Almost fifteen years ago, I had the privilege of shadowing a child psychiatrist who specialized in helping parents navigate parenting through the stressful and often conflict ridden period of separation and divorce. In her office, there were three pairs of shoes. On each side were parent’s shoes, and in the middle a pair of children’s shoes.
This image will never leave me. I use it today anytime I help parents working through this process. It serves as an immensely powerful reminder to all involved that in the middle of two adults, there is a vulnerable child for whom decisions are being made that will forever impact his or her developmental trajectory and emotional well being.
So if you are going through a separation or divorce, how can you focus on the shoes in the middle when things are already so tough, when emotions are at their peak, and when a whirlwind of change is sweeping through? Let’s go through what I call the Ten Cardinal Rules of Parenting Through Divorce.
1.Keep conflict exposure low.
Research show that long term outcomes for children of divorce are best when parental conflict is low. For years, I have walked parents through the waves of emotion that encompass the divorce process- grief, pain, loss, anger, resentment, fear, anxiety, and failed expectations. These types of feelings are normal and par for the course when two adults enter into a union with expectations to love one another and create a family together, and then end up with dashed hopes and dreams. It is never an easy journey, not even in the most “amicable” of situations.
For children, the magnitude of change can feel far greater. No matter the dynamic of home before divorce, even when pre-existing conflict levels were low, children almost universally report anxiety about the future, feelings of guilt, uncertainty about their role in the divorce, and fears about where they belong. They also worry about their parents’ well being.
For these reasons, the best thing that you, as a parent, can do is to mitigate the level of stress that your child feels by shielding him or her from conflict or strong adult emotions. Try not to argue in front of your children or engage in conflict with your former partner in their presence. Find alternate ways to handle your own emotions about your former spouse that are healthy for you and don’t involve your kids. Find safe spaces to talk through your own feelings, like with friends and family who are supportive, or with a counselor. Spend time exercising, being outdoors, or focused on activities that you enjoy so that when you are with your children, you are more relaxed and less likely to be burdened by heavy emotions. If you have to have a stressful talk with your former spouse, schedule to do so when they are at school or with a trusted caregiver. Try to keep such stressful times “scheduled” and limited, rather than engaging in ongoing conflict oriented conversations. This will optimize your own mental health so you are at your best when with them. Engaging in heated conflict over text messages and email can lend to you feeling stressed, and they will pick up on it even if you think you are fine.
2. Minimize Change.
Regardless of how well two adults plan the divorce process, children have their own sense of stability rocked by the mere fact that their parents are no longer in the same place. It means that when children want a hug, one parent is there and the other is not. At dinner time, there is now an empty seat at the table. At bedtime, one parent is physically there to say good night and the other is not. Our brains, as adults, have a hard time adapting to changes. We have to be mindful that children’s brains are yet developing, and change is hard for them no matter what.
Keep your children’s environment as consistent as possible during this process. They will already be adapting to having one parent around at a given time and not two, and two homes instead of one. Try to keep their support network involved and consistent. Keep routines as much as possible, and try to keep the same routine in your home as your former spouse does at his or her home. This helps greatly. Sometimes, children will even report that they feel better when mom has the same comfort food for dinner that dad has and vice versa. Try to keep your children’s rooms cozy and inviting, making their space comfortable at both homes.
3. Facilitate daily contact with the other parent.
You likely miss your children a great deal when they are not with you and in the custody of your former spouse. A lot of parents tell me that they cherish their time with their children so much that they are reluctant to encourage them to call the other parent when it is their time. Some parents tell me that they will allow their children to call the other parent once a day. While this is better than not facilitating contact at all, it is best to allow children to contact either parent whenever it feels comfortable for them to do so. Allowing this freedom creates a sense of safety and security, a sense of control that is reassuring, and affirms that parents want to support mutual communication. It gives children a feeling that both parents have the shared goal of loving them and sharing in their experiences.
4. Set aside your own feelings and be flexible for your children’s sake.
There will inevitably come a time when your children want to be with your former spouse, and not with you. It may be an afternoon when you had a planned outing or you were really looking forward to it just being you and your children. It may be at bedtime when you are tired and exhausted, or at school when they have just gotten into trouble. Remember, when this time arises, that it isn’t about you. Your children have the right to want mom and dad at different times. This is part of normal development. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you or love you less. The fact is that children aren’t wired to be considerate of our feelings all of the time. They go through seasons of leaning on one parent more than the other, and have moments of wanting affirmation and reassurance from one more than the other, as well. Parents who interpret these normal developmental needs as insulting often cause children to shut down, act out, internalize anxiety, or avoid discussion.
It is best when your children ask for your former spouse, to facilitate communication. Maintain flexibility. Encourage them to have a good relationship and communicate with both of you. Help them to share good and bad experiences, during or right after they have occurred. This way, while the two of you are not physically present, they are able to include you both in their daily lives, which feels good and reassuring.
5. Be present.
Your children’s one on one time with you deserves your undivided attention. Make sure that they know that you are there to engage in relationship. Try not to be distracted by your work, friends, or phone. The fact is that your children need as much relationship time as possible, and the more you provide that, the better they will fare.
6. If your children are acting out or having a hard time, address the underlying need and help them to talk about things.
It is reasonable to anticipate that your children will handle emotions about your split in one of three different ways. Some children will internalize their emotions, which means they keep their feelings inside and don’t talk about them. These children try to keep conflict low, often feeling guilty about speaking up because they are afraid of adding to their parents’ full plate of emotion. They don’t want to be a source of difficulty. They tend to also take on a lot of guilt about their parents’ separation.
Other children will externalize their feelings, which means they will have frequent meltdowns, problem behaviors, or will become disrespectful. These children feel stressed but do not know how to communicate their feelings. They aren’t consciously aware of how much stress they actually are under, and it comes out in the form of frustration, irritability, and acting out.
Lastly, there are children who navigate divorce while seeming at ease, comfortable to talk with their parents, knowing that their feelings are appreciated and responded to.
If your children are falling in the former two categories, try not to address the behaviors directly. Instead, focus on the underlying need. For instance, instead of responding to disrespect with a punishment or consequence, spend time talking to your children about how much they mean to you and dig deeper as to what might be bothering them. Open doors for dialogue, and talk about how difficult change can be. It is okay to talk about how hard change has been for you also, and to share that it is something you are weathering together.
Invest time in doing fun things together. It is always easier for kids to talk when they feel they’ve done something with parents that brings them together. Take a long walk, or go on a hike or bike ride, and talk along the way.
7. Be present at your children’s important events with your former partner.
When it comes to birthdays, sporting events, recitals, and other such important moments in children’s lives, make an effort for you and your former partner to be present for your children. Set aside differences and sit together, or at least nearby one another. This affirms to your children that their experiences are more important than any differences that you both have.
Openly talk to your former partner with your child there, and express feelings toward your children that bring you all together. For instance, “Mom and dad are so proud of you! You kicked that ball so hard!” This lets your children know that you both want to be their to share in good and bad times, and that your love for your children always joins you, no matter what.
8. Provide reminders to your children that you BOTH love them.
When children are young, we send “transitional objects” with them to daycare or preschool. These are things to remind them of home, provide comfort, and ease separation anxiety. When children go from one parent’s home to the other’s after divorce, they often carry guilt about one parent being alone. Easing anxiety and guilt upon separation can be as easy as calling your children daily. It can also be mitigated by sending along a transitional object like a photo bear, recordable story book, old shirt, or scarf.
It is also helpful to have at least one photo of both you and your former spouse with your children on display, to provide reassurance to them that they are loved and that divorce doesn’t separate them from that love.
9. Do not rush into another relationship.
It is critical that your children feel that they are your priority. Many parents get caught up with wanting to move on, feeling they deserve to be happy and get on with life. I can’t tell you the number of times that children, whose parents are dating after divorce, have expressed to me in therapy that they struggle with feeling displaced and marginalized, wanting their parents to themselves, and struggling with feeling that the change is overwhelming. Your children will need ample time to recover and heal from your divorce. Focus on being there for them and keeping things simple. This goes along with minimizing change.
If you choose to be involved with someone, do so on your own time, when your children are with your former spouse. Be careful to not involve that person in your children’s lives until they have healed and had adequate time to just have you to themselves. For most children, this is a period that is at least a year if not up to three years. Remember, that your children need to know that they are your focus. This is imperative to their development and growth.
10. Take care of yourself.
The better you are feeling emotionally, physically, and spiritually, the better you will be for your children when you are together. Take time to do things that make you feel joyful and happy. Spend time with friends, engage in activities that you love, travel, and stay busy doing things that are edifying. Do things that build your faith, dig deeper into what brings you purpose and meaning, and make your prayer life stronger. The more you feel stronger on the inside, the better you will function as a parent. The better you feel, the less your children will worry about you and about separating from you. When you are feeling and functioning well, your children will feel free to be themselves, free of worries, and free to explore.