Divorce is never easy on anyone. When you have children, it is even more complex. How you make decisions to navigate the divorce process and ensure your children are as insulated as possible will take special insight and a tremendous amount of personal resiliency.
Children are thrown for a loop when they realize their current living situation is changing. If the marriage has been contentious, there may be feelings of relief for children that the fighting will start to lessen.
If the separation is amicable, confusion may be the emotion children are experiencing – If you get along, why aren’t you staying married? In any case, helping children navigate through the myriad of emotions, changes and challenges – while you are trying to cope with your own – is often the most difficult of all phases of separation and divorce.
It is often helpful to have some simple rules for how to navigate the minefield that is experienced by parents during this time.
Rule 1: Love your children more than you are angry at your ex. Going through divorce will inevitably leave you with a swirling ocean of emotions. If you are not careful, you will be driven by your anger, sadness, bitterness or fear from the proceedings and changes that result from the separation. Remember that you love your children and want to prioritize them and their well-being -- which should take inform how you respond to the difficulties with your ex.
Rule 2: The divorce is for you… everything else is for the children. During this time of change, remember that you and your spouse are making decisions (and have been making decisions for quite a while) that led to the divorce. Whether you want the divorce or not, the children have no say in what is happening. So, while you manage the divorce process so that it is the best it can be for you, remember to focus the rest of your attention on the emotional and physical needs of your children. These needs may be very different than what you are normally used to, so be on the lookout for changes and needs that are new. This also means that the children should not be party to discussion regarding why the separation is happening, the status of divorce or assets or other adult conversations. If children ask, remind them that those conversations are between the adults and you will share with them information that is pertinent for them.
Rule 3: The children need to have a relationship with both parents. No matter what you think about your soon-to-be ex-partner, your children need to have a meaningful and connected relationship to him/her. Just as your children are a part of you, they are a part of our ex-partner. Children internalize their parents’ personas as their own. If they hear/think that their parent is a negative person, then on some level they must be a negative person as well. Being able to create a schedule of visitation and care (assuming there is no documented risk/threat) for both parents will be most meaningful for the children. This also means that you shouldn’t be bad mouthing the other parent or allowing friends/family to bad mouth the other parent when the children are physically in your location. Remember, even if children are not in the room – they have radar ears!!
Rule 4: Say "Yes" whenever you can. Too often separated parents are focused more on trying to gain control by being rigid and holding on to power, resources, schedules...anything they can get their hands on. Now is the time to let go. Remember, if you couldn't control your ex before, you have even less ability to do so now. There are certainly things that you will need to say No to, but ask yourself first if this is a critical issue. If both parties can say yes more often, the children benefit from a more collaborative style of co-parenting. It will be up to you to determine what you can say Yes to, and those thresholds will changes as your separation becomes more concrete. As a guideline, ask yourself, are you saying No because you want to gratify yourself/your anger or do you really feel this is not in the best interest of your child.
Rule 5: Don’t overstep. When the parenting schedule is decided, adhere to it. Children need structure on a good day…it becomes critical during times of change and upheaval. When the children are with you, it is your time to parent them. When the children are with your ex, it is his/her time to parent them. Don't overstep into their parenting time. If the children call or try to reach out to you during the time they are away, remind them that it is their time with their other parent. If you feel the need, ask to speak with the other parent (as calmly as possible!!) to help resolve any issue. Don’t offer to race over to pick up the children or tell them they can come home until you have spoken to the other parent. (Remember, you wouldn’t want that done to you!)
Rule 6: Model! While no divorce is a happy event, it is a good opportunity for you to model for your children how to act with dignity, grace and self-respect in the face of hardship. While what you say is important, how you act is what your children will remember. If you are angry, sad or ambivalent, it is okay to express these emotions in front of your children as long as you are not over emoting. If your children are starting to feel responsible for your feelings or feel they have to side with one parent over the other, they are the ones being injured. Show them that you can have strong feelings about what is happening, but can still be a mature adult, who is in control of their self and act with dignity.
If you are facing any of these challenges and need additional support or guidance, contact Elliott at Elliott@insightbrookline.com, through this webpage, or by telephone at 617-834-4235.