The most important indicator of either psychological health or damage in children from divorced families is the post-divorce relationship of their parents. If parents can manage their relationship in a cordial and business-like manner, children do as well as those from intact families. If parents can’t make this adjustment and continue to argue and disparage each other, the stress and tension will harm children over time. Kids can cope with short-term crisis but they need peace to develop between the two people they love most and as quickly as possible.
As children grow and mature they must complete certain developmental tasks. Stages of development build on each other. Infants need to know that their cries will be answered, that their world is a safe place. Toddlers need to explore their world knowing that their parents are nearby. They move away and come back to the security of mom or dad. School age children must explore socially by interacting with friends and learning to play fairly. They try different activities to determine their own competence and preferences.
Adolescents carry this further by rejecting some of the parental beliefs and further create their own identities. They will try on new ideas, styles of clothing and philosophies. None of these tasks can be accomplished without parental stability. Even when teenagers are testing their parents’ limits and never seem to be home or care about what their parents think, they need to know that dad or mom is aware and are standing by. They literally cannot do the testing they need to do unless there is a solid structure in place.
If there is frequent upset and anger surrounding them, a child’s development may be delayed. They will be spending energy on coping with their family’s difficulties and not enough on the flow of their childhood. We must protect our children’s innocence and peace of mind by keeping them out of turmoil as much as possible.
Most parents are aware that speaking negatively to their child about his or her other parent is upsetting and try not to do that. It’s possible, however, to be exposing them to similar disruption without realizing it. The mistake is made by speaking disparagingly to friends, family, or lawyers about the other parent while on the phone. When children are nearby and hear what is being said, the effect is the same as if spoken to directly.
Marriage is a safety net for children. When the parental unit separates, children feel less safe. When mom and dad are angry and can’t talk to each other they worry that they might “fall through the cracks.” One parent will or has already left the home. What if the other leaves? They may feel that they are the bridge between the two people they rely on. Some children feel pressure to keep the peace and make everyone feel all right. After all, their survival depends on their parents and their parents’ well being.
Children don’t know how to bridge the gap. They can only guess at what will work and sometimes, to their dismay and disappointment, are proven wrong. Kids are not emotionally mature nor is their cognitive development advanced enough to be able to mediate adult problems. Parents need to mediate their issues on the adult level and allow children freedom from parental concerns. If they are unable to do that, there are counselors and mediators who are trained to help.
To give a concrete example, it is inappropriate to discuss money worries with children. It’s fine to set financial limits, but to express grave concern will trouble them. Managing finances is an entirely adult responsibility.
Dating is another subject that requires adult judgment. Parents should not be exposing their children to people they are dating unless the relationship appears to be significant and will be around for awhile. This cannot be determined for at least six to eight weeks and may be more, depending on the circumstances. Discussion of sexual issues regarding either a former spouse or a new partner is also highly inappropriate. This is true regardless of age—child, adolescent or mature adult. Talk to friends, not the children.
There are typically two general styles of parenting post-divorce—cooperative or co-parenting and parallel parenting. Co-parenting, as the name implies, refers to parents who can work together for the sake of their children. There are varying degrees of communication possible within the cooperative model, depending on the nature of the relationship, the maturity of both people and the degree of awareness about separating personal from parenting issues. These parents can and do work together.
Parallel parenting is the term used to describe entirely separate parenting tracks. When dad has the children, he parents his own way. When mom has them, the same is true for her. They don’t fill each other in or talk things over or make joint decisions. This style is chosen by parents who are unable to communicate without hostility. When cooperative parenting isn’t possible, parallel parenting is a good alternative, reducing a child’s exposure to negative behavior. The main goal of separate tracks is to reduce the child’s stress level. The parallel style is also important for families with domestic violence histories.
The hopeful news is that some parents who are unable to work cooperatively in the early days eventually become more cooperative with time and distance from each other. That is a worthy goal, when possible.
Important things parents can do for children—
Assure children that you love them and that their needs will be taken care of. Even though dad and mom will be living apart, neither are leaving their children. It’s also important to tell them that the upset and chaotic circumstances are temporary and part of the process of divorce. Things will improve as people adjust to the new situation and new routines feel more normal.
Children find it hard to believe that they have nothing to do with the decision to divorce and that there’s nothing they can do about it. It’s important to tell children that the divorce is not their fault or responsibility. The decision to divorce was made between mommy and daddy and is not made between parents and children.
An explanation like this might be helpful: “Married people are supposed to feel a certain way towards each other and that isn’t true for us now. We still care for each other and for you, but we can’t be married any more.” This type of non-blaming explanation is important even when one parent doesn’t want the divorce but it will occur regardless.
Provide extra affection:
The positive affects of loving touch are well documented. We all need it. Extra, non-intrusive touch is comforting and reassuring to children and will feel good to parent this way as well. Extra hugs, telling them that they are loved and putting a reassuring arm around a child will help a him or her feel grounded and safe.
Spend time with children doing something that they like to do. This is a good way to encourage them to talk. Joining their play or listening to an adolescent’s favorite music is an avenue towards making them feel special and connected.
Protect their innocence:
Children should not be asked to carry messages between parents, to report on what the other parent is doing, or to take sides with one parent or the other, regardless of how angry he or she might be.
When children have been upset or disappointed, validate their feelings. Parents don’t have to explain the other parent’s actions. One can say to a child, “I’m sorry that you are disappointed (or angry, sad, etc.) then move on to something else. Distraction is helpful particularly with young children.