Divorce is hard on anyone—navigating the emotional and logistical challenges of ending a marriage can be overwhelming. When there's children involved, parents have the additional challenge of ensuring that their children feel loved and supported throughout the process.
By using the strategies discussed below, parents can work towards creating a stable and nurturing environment that will help their children thrive despite the inevitable changes that divorce brings.
If you and your spouse have separated or have started the divorce process, your kids probably have already caught onto the idea that something's going on. Every family is different, and your approach to telling your kids about the impending divorce is highly dependent on their age and maturity. But in most families, it's a good idea to share news about the divorce sooner rather than later.
Here are some ways to soften the blow:
Generally, for young children (aged 3 to 5), short, clear explanations are best. For older kids, you can explain a bit more, but be careful to not overwhelm them. It's okay if your kids don't understand everything all at once—their understanding of and acceptance of your divorce will evolve as they get older.
When a child has a question for only one parent, it's extremely important that the answering parent 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.
If you haven't done so already, call a truce with your spouse that will enable you to work out child-related matters. Setting aside your hostilities will enable you to focus on maintaining stability for your children as the divorce progresses.
To help your children feel supported try to:
Either on your own or with the help of an attorney or mediator, working with your spouse during the divorce to draft a parenting plan is a good way to set a precedent for positive parenting both during and after the divorce. A good parenting plan will set you up for successful post-divorce co-parenting (see discussion of co-parenting below) by outlining how you will perform parenting responsibilities such as handling daily activities and caring for your kids.
Start working on a parenting plan as soon as possible once you know divorce is imminent. And, commit to regularly revisiting it together after your divorce is final. The parenting plan is a living document that must evolve with the needs of your growing children—you don't have to include every potential situation you might encounter.
Co-parenting, in general, is the efforts of two parents—regardless of whether they're married—to make decisions together about their child's well-being. In the context of divorce, co-parenting is the process of parents who live apart setting aside their differences to work together to ensure that they're consistently acting in the best interests of their child.
The extent that parents can effectively co-parent their children greatly determines how children will adjust to the transitions associated with a separation or divorce. When you and your ex present a united front on issues such as family rules, discipline, and education, you help provide stability in the child's life, regardless of which parent's house the child resides in.
Co-parenting can be difficult, especially if your divorce is contentious or you really don't want to have anything to do with your ex. Most of the time, unless there are health or safety concerns, it's best for the children for the parents to act like adults and try to work together for the benefit of the children.
Co-parenting isn't always a good option, though. If a judge has ordered sole custody and decision-making to one parent—perhaps due to the other parent's abusive behavior or substance abuse—it's best not to try to co-parent.
If co-parenting is right for your family, you can start forming good co-parenting habits during your divorce.
Generally speaking, 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 don't share legal custody). You don't always have to agree with your co-parent: Married parents often have differing ideas about all or some of these issues, so there's 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. Adopting the following practices can help smooth the co-parenting relationship.
Choosing your battles is the first step. For example, if there are problems with school-related issues like homework or punctuality, these are important topics that have long-term repercussions, and should be discussed with the other parent. On the other hand, discussing minor topics—such as the other parent's choice of clothing or snack foods for your child—probably isn't worth it.
Once some of the emotions from the divorce begin 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.
Although it might be hard while you're battling it out in court, look for opportunities to praise each other's parenting abilities. Nearly all parents have some redeeming qualities when it comes to their kids—try to separate your assessment of your soon-to-be-ex's parenting skills from your perception of their weaknesses as a spouse.
Nurturing an overall spirit of cooperation is more important than agreeing on any one particular issue. 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 might 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 even bad feelings) is the challenge for every divorcing parent. Fostering such an environment teaches children much about love, life, change, and family relationships.
The business is the co-parenting of your child. In business relationships, there are no emotional attachments or expectations of approval and emotional support. Also in business, just like after a divorce, you don't need to like the people you do business with, but you do need to put negative feelings aside in order to conduct business. Make appointments to talk, provide an agenda, and focus on the business at hand. Be polite, observe formal courtesies, and write out clear agreements. Relating in a business-like way with a former spouse can feel strange and awkward. If you catch yourself behaving in an unprofessional way, end the conversation and continue the discussion at another time.
Parents who approach co-parenting with these goals in mind are more likely to make healthy decisions for their children. Also, parents who acknowledge and effectively deal with their own difficult feelings about the divorce usually have an easier time moving on.
Dealing with a parent who won't cooperate or negotiate is extremely frustrating. A parent who is unwilling to cooperate on any level usually has unresolved anger, grief, or sadness. One parent's unresolved feelings can create an emotional atmosphere that prevents both parents from focusing on the child.
It can also make it difficult for you to make good decisions: It's all too easy to sink to the uncooperative parent's level. For example, if the other parent is using your child to send you messages or communicate topics that should be parents-only, it can be tempting to mirror your ex's behavior in an effort to avoid direct contact.
Leave the issues of your marriage in the past, and resist playing out historical arguments. You will no doubt feel a pull to engage in these conversations, but they are dead-ends to cooperative parenting. Refuse to engage in such conversations, and emphasize that you are interested in communicating about what's currently impacting your child's life.
If you are stuck dealing with a difficult co-parent, especially when a court case is pending, it's a good idea to create records of all your interactions with them. Note if they're not keeping their commitments to agreements regarding custody and visitation, reliably attending appointments, and providing consistent positive messages to the children.
If your co-parent refuses to keep to the agreed-upon (or court-ordered) custody schedule, or is putting your children at serious physical or emotional risk, it's a good idea to hire an attorney or contact a child protective agency. (If you believe you or your child is at risk of imminent harm, contact emergency services immediately.)
Divorce isn't an event, it's a process. Recognize that there will be an adjustment period after the divorce is final. During this time, people are adjusting to new routines, schedules, and living situations. Remember that children of different ages (and even in the same family) will adapt differently. Some kids are open about their feelings, while others will be less vocal. Make room for whatever your children are experiencing.
It might take time for life to seem normal again. But don't worry, eventually it will.