In every family, the people that have no say in whether a couple divorces, and who often suffer the most, are the children of divorce. For the children, the negative experience of divorce often has been witnessed for many months or years in advance of their parents’ announcement of divorce.
For many families that divorce, the children have witnessed both overt and covert signs of conflict. The overt signs of conflicts can include yelling, crying, arguments, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug use, psychotherapy, the involvement of the police and financial hardship. For these children, their childhood is marked with instability, fear and anxiety. These children often do not know what to expect when they come home. Many of them feel greater safety and stability outside of the home such as in school, in their after-school sports and programs and in their friends’ homes. The more covert signs of divorce that the children see can include a lack of communication between their parents, using the children to convey messages, an absence of unity at family events, driving separately to events and appointments, the parents not sleeping in the same bedroom, and even the speech in the home that is void of affection, respect and love. Whatever the children witness before their parents announce their intention to separate, the damage to the children is real. Some children are resilient and are able to adapt to the changes. Other children show immediate signs of distress. Many children of divorce, years later, require therapy to explore and manage their early-life experiences of their parents’ divorce.
With the prevalence of divorce, and its impact on children, I want to provide you with my professional advice on how to minimize the impact of divorce on your children.
Shower your children with love, respect and affection. Although this is obvious advice, parents who are undergoing family breakdown are often so enmeshed in their personal hardship that they may be unaware of their children’s needs. So it is important to be deliberate with your display of affection, attention and awareness for your children.
As much as possible, try to keep your children’s lives the same. If possible, avoid or delay any changes in the lives of the children. Avoid or postpone the sale of the home or a move to another home. Maintain the children in the same schools. Allow the children to continue in the same after-school and summer programs. Maintain the same circle of friends. Continue to attend the same annual family functions. Although this advice will be difficult for you, you are placing your children’s needs ahead of your own to ensure that they achieve their best emotional health.
Enter into an agreement with your soon-to-be ex that any communications regarding the divorce are done when the children are in school or via email or text. In other words, neither parent should allow the children to see, hear or read any communication between the parents regarding separation and divorce. The children will be extremely alert to any communications regarding the break up of their family. So the more you can shield them from this, the better.
Organize with your soon-to-be ex how to inform the children of your upcoming separation. Planning is critical. Part of the plan should be answers to the questions of where, when and how. When should the children be told? Where should the children be told? How should the children be told? Attempt to reach an agreement on that plan. Hopefully, there will be a mutual agreement on the plan. The meeting should be short. The message should be simple. The experience that the children receive should, as much as possible, be without anger, blame or hostility. The children should be allowed to exit that meeting feeling that there will be a change, but that the change will not be too radical or painful. This requires careful planning. There are plenty of resources that are available to help parents plan and execute such a positive meeting.
Begin building a social network of support for your children. This may involve their grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. It may also involve the parents of their best friends. Begin sharing with these people your future plans to separate. It is natural for them to be sad and disappointed. Expect that. Also, explain to them that you have tried your best to avoid this outcome, but for reasons that you can explain later, separation is necessary and inevitable. Then turn the conversation to how they can help your children manage this life change. It is usually at this point that the person you are talking to will accept your request and be part of the solution. This will be a bonding opportunity for you and that person, but more importantly, a positive step forward to help your children navigate your divorce.
Discuss with your soon-to-be ex the need to work with a parenting coach or parenting mediator to coordinate the children’s relationship with each parent after your physical separation. The process of divorce contains many stages. During these many stages, the parenting coach or parenting mediator can assist in managing each stage including the messages that the children receive and the division of parenting responsibilities. It is advisable to begin the process of co-parenting even before a physical separation. This will allow the children to gradually experience the life changes that are about to unfold. It avoids any sudden changes and, therefore, any adverse reaction to them. That way, by the time there is a physical separation, the children have become accustomed to the reality of their parents’ divorce.
Remain alert to any signs of distress displayed by your children. Be aware of any changes in sleeping routines, eating habits, social plans, after-school programs and communications with their friends, classmates and siblings. By being aware of these behaviours, you will be able to identify any negative changes or departures from the norm. It may not be necessary to address any change, but at least by being aware of it, you will be able to seek advice from others and make adjustments that may be necessary to address the children’s needs.
Remain in close contact with your children’s teachers. Continue to ask for feedback on how the children are performing in school – academically, behaviourally and socially. Look for any signals or changes in their behaviour at school or in report cards. Then, as part of your ongoing communication with your soon-to-be ex, decide when to inform the teachers about your divorce. Most often, the teachers serve as an important partner in managing the children’s experience of divorce. They are often a stabilizing force for the child. Some teachers will even offer a child more attention or accommodation.
Avoid leaving out any evidence of your work with divorce professionals such as mediators, lawyers and judges. The children do not need to know about the work that is being done to facilitate your divorce. For the children to hear that their lives are being managed by these other professionals may cause them to feel a lack of security and safety from their parents. Children want to know that their parents are in control. Allowing the children to see that others are controlling their family life could be destabilizing. Make sure you password protect all your electronic devices and set up screen savers.
Treat each child as a separate and independent individual. Although it may be easier to apply the same approach to all of your children, recognize that each child has a different personality, a different level of maturity and a different relationship with each parent and each sibling. This requires you to customize your approach to each child based on his or her needs. Some children prefer long-winded explanations, while others prefer short and simple answers. Some children are open to physical affection, while others prefer their privacy. Managing and discussing divorce with each child may be different and so be accommodating and flexible.
In conclusion, there are many different choices that you will make through the process of divorce that will directly and indirectly affect your children. The tips in this article are just some observations that I have made in the last 25 years of practising family law. I admit that there are many other different advisors and advice on the subject and, therefore, I invite you to read, solicit and consider all of the many great resources out there for divorcing parents. I hope for you that your divorce brings you and your children a fresh, happy and meaningful future filled with positive life experiences.Share this article on: