Divorce is never an easy decision for any family, yet for many families it is an unfortunate reality that leads to the formation of a new type of family unit. The ending of a marriage brings out a wide array of emotions that may encompass feelings of guilt, anger, hurt, sadness, happiness, loneliness, or even a sense of relief. Both parties involved will most likely go through one or more of these feelings. As adults we may find our own outlets for processing these feelings. We eventually learn to cope with the decision that we have made no matter how hard it may have been. But what about the children who are all too often stuck in the middle of two divorcing parents? How do parents make sure they are taking care of their own emotional and financial needs, while catering to the cycling emotions of the child or children who still has an equal amount of love for both parents? Children must never be treated like property or taken for granted when their parents decide to end the marriage; here are some tips to help your child through the divorce process.
1. Have a conversation as a family
Talking to your children is important. However, depending on the age of the child or children, this conversation may look very different. Children are not mini adults, but they are also not oblivious to dysfunction within the household. Children know when parents are no longer showing love to each other. They know when parents are sad or angry at each other. They sense tension at the dinner table, and know when one parent is spending an excessive amount of time out of the house. The conversation does not have to be detailed but it does need to be truthful. Reinforce the love that you have for them as parents, and inform them of the plans for visitations, and what holidays will look like, if that information has been worked out. If your child is feeling guilty, reassure him or her that the divorce is not the result of anything that he or she did or said. Honesty, warmth, and standing as a parental unit will help children with the transition to a new type of family.
2. Refrain from bad mouthing the other parent
Yes, you may be angry, well very angry, but remember that the person you are saying negative comments about is your child’s mother or father. Negativity is contagious and children should not carry the emotional burden of consoling and angry parent. When you spread negativity you are forcing your child to pick a side. You may happen to get remarried and have another spouse, but your child will only have one biological mother and father. Save the negative comments for your friends or your therapist, and allow the other parent to be a loving parent to the children.
3. Co-parent responsibly
Co-parenting can be the hardest part of a divorce for many couples. Children are not property so there should be no fighting over who gets them and when. Attempt to split holidays and vacations the best you can while remaining fair to each other. Do not use children as a bargaining chip in the divorce. Fight over who gets the big screen TV, or the nicer car, but never fight over who gets the children. If the divorce is very messy and you find that talking is not a valid form of communication, I recommend keeping a co-parenting notebook, or obtaining a parenting app to use as a communication tool. If you find that text or email is better than actual voice communication then use electronic communication. Keep the conversations solely about the children, and keep it straight to the point.
4. Your child is not your friend or your therapist; stay away from forcing them into those roles
I see this a lot with parents who have older children. Older children are easy venting targets when they are trapped in the car while you drive them to school, practice, or to the mall. Children hate playing the role of the “middle man”, and venting forces them to pick a side. Children should not have to be in a position to pick a favorite parent. Children are only born with two parents, both of you can and should be your child’s two favorite people.
5. Never limit visitations as a punishment for your ex-spouse
Unless you suspect or there is evidence of any form of abuse, visitation should not be used as a parental reward or punishment. In order to establish healthy emotional development, and adapt to the new family situation, frequent visits with both parents are encouraged. When visits are limited or stopped out of spite, it hurts your child just as much as it is hurting your ex-spouse. Remember the two of you decided to end the marriage, your child did not chose to end his or her relationship with one parent.
Remember to pay attention to any behavior changes that your child may have at school or at home. Some children feel guilty and have self-blame because they feel they are the reason for their parents breaking up. Watch for your child overcompensating “good” behaviors, or attempts to act “perfect”, as a way making sure the family stays together. Children display mental health symptoms by acting out or withdrawing. Make sure that you have frequent contact with your child’s teacher, coach, or youth group leader, in case any behavior changes occur at school or in any additional environment. If you feel you need further assistance in helping your child process divorce please speak to your school counselor, school social worker, or contact a licensed therapist for a consultation.