Divorce and Children


The wedding was beautiful. Growing old together sounded like an amazing adventure. Having children was beyond what you could have been imagined and the dreams of growing the family together .... even better. One SNAG. One Mount Everest sized snag. There is a divorce coming. All of this is about to change. Amongst the financial and relationship logistics, there is the potential impact of what all the decisions to come may have on your children. No matter who initiated the decision for divorce, it is a wildly difficult concept with layers of grief to process for both parents. And each child has their own emotional experience and reaction to the news that their life is about to change in a big way. As parents, all that we can do is take steps to minimize the stress surrounding the process of divorce as best as we’re able.

Telling Your Child(ren)

The very first step is to tell your child. Tell... Your... Child... three short words which may carry huge emotional weight and bring up fears and the worst images our brain can conjure up. Sometimes our brain is the movie reel of our own personal horror film.  It is naive to think telling a child their parents are divorcing won’t come with some heartbreaking reactions, whether it be in the immediate moment or after they have had time to process what it means. There may also be reactions after they try to work out all the questions they have about how it will work when their parents no longer live in the same home. However, it is unlikely that the response will be as challenging as the horror film playing in your mind. While telling your child when you have a solid plan is beneficial, it is also okay to tell your child if you don’t know everything just yet.

Once the plan for parenting time and the many other aspects of the separation have been developed, present it to your child(ren) together. Be united in how the plan will occur and present it as a mutual decision. This may help your child not feel like they have to pick sides or that it is someone’s fault. Regardless of the reasons for the divorce, it is an adult decision in which your child should not be included. Divorce planning conversations may include many abstract concepts that children may not be equipped to understand. Their job is to be a child, let them be a child. As the adult, be clear that your child is not responsible for the adults’ feelings. Be clear that it is the parents’ job to help your child manage their emotions and support them in the road ahead. It’s okay for you to be emotional when you tell them. Permit them to cry, be angry, and ask questions. When necessary, it is okay to answer questions with: “Those things are for adults to take care of (discuss, decide, etc) and not something for for us to involve you. We are doing our best to make decisions to keep you safe and take care of you.”

Planning

Base your plan on your child’s personal needs. Some important aspects include:

  • Who is moving, when are they moving, and where are they moving?

  • What is the temporary parenting plan?

  • How will they stay connected with one parent while they are with the other? (phone calls, dinners, FaceTime, Skype)

  • What school will they be attending?

  • Where will they keep their belongings?

  • Will there be any changes as far as caregivers (babysitters, daycare,etc)?

  • If your child is moving, will they and how will they see their friends?

  • How will they see family other than their parents?

Your child’s schooling or ability to see friends may seem like things that don’t need to be addressed if they are not changing. However, your child’s daily life is about to change in a big way. They may wonder if EVERYTHING is going to change now. Reassurance of the aspects of their life that will NOT change is helpful. Outlining what will be happening in the near future helps them know what to expect and to trust that the adults will handle how to move forward. Consistency will be the key to reinforcing this trust.

Sticking to the Plan

Make the plan black and white, and stick to the plan without exception. Many co-parents want to be flexible, make exceptions, and assume they will be able to do so with each other without an issue. The reality is, divorce can be an emotionally charged situation, especially when it comes to kids, and things which the two parents were agreeable to prior may become a bone of contention later. Being specific and consistent can take the fight out of little things. This means keeping to a specific parenting time schedule including specific dates and times for exchanging the children, being clear regarding who pays for what costs, etc.  Avoid the fight over little things. The more you can outline in this plan, the less that needs to be discussed in the future. Take the fight out of the future. Create a transition for the kids that is clear and without conflict.

Transitions

Transition is a difficult event. If your child is moving between two different family dynamics with different sets of rules, they have to re-adjust each time they change places. There are a few things that can help provide some relief during this time. Keep the transition a routine. Include in this routine a run down of the rules of the household. It’s not easy for children to always remember the rules of one house; now they have to shift between two sets of rules, remembering which rules apply to which home. Incorporate a transition item. A transition item is an item of comfort that your child can take back and forth between households. It is usually a blanket, stuffed animal, toy, book, special pajamas or any item that your child can use to self-soothe and maintain a connection to while they’re gone.

The issue regarding your child taking items between homes can be a touchy one for many people. Whether one parent purchased the item or really likes a certain outfit or toy, in the end, your child was given these items and they belong to them. Would you give a friend a gift and tell them they can only use it when they come over or on certain days? Of course not. Yet, many times children of divorce are told they can not bring their belongings to their other home or are pushed to bring certain items back. Moving between homes is hard enough. The additional pressure regarding which home is where the items belong, the feeling of not having ownership of their things, and having to remember what they need to bring back may increase their emotional chaos. Their belongings are their belongings. Period.

 Parenting Time

When considering parenting time, keep in mind that frequency is just as important as length of time. One potential way to maintain frequency is to schedule a mini visit for one parent while the kids are with the other parent. This could look like each parent having a dinner with the kids one night during the time the children are scheduled to be with the other parent. Encourage your children to have phone calls between households.

 Communication between Parents

Keep adult conversations adult conversations. Your child does not need to know the details of the divorce, the faults of the other parent, or current frustrations with the other parent. Venting about the other parent or seeking advice from others to manage difficult interactions should remain amongst adults as well. Hearing negative perceptions or dislike of a parent can inadvertently put your child in a position in which they feel they need to choose and align with one parent. Also, save arguments until another time. (Easier said than done.) When a relationship has reached the point of divorce, it is reasonable to believe there has been a lot of fighting already. Commonly, by the time divorce is an option it is in part due to being tired of fighting, so why fight more? Modeling conflict resolution for your child is important for their future relationships. There is research to support that children have physical distress reactions when exposed to fighting amongst those in their immediate environment. They don’t just hear it and walk away unaffected. It is easy to think a child is so engrossed in their electronics or play date that they aren’t listening. Children are often more perceptive and tuned in to what is happening than we give them credit. Let’s do our best to reduce parent alienation and parent conflict for the sake of our child.

Arguing makes it hard to communicate. This includes communicating about the children. A back and forth book facilitates clear communication and keeps each parent up to date while minimizing the need to navigate a conversation in an emotionally charged situation. A back and forth book is a book in which each parent journals any issues that arose during their parenting time. Pertinent issues may include emotional struggles, medical issues, extracurricular activities, consequences for acting out, and anything else that impacts your child in a way that both parents need to be aware. This helps maintain consistency and also prevents your child from taking advantage of the situation. A back and forth book is significantly important when it comes to medical conditions to document medical concerns, medication given and last dosage given.

Doing Our Best

In the end, whatever your struggles are with your spouse, it is important to remember the impact on your child.  And then do your best at the time.  Remember the first paragraph above? We do the best that we’re able.  It’s possible that you’ll make mistakes just as if you were parenting within a stable marriage. There is no play book to follow. The “best” answer is not always available in each separation or divorce.  For instance, it has been found that children do exceptionally well with divorce when they stay in the same home and the parents transition between homes. This is financially and emotionally difficult for many parents which, more often than not, rules this out as an option. So, we do our best. As long as your children are the primary focus in this situation, they will do as well as possible.

Hopefully, these suggestions provided some guidance for a difficult time.....

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