According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), 60 percent of divorces involve children. I’ve not yet met an about-to-be-divorced parent who doesn’t express concern for their children and fear that the divorce will cause their children irreparable damage.
It doesn’t have to be that way. According to the NASP, 80 percent of children whose parents divorce go on to lead happy, well-adjusted lives. A key predictor for the success of children post-divorce involves the safeguards parents put in place and the resources they mobilize after making the difficult decision to divorce.
The two single best resources a child has are her parents. However, when a couple has decided to divorce, they are not typically functioning at the top of their game. There may be hurt and anger associated with the news of divorce, and in any case, they are preparing to negotiate their assets and liabilities, and how the family will function going forward.
Patience and trust tend to drop to new lows during the divorce process, and there is frequently little co-parenting taking place. Nonetheless, the single best predictor of your child’s healthy divorce recovery is how well you and your soon-to-be-ex-spouse get along. To the best of your ability, minimize the conflict the children witness between their parents. Never speak disparagingly of the other parent; to your child, a slight against either of you feels—at some level of consciousness—as a slight against the child.
These are things you can do as a couple (albeit a divorcing couple), but both of you have to be committed to this course of action, and that isn’t always the case during this challenging time. Fortunately, there are also things you can do as a parent on your own, beyond doing your part to maintain a reasonable co-parenting environment.
Familiarize yourself with the risk factors and what to expect at each stage of your child’s development. If your child is struggling to absorb and accept the news of your divorce, her behavior and patterns will probably be the first indication of her pain.
In their worries about the divorce’s effect on the kids, divorcing parents are often hyper-aware of changes in their children’s behavior, and understanding what’s reasonable to expect of a child at a certain age and developmental stage will enable you to better evaluate whether what you’re seeing might be a result of the divorce, or normal behavior for a child of that age.
Resist the temptation to seek emotional support from your children. It’s important to validate their sadness and acknowledge your own, but they shouldn’t be exposed to the emotional struggle that nearly every divorcing person experiences.
Stay grounded in your role as the adult in the equation, continue to maintain the established structure and communicate appropriate rules and expectations. This will give your child a sense of security at a time when her world has been mightily disrupted.
Build a Network
Now is the time to create an extra-protective and supportive environment for your children. Speak with teachers and coaches about the changes in your child’s home environment. The point is not to share with these professionals the details of the divorce, but to let them know that your child is experiencing some extraordinary circumstances at this time, and to encourage them to let you know of any significant changes they might see in your child’s behavior or demeanor.
If your children’s school has a counselor on staff, check in with him or her as well. If there are other adults—friends or family members—with whom your child has a special relationship, encourage those adults to stay open and available to your child, and to remain as neutral as possible when speaking with her.
Keep Your Child Busy
Consider what activities your child typically enjoys, and be supportive of those. When parenting time gets drastically reduced, a parent’s impulse is often to batten down the hatches and try to spend as much of the time you do have with your children in their company.
However, it’s important for your children to maintain their friendships and to engage in the activities that bring them pleasure, even if those activities don’t include you. If your family has been involved in a faith-based organization that your children have enjoyed, that can be a source of comfort and support as well.
Parents frequently want to explore therapy for their children, and this is an excellent resource if your child appears to be having difficulty with the changes in the family. You and your spouse are presumably sources of comfort and understanding for your children, but this particular topic is frequently best left to a third party. Your child may have strong feelings about these family developments—and about his parents—and having a safe, neutral place to explore those feelings is extremely helpful.
Syd Sharples, LCSW, is an Austin-based psychotherapist and collaborative divorce facilitator.