Protecting your children through your divorce

At its worst, divorce can devastate a family.  At its "best," divorce can be part of a process that helps a family re-establish itself in a new and workable form.  Children are the innocents in a divorce process;  they have not precipitated this event, but this is frequently one of the most significant events in their lives to date.  Invariably, parents want to ensure their children's health and well-being during this challenging time.  For many, this involves seeking resources that facilitate the transition.

A number of factors influence a child's adjustment to divorce, some of which are very much within your control, and some of which are beyond your control but important to be aware of.    For instance, age, gender and temperament are predetermined.  Research has shown that children under the age of five experience the most pain initially, but are better able to adjust to a divorce compared to their older peers.  Boys appear to have more short-term difficulties, while girls are more likely to exhibit effects in the long-term.  As you might imagine, generally  adaptable children transition to their new family form more easily than children who are more reactive to changes in their environment. 

Of those factors within your control, perhaps the single most important one in determining how your children adjust to the divorce is how you and your spouse interact.  Divorcing couples will surely experience a certain amount of hostility during their divorce, and that conflict may very well continue for a time following the divorce but when conflict continues for years, the negative consequences for the children can be profound.  Bottom line:  the more intense the conflict the greater the potential for damage, and the longer this conflict continues the greater the risk of long-term negative effects.  You and your ex-spouse may be co-parenting for years to come, and working towards an effective co-parenting relationship from the moment you make the decision to divorce is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children during this difficult time in their lives.

Your children love both of you;  casting aspersions on their other parent is effectively an attack on them.  Some conversation topics that should be avoided at all costs when talking with your children include:  negative comments about the other parent (and their family and friends), the divorce process and events leading up to it, money in the context of child support, details of your spouse's life or your children's time with your spouse.  Putting your children in the middle of communication between you and your spouse is detrimental to their adjustment.  Asking them to keep secrets or to spy on their other parent is also harmful to their well-being.  Give your child the space and support to love both of you.  Whenever you can, support your spouse in his or her parenting.  And if you have questions about parenting practices in your children's other home, check it out with your spouse before any discussion with your children.  "I need to talk with your mom/your dad about that first" can be a real lifesaver;  it enables you to gather necessary information, and it sends a clear message to your children that you and their other parent are united in your parenting effort.

Most parents want to be a resource for their children's emotional healing as they recover from their parents' divorce and while it is crucial to support and listen to your children, it is impossible to be their sole source of support and comfort at this time.  For one thing, your own healing is ongoing and your emotional state is likely fragile.  Additionally, children are often highly attuned to a parent's emotional state and take on the task of helping mom or dad to feel better, sometimes at the expense of their own emotional well-being.  Children typically find it difficult to be completely open about their experience with their parents;  they may be reluctant to hurt your feelings, and most likely feel uncomfortable talking honestly with you about their other parent.  When a family goes through a transition like divorce, outside resources can be invaluable.  Information about parenting is frequently available at the community level through family and child service agencies, and many therapists specialize in helping families transition.  Therapy is an excellent resource for children experiencing divorce:  therapy provides a safe place for your child to speak openly and attend to her needs without having to worry about hurting a parent's feelings or being insufficiently attentive to a parent's emotional needs.  School teachers are excellent resources to understand how your child is adjusting outside of the home, and school counselors can be a good starting point for conversations between your child and a trained professional. 

Yes, divorce is a devastating experience for a child.  But there are things you can do to help mediate that experience, and support your child during this difficult time in his life.  

About Syd

Many elements inform my practice:  training in clinical social work, a 20-year career in business, and my role as a parent, to name just a few.

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