There are no ways to avoid some of the negative effects of your divorce on your children. They will be swept into the uncertainty, loss, and stress from the wave of divorce, while have little to no choice in the process or outcome. The more pertinent question will be “how do I protect them by minimizing the most harmful impacts?” What happens during the divorce process is crucial for helping children cope with divorce long-term. This article summarizes some of the primary ways to protect your children during the divorce process.
Shield them from your Conflicts with your Ex
Almost 50 years of scientific research from psychologists such as Joan Kelly, Ph.D. have demonstrated that the number one factor affecting children’s ability to be resilient, healthy and well-adjusted after a divorce is the degree of conflict between the parents. Parents usually believe they are benefiting their children by ending a difficult marriage, thereby removing their children from the empty, disrespectful, or volatile patterns of the daily interactions with their spouse.
Yet, many parents then continue these unhealthy, high-conflict ways of interacting with their ex-spouse post-divorce, with the same damaging effects on children. Additionally, children (especially younger children) tend to see themselves as one-half of each of their parents and critical or derogatory comments about your ex-spouse directly erodes your child’s self-esteem.
Thus, your first priority should be to shield them from conflicts with your ex, including:
- Only having heated discussions or arguments with your ex when you kids are not at home or in earshot of either parent
- Not making any negative, critical, judgmental comments or complaints about your ex while talking with friends and family when your children can hear
- Actively monitor and hide your groans, exasperated sighs, or distorted facial expressions after speaking with or texting your ex in your children’s presence
- Commit to making parenting transitions (picking the kids up from each other’s homes) peaceful, civil and non-eventful
Keep Them Out of the Middle
Your children have to cope with the quickly changing family relationships, having to live at two homes, more complicated schedules, less family resources, etc. when their primary job is to be a kid, to play, learn and socialize. Thus, your second priority in protecting your kids from the negative effects of divorce on children cope with divorce should be to mitigate any additional stress placed upon them, and to remove any temptation to feed the loyalty conflicts (with which they will already be struggling). This includes:
- Never ask your children to pass any messages between the parents, or interrogate your children about the other parents’ home, words or activities.
- Do not leave any paperwork or notes about your relationship or divorce within easy reach from your children.
- Obtain emotional and other support from adult confidants and professionals. By making sure you have a counselor to express and work through grief, anger, blame, and difficult decisions, you can manage your own mental health and limit the inappropriate temptation of using your children for support.
- Ensure that conflicts with your ex does not impact your children, in terms of consistently paying child support (protect their economic stability), withholding parenting time, or cancelling something the children were looking forward to.
- Actively affirm your children’s right to love, have their own relationship, and spend quality time with the other parent.
Include your Children . . . Appropriately
During a time when so much is changing that is beyond your children’s control, you can ease their anxiety by providing them with information and input where appropriate:
- Develop a shared, non-blaming, reassuring, age-appropriate way to tell your children about the divorce, then ideally sit down and tell them the same message together. Keep it simple, answer any (logistical) questions they have, and be caring with their responses.
- Inform your children with advance notice when there are changes in schedules of where they are living and who is picking them up. Once you have a parenting schedule (even if temporary) color-code it and post it on the refrigerator.
- Occasionally ask and just listen to (avoid lecturing) your children regarding how they are doing with the divorce related life-changes, and ask if there is anything they need that would help. Provide them with professional counseling if needed.
- Unless your children are well-adjusted to the separation and older than 15, never give them the choice (responsibility) of choosing how much time to spend with each parent. For any of your children’s requests that affect the other parent (including schedule or expenses) your first response should be “let me check with your other parent.” This continues to affirm the parents are the decision-makers who are working together for the children’s benefit.
Maintain Some Status Quo
Look for all the ways you can minimize the effects of divorce on children by providing normalcy in the transition by maintaining the basic components of your children’s lives, including:
- Continue, and if possible, step up your normal competent parenting, including being emotionally available, providing healthy meals, and maintaining behavioral expectations around school, chores and discipline.
- Do not suddenly or significantly reduce or change the quality time your children spend with either of their parents (within the constraints of a shared parenting schedule). Try to keep up with any traditions each parent uniquely has with each child.
- Make extra efforts to keep the people your children care about in their lives, including friends, family (including your ex’s family), babysitters, etc. This network and community of belonging is essential for their well-being.
- Even if you are excited and impatient to introduce a new dating partner to your children, this is the opposite of what they need. Wait at least six months after the divorce is complete and ideally to know that a new relationship will be consistent before gradually introducing them to your children.
While children can be incredibly resilient and adaptable to life changes, they will definitely experience a range of negative impacts from the divorce, which may be expressed through current or future emotional or behavioral challenges. By attending to the four categories listed in this article, you will provide a strong protection from the negative consequences of the divorce upon your children and be helping your children cope with divorce for years to come.
Read about positive and negative effects of divorce on kids and age-based difficulties.
Read some of the behaviors of kids struggling with the effects of a divorce.
Read about the best way to take care of yourself: Top 10 Divorce Tips.