important you understand as a parent that your feelings toward your new partner may not be the same as the one’s your children have of your partner.
As a parent your job is to provide your children a safe and understanding environment, one that is sensitive to their needs. This does not mean you can’t have a good time. But, you should be aware of your children’s needs and sensitive to them following a divorce.
Bringing new men or women in and out of their lives introduces instability, even if it has been some time since your divorce. It may be best when first meeting people to introduce your boyfriend or girlfriend as a “friend”, until you start getting serious about your relationship.
You should also take the time to talk with your children about your intentions. If your children are older, you can tell them you plan to date someone. If your children are younger, they may not understand this yet, so you may hold off unless you are seeing someone you are very comfortable with and someone you plan to spend significant time with.
You do not have to allow every person you date to meet your children, but you should let people you have an interest in dating seriously know you have children. Many therapists recommend using your discretion at first when dating. You may, for example hire a sitter and let your children know you are going out for the evening. If your child or children do have questions however, and know you plan to date, it is important you remain honest with them. If you lie or engage in dubious actions, your children will assume this is acceptable behavior and may engage in similar behaviors.
You should also remember that it is OK for you to date; you don’t have to avoid sex or intimacy because you divorced or because you have children.
You do however have to remember that your children should come first. If your children need you for something important, make sure you care for their needs before indulging in a night out on the town. Then, when you do get out, remember to have fun. You have the right to do so. It will make you feel better about yourself, and that alone will help you become a better parent.
Tips for Dating Parents
At some point you may want to date again. You find a nice person, go on a date a few times and decide to introduce him or her to your children. Much to your surprise and dismay, your children lash out. They engage in dubious behaviors or act horrible toward you or your partner. Why does this happen? Sometimes children are worried this new person will replace the other parent.
It is important you are honest with your children, and if you have a good relationship with your ex, and co-parent correctly, let your children know that no one will replace their other parent. It is also important you remind your children just how important they are to your lives. Some children simply fear you will fall more in love with your date than you will with your children. Most kids just need a little reassurance.
Last but not least, do not pressure your children to “like” your new partner. Relationship building takes time, whether a loving or intimate relationship or one between parents and ex’s boy or girlfriends. Let your children take each day one day at a time.
If you discover your ex is dating and you are not, make sure you do not let any feelings you may have, whether of jealousy or remorse, come out loudly. Remember, once divorced it is normal for former partners to start dating again.
You should also remember that if your ex becomes serious with this person, the “date” or other person may start having some contact or relationship with your children. It is in your best interests to get to know this person to make sure you are comfortable with them, and to make sure your children feel safe around them. Remember, no one will take your place as a parent, as long as you provide a loving and supportive environment for your children to grow up in.
Do you tell your date on the first date you have children? Most people do, to avoid problems and confusion later down the line. Most people are fine with this. If they are not, they probably wouldn’t make a good long-term match anyway. Do not however, spend your entire dating time talking about how awful your last relationship was. Instead focus on your new date and all the positive things about him or her, and your present life.
Co-Parenting Following A Divorce
Many parents soon learn the best way to keep their children happy and to care for their personal welfare and that of their children is to co parent. Assuming your ex is a capable partner, the first step in this is maintaining open lines of communication and friendly attitudes toward one another.
Co-parenting means making sure you and your ex are in complete accord when it comes to making important decisions about your children, and establishing house rules. It isn’t fair for example, if during your marriage you agreed the children should go to bed by 9:00pm, but following divorce one partner lets the children stay up until 10:00pm or later to gain “favored parent” status.
Co-parenting does not involve bribery. It may involve spending time with your ex during your children’s important milestones, like high school graduation or meeting for a school play. Remember that while you and your partner no longer share an intimate relationship, your children may still share a very intense and intimate relationship with you both.
How do you get along in other respects? Decide ahead of time how you will handle important events like birthdays, holidays or others. If you and your ex are not on good terms, it is still important you talk and decide what is best for the children. Your job as a parent is to focus on your child’s well being as well as your own.
Make sure you involve your children in decisions you make about how to spend the holidays. Even more importantly, remember you should never try to “buy” your child’s affection. If one parent gives the child or children two gifts, then the other can do the same. Don’t upset the balance by giving 20 gifts to your children to try to buy their love. Sometimes parents do this without thinking, because they feel guilty for separating their family unit.
What To Do If Your Ex Does Not Cooperate
There are situations where one parent wants to maintain the same parenting style and rules maintained during the marriage, but the other throws them out the window following divorce. If you find you are in this situation, there is no reason you should give up on raising your child the right way. Your children need a responsible role model to look up to. Your children can and will respect you because you love them, not because you buy them more gifts than your partner.
You should be firm in all decisions you make about your household, so your children retain respect for your rules when visiting you. If your partner allows your children to stay up until 10:00 pm, but your rules have always been 9:00 pm,, your children will realize they should go to bed by nine when with you.
What is most important for children is predictability. This creates a stable environment and encourages your children to prosper and develop in a healthy, happy and normal environment.
If you can communicate with your ex and agree on some shared rules, then certainly do so. But if this isn’t the case, prepare yourself for some testing of your boundaries, but remain firm. Your children need guidance. The role of a parent is always to provide firm support and guidance that nurtures children and puts their best interests ahead of everything else.
Communicating with An Ex
Communicating with your ex isn’t always easy, especially if you had to experience a “messy” divorce. If you find you have a poor relationship with your ex following your divorce, it’s still your job as a parent to do your best to communicate with them about important events in your child’s life, without getting angry.
The best way to handle communication is to do so calmly and peacefully. If for example, your ex does something you do not approve of, you should not approach him or her when you are hot off the iron and ready to whack him or her on the head. Instead, give yourself a little time to settle down, think about a direct and meaningful approach and talk with your ex about your feelings in a calm and relaxed manner. This may seem impossible to do at first. If you find you have difficulty with this exercise, then practice it over and over in your mind.
Enlist the help of a therapist to help you learn to communicate more efficiently without flying off the handle. Both you and your ex will have to reestablish or redefine what your relationship is, even if only when your shared interests involve your children. The most important steps you can take to protect your children are to keep them as far away from your anger or frustration as you can.
One way to help establish healthy communication with your ex is by asking them to help out in situations rather than demanding they accept certain principles, rules and behaviors. Remember, if you feel hurt and angry, chances are good your ex feels the same way. Don’t blame your ex and say, “You did it wrong. Don’t ever do that again you lousy excuse for a father.” That will not work. Instead, try remaining calm and phrasing your opinions or concerns in an emotional and cooperative way. Think of the exact problem you perceive at hand, and work around it. You can for example, try, “I felt upset when you left the kids alone the other night to go on a date with Trish without an older babysitter. Is it possible we can agree on a mutual person to watch after the kids when you go out?”
In the second instance, you are expressing your emotions rather than attacking your ex. Of course, you should never question your authority if you find your ex engages in dangerous activities or unhealthy behaviors that put your children at risk. If this is the case, you may need to seek the help of a competent judge or social worker.
Sometimes it also helps to have a third party handy, a mutual friend when meeting with an ex to reduce the amount of awkwardness common in ex co-parenting relationships. Your children will also appreciate seeing a friendly face every now and again.
Remember, patience and communication can go a long way toward making this work, even in a “broken” marriage. It is natural to feel angry and upset for some time after you divorce. Gradually you will need to learn to adopt healthy attitudes toward your new life and allow your ex to go his or her separate way, just as you will.
If you concentrate on making life as pleasant as you can during and after a divorce, you may influence your partner to do the same. Anger breeds more anger, but kindness and understanding breeds rewarding and cooperative relationships, the kind that are best for you and your children following divorce or separation.
Divorce is never easy, and often hardest on children. During and after a divorce, it is always important you keep the channels of communication open between you, your children and your ex. No matter how poorly a relationship ends, your child or children should be a top priority.
Many parents find the best way to raise happy, healthy and vibrant children is to co-parent. Co-parenting is not the same as being married. It involves establishing mutual ground rules that help provide a stable and directional environment for children, whether they stay with mom or dad.
Co-parenting also involves refraining from engaging in abusive or unkind behaviors toward your ex while in the presence of your child or children. The more you dwell on the negative aspects of your past relationship, the less likely you are to create a positive and healthy environment for your children.