Divorce is no fun for anyone, but it can be especially devastating for children. It doesn’t have to be that way. Children can come through unscathed if their parents are willing to help them through the process.
It takes a commitment by the divorcing parents to do the hard work required for the sake of their children. Studies have shown that children of divorced parents are not automatically doomed to face depression, low self-esteem or academic failure.
A child who is above the age of three will have some limited understanding of what is happening when divorce strikes. Preschoolers may come to the conclusion that the parent who is leaving is doing so because of them. Older children may also develop a sense that they are to blame for the divorce.
Open communication between parents and children can prevent this situation. Discuss the divorce, using age appropriate language, and encourage children to talk honestly about their feelings.
Teenagers may have harbored suspicions that divorce was coming for some time. They may be internalizing their stress and worries. Open, honest communication is paramount with teens. They need to know what is happening and what to expect in the near future as well as the long-term.
A divorce should be between two parents, though it usually isn’t that simple. When children are in the household, they can easily become collateral damage. Parents must be aware of this and take the steps necessary to leave the children out of the ugliness that can accompany a marital breakup.
• Don’t use children as go-betweens or messengers. This places unfair pressure on children and encourages them to pick a side in the marital dispute. Don’t pressure children to share information about the other parent.
• Children are not marriage counselors, so don’t place them in this role. Parents must remain in the parental role. Discuss the details of the divorce — including hurt feelings, economic worries and self-esteem issues — with a therapist or divorce lawyer.
• Children need to know that both their parents are trying to see the situation from the child’s point of view. Parents need to listen to their children, not try to control how they feel.
• Parents must refrain from denigrating each other in front of the children. Whatever caused the divorce must remain an issue between the parents. If parents remain amicable toward each other, the children will feel they have permission to continue loving both parents equally.
Even when parents share joint physical custody, children will spend time away from each parent. This is a big adjustment for children, regardless of age. It is incumbent on the parents to make certain that frequent contact with the noncustodial parent is made available.
Parents need to discuss custody arrangements with their children — together. Doing this could present a challenge for the parents, but it can be a major stabilizing moment for the children. Parents should always remain amicable in their relations toward each other in front of the children. Anything less might make the children feel as if they must choose sides — an intolerable situation.
Parents need to agree on a predictable custody schedule and stick to it. The “hand-off” of the children needs to be smooth and non-confrontational. Issues with the other parent that require further discussion should not be confronted when the children are in attendance.
The No. 1, undeniably inflexible rule when getting divorced: Never criticize the other parent in front of the children. Absolutely nothing good will come from it.
Keeping it civil, at all cost, makes it easier for children to make the adjustment to a post-divorce family dynamic. Make the effort — it will be worth it.
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