Helping Children Manage Divorce
By Jocelyn R. Miller, PhD, Dean Pediatric Psychologist
Children from divorced families can grow up happy and healthy, just like children from any other type of family. Over 25 years of research has shown that the two most powerful factors influencing children's development after a divorce are:
- How much conflict, anger, and bitterness there is between the parents as they raise their children across two households.
- Whether or not the child has regular, predictable, and frequent access to both parents.
The best thing you can do to help your children cope with the emotions and upheaval involved in a divorce is to work towards a peaceful relationship with your children's other parent.
The Decision to Divorce
Both parents should sit down with all the children together to tell them that a decision has been made to separate or divorce. Make sure the children know that it is not their fault that parents have decided to divorce, and that there is nothing the children can do to try to get their parents back together.
Try to have as many of the details worked out as possible before telling the children that you will be separating, so that you can tell the children right away which parent will be moving out, where he or she will be going, and when the children will next spend time with that parent.
Allow some time between telling the children that a parent will be moving out, and the actual event. Young children under age 6 need only 1 - 2 weeks of advance notice, while older children can use up to one month to prepare for this sort of change.
If a parent will be moving into a residence that the children have never seen before (rather than a relative's home), take the children to see their parent's new home before the parent actually moves out of the current home.
Establish a visitation/placement schedule right away and stick to it. Do not allow too much time to pass before the children see the parent who has moved out of the house. Children under age 6 should see the absent parent within 2 - 3 days; older children should see the parent within a week.
If there is a high amount of anger and conflict between the parents, set up the children's placement/visitation schedule so that the parents come into contact as little as possible.
Arrange necessary meetings between the parents at a time when the children are not around. Meet for lunch, set up a phone call after the children are in bed, or get a babysitter and meet in a public place. This reduces the possibility that the children will be exposed to hearing their parents argue.
Remember that the first six months after a physical separation takes place are usually a crisis adjustment period for everyone in the family. Children may show many symptoms of anxiety and sadness during this time, such as:
- Frequent crying
- Clinginess to one or both parents
- Sleep difficulties
- Loss of appetite
- Increased anger or aggression
Be supportive of the children's expressions of sadness and grief. Allow time for mourning. Be a role model of healthy mourning, first by talking about sadness and the good things that are missed about the way the family used to be, then by talking about or showing how you comfort yourself when sad.
Allow daily phone contact with the other parent, particularly during the early days and weeks of the separation.
Adjusting to Two Households
Once each parent has gotten settled into a home, remember that each home belongs to the children. Children of divorce do best when they have flexibility and open access to each parent's home and to their personal possessions within that home. If the child wants to take clothing, toys, or other possessions back and forth between the two homes, are as flexible as possible in allowing them to do so.
Remember that your children love both of their parents, and need a positive relationship with both parents in order to grow up happy and healthy. Keep a neutral attitude about your children's other parent. Do not criticize or express your anger toward the other parent in front of the children. This sets up a loyalty conflict for the children, which will make it much more difficult for them to adjust to the divorce in a healthy way.
Try to keep the rules for the children the same in each household whenever possible. Acknowledge any differences in the rules between the two households openly, without criticizing the other parent's choices.
When thinking about the children's time with you, think about the quality of time. It is appropriate to have boundaries between the children's two households, but do not turn into a tiger, jealously guarding every minute of the children's time with you.
Be flexible about the children's schedule for holidays and vacations. Be open-minded about trading weekends with the other parent if requested.
Be flexible about long-term plans for the children's placement. The younger the children are when you and their other parent separate, the more years you have to work with in balancing out each parent's time with the children. The placement schedule that might work best when the children are young may need to be reevaluated when they become teen-agers.
Do not expect the other parent to enforce punishments for naughty behavior in your household unless this has been discussed between the two parents in advance. Do not threaten to limit the child's time with the other parent as a punishment if the child is naughty. Regardless of their behavior, children always have access to each parent as established in the divorce decree.
Communicate with the other parent directly, using phone, letter, email, or face-to-face conversation. Do not ask the children to pass along a message to the other parent.
Do not discuss financial matters with the children. Children have no ability to understand information about child support or other financial arrangements between the parents. Talking about this information with the children blurs the boundaries between parents and children, and makes it difficult for the children to respect other limits set by parents.
Do not withhold visitation/placement time with the other parent if that parent has failed to pay child support. Finances are a separate matter from the child's right to see each parent regularly.
Remember that it takes time for children, particularly those under age 6, to make the emotional transition from one parent and home to the other. Do not schedule important or stressful events immediately before or after the child will be making a change between households. Keep the demands on your schedule low so that you can be available to spend time with the children after they begin their placement time in your home.
School, Friends, and Community Activities
As part of their legal divorce agreement, parents should discuss in advance how they want to handle the children's extra-curricular activities and lessons. If the other parent does not agree with a certain activity, be sure to schedule it only during your own placement time.
Decide in advance how information about the children's activities will be communicated between the parents. Each parent should work to make sure that the other parent is informed about sports schedules, doctor's appointments, etc.
If both parents are not present when a child has a health care appointment, talk to the doctor about whether or not she/he will inform the other parent directly about diagnosis and treatment recommendations for the child.
Each parent is responsible for their own relationship with their child's school. Make sure the school has the names and addresses of both parents. Each parent can request their own copy of the child's report cards.
Separate parent-teacher conferences are certainly appropriate, particularly if parents are still very angry and have trouble getting along.
Contact the school if there is any difficulty with communication between the school and each household.
Make sure your children have access to their friends from both households. Ask the other parent, the teacher, or other involved adults to help you get the names, addresses, and phone numbers of your child's friends. Encourage your children to invite friends over during your placement time. You may need to help this process along if your children are under age 10 by calling the friend's parents and making arrangements for a play date.
Getting Professional Help
Divorce is a painful process for everyone involved. Parents' emotions are very intense during this life change, and can cloud their ability to make decisions that are in their child's best interests. Do not hesitate to seek professional help and parent guidance during a divorce.
Getting an objective opinion can be very valuable to make sure that you are doing everything within your power to have a "good divorce." Putting your child's needs first during this difficult change in the family will insure that he or she will grow up to be a healthy, happy adult.
If you feel it's needed, please call Dean Psychiatry today to set up a parenting consultation.
For Further Reading
The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, by Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, Sandra Blakeslee © 2001
The Good Divorce, by Constance Ahrons © 1994
Parenting After Divorce: A Guide to Resolving Conflicts and Meeting Your Children's Needs, by Philip M. Stahl, PhD © 2000
View Dr. Miller's profile.