Positive Parenting Through Divorce

Make sure your children understand that the end of your marriage is not the end of the parent-child relationship.

How do we tell our kids that we're getting divorced?

One way to help children through this early stage is (according to age) to openly discuss what is happening in the family. In some cases, it makes more sense for children to hear about the separation from both parents. If this is the case, make sure that you repeatedly tell your children that both parents will always love them and that you will always be a family. The difference will be that there will be two households.

Address any concerns they may have, such as the need to maintain a relationship with both parents. Be sure that your children understand their relationship with both parents is forever and that they will never be abandoned. Explain that a divorce does not end your child's relationship with either parent. The marriage may end, however, the parent-child relationship will continue. Generally, for young children (3-5), short, clear explanations are best. For older kids, you can explain a bit more but do not over explain. Remember they do not have to understand everything all at once. Their understanding of your divorce will evolve as they get older and will change with their age.

Another important message for kids is that in no way is the divorce their fault, nor are they able to keep you and your spouse together. When the idea of parents separating is still new to your child, reinforce to them that you will make every effort to keep things stable for them. At the same time, let them know about upcoming changes. Remember children (especially ages 5 through 12) will ask the same questions repeatedly. This is normal; it's their way of gaining a sense of security and reassurance about the future. It is important to keep your answers simple and consistent.

Of course, when one parent is being questioned apart from the other, that parent should reinforce that the separation/divorce is taking place because of differences between the parents. It's extremely important that you conduct such conversations without making any damaging or disparaging remarks about the other parent. Children adjust more easily when their parents show a healthy sense of respect for the other parent, despite difficult circumstances.

What is co-parenting and how do we do it once we are divorced?

Co-parenting responsibilities apply to all parents, whether they're married or not. The extent that parents can effectively co-parent their children greatly determines how children will adjust to the transitions associated with a sparation or divorce. Parents who have primary residential custody usually deal with more day-to-day issues concerning their children's welfare.

Generally speaking, other major-life decisions, like those concerning religion, discipline, finances, morality, recreation, physical health, education and emergencies should be discussed and made jointly (unless you and your co-parent do not share legal custody). Remember that married parents often have differing ideas about all or some of these issues. This is to be expected. There is no reason to assume that divorced parents should always agree on them either. What's important is how you deal with differences, not that they exist. It's better for parents to agree to disagree and practice compromising, than to argue and fight endlessly for their own way. This, however, is often easier said than done.

Choosing your battles is the first step. For example, if there are problems with school-related issues like homework or punctuality, discuss these with the other parent. However, foregoing an all-out fight about the other parent's choice of clothing or snack foods for your child might be a good idea. Once some of the emotionality of the divorce begins to clear, these topics can be revisited. Parents (especially those in the early stages of separation and divorce) should give one another some room to parent. In addition, look for opportunities to praise each other's parenting abilities. This kind of well-chosen reinforcement can be very effective in fostering the correct co-parenting atmosphere. Most all parents have some redeeming qualities when it comes to their kids.

Parents who chose their battles and cooperate when there are differences are more likely to make healthy decisions for their children. In fact, nurturing an overall spirit of cooperation is more important than parents agreeing on any one particular issue. Also, parents who acknowledge and effectively deal with their own difficult feelings about the divorce usually have an easier time moving on. On the other hand, recurrent arguments between parents make life difficult for children and parents alike. When parents fight for their own agenda and neglect creating a peaceful environment, their children may develop bitter feelings and have difficulties later in life with their own intimate relationships. Remembering to relate maturely and with a healthy sense of respect for the other parent (even in the face of great differences and in some cases bad feelings) is the challenge for every divorcing parent. Fostering such an environment teaches children much about love, life, change, and family relationships.

How do I keep a stable environment for my kids and myself through the divorce process?

Divorce brings about many changes in the lives of both parents and children. One change for children may be in their immediate support network. This might mean a loss of friendships and school ties if the divorce requires moving. It might also include changing relationships with extended family members after the divorce. To minimize stress on your children and ultimately yourself, try keeping your lifestyle close to what it was prior to the divorce.

If possible, keep friends, family, school, and other community support systems stable. When changes are necessary, make sure you give your children ample notice about them. The more comfortable parents are with such changes, the more comfortable their children will be.

In the days just after the divorce becomes final, there is usually is an adjustment period that can last for several weeks and oftentimes several months. During this time, people are adjusting to new routines, schedules, and living situations. It may take time for life to seem normal again. But don't worry, eventually it will. Remember that children of different ages (and even in the same family) will adapt differently. Some kids are open about their feelings and the associated changes they experience. Others will be less vocal. Make room for whatever your children are experiencing. It is a mistake to believe kids must talk about their feelings.

Checklist for a stable home environment:

  • Spend time with each child individually each day.
  • Be nurturing, supportive, and available.
  • Create routines and schedules.
  • Provide clear rules and limits and use consistent discipline.
  • Settle custody as quickly and as amicably as you can; try mediation if you cannot agree.
  • Develop a firm parenting schedule that provides frequent and regular contact with the nonresident parent.
  • Avoid too frequent changeovers between homes if custody is joint.
  • End parental conflict, at least within the child's earshot.
  • Support children's relationships with their other parent and that parent's extended family.
  • Do not burden children with adult responsibilities.
  • Do not rely on children to be your confidants or companions.
  • Seek out other sources of social support for your children.
  • Read books about adjusting to the divorce process.

How do I deal with a difficult co-parent?

Dealing with a parent who will not cooperate or negotiate under any circumstances is extremely frustrating. It can also make it difficult for you to make good decisions. It is all too easy to sink to the uncooperative parent's level and make choices that will not be in your children's best interest. For example, if one parent is communicating adult issues through a child, it can cause you to do the same. You must resist the urge to do this. Making correct choices for your children must be your focus. Oftentimes parents must wait years for the payoff, but it will be worth it.

Recall that parents who are unwilling to cooperate on any level usually have unresolved anger, grief, sadness, or all of the above. One parent's unresolved feelings can create an emotional atmosphere that prevents both parents from remaining child focused. Do not stoop to that level. This includes engaging in historical arguments that are better left in the past. Leave the issues of your marriage in the past and resist playing out these never-ending conversations that just leave everyone frustrated, angry and tired. You will no doubt feel a pull to engage in these conversations, but they are dead-ends to cooperative parenting. Simply refuse to engage in such conversations and continually stress that you are interested in communicating about what's currently impacting your child's life. Doing this consistently may help, in that at least you (and your children) do not have to be exposed to these dead-end conversations.

If you are stuck dealing with a difficult parent, especially when there is a pending court case, it is a good idea keep good records of all your interactions with them. Keep track if they are keeping their commitments to any original agreements regarding custody, visitation, keeping appointments, and providing consistent positive messages to the children. If you are faced with a parent who refuses to keep to the agreed-upon custody schedule, or is putting your children at serious physical or emotional risk, then consulting with legal counsel and/or child protective agencies may be necessary. 

What is a parenting plan and how is it used?

A well-thought-out parenting plan is an important tool for ensuring the health and well being of your children. A good parenting plan will outline how you will perform co-parenting responsibilities. It also details how you will handle and divide daily activities and caring for your kids. The parenting plan is a living document that must evolve with the needs of your growing children. Therefore, you do not have to include every potential situation you may encounter in the parenting plan. However, it must be revisited regularly to make sure it meets the needs of your family.

Six keys to successful co-parenting:

  1. How you feel about your ex is less important than how you act toward him/her. Putting aside your negative feelings is definitely in the best interest of your child.
  2. Respect your need for privacy and the other parent's too. The only information that needs to be shared between co-parents is that pertaining to the children.
  3. Each parent's time with the child is sacred. Don't make or change plans for the time your child is scheduled to spend with your ex. Honor the pre-arranged schedule.
  4. Each parent has the right to develop his/her own parenting styles. As long as no harm is being done, let your ex-spouse relate to your child as he/she sees fit.
  5. Acknowledge what your ex-spouse has to offer your child. Remember the qualities that first attracted you. Those qualities still exist and are available to your child.
  6. Expect to feel awkward and uncomfortable about this new way of relating. But keep affirming your commitment to the new relationship and eventually your ex will begin to play by the same rules.

For more tips on co-parenting, see Thirty Tips for Divorcing Parents.

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