Positive Parenting Through Divorce

One of the keys to parenting during divorce is to make sure your children understand that the end of your marriage is not the end of the parent-child relationship.

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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.

How to Tell Your Kids You're Getting a Divorce

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:

  • Foster open communication. One way to help children through this early stage is to discuss openly (in an age-appropriate manner) what's happening. If it makes sense for your family, it's often a good idea for both parents together to tell the children about the divorce. Regardless, make sure that you repeatedly tell your children that both parents will always love them and that you will always be a family—the main difference will be that there will be two households.
  • Address any concerns they might have. Let your children know that you're there to answer any questions they might have. When you first break the news, they might not have any questions right away. Give them time to process, and let them know that you're available to talk at any time. Children (especially ages 5 through 12) often will ask the same questions repeatedly. This is normal; it's their way of gaining a sense of security and reassurance about the future. Keep your answers simple and consistent.
  • Explain that a divorce doesn't end your child's relationship with either parent. The marriage may end, however, the parent-child relationship will continue. Be sure that your children understand that their relationship with both parents is forever and that they will never be abandoned.
  • Let them know that in no way is the divorce their fault, nor are they able to keep you and your spouse together. While the idea of parents separating is still new, reinforce that this is happening because of differences between you and your spouse, and has nothing to do with the child. If you sense that the child might try to "fix" things, gently remind them that it's beyond their control.
  • Keep them informed about upcoming changes. Even though you're going to make every effort to keep things stable, there are bound to be changes. Let them know that you're going to keep them in the loop when there's something going on that might affect them, and try your best to give them as much of a heads-up as possible.

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.

Tips for Maintaining a Stable Home Environment During Divorce

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:

  • 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 can't agree.
  • Develop a firm parenting schedule that provides frequent and regular contact with the nonresident parent.
  • Avoid too frequent changeovers between homes if you and your spouse are living apart.
  • End parental conflict within the child's earshot.
  • Support children's relationships with their other parent and that parent's extended family.
  • Not burden children with adult responsibilities.
  • Avoid relying on your child to be your confidant or companion.
  • Seek out other sources of social support for your children.
  • Read books about adjusting to the divorce process.

Create a Solid Parenting Plan

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.

What Are the Benefits of Co-Parenting?

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.

What Are the Drawbacks of Co-Parenting?

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.

How 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.

· Choose Your Battles

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.

· Look for Opportunities to Praise Each Other

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.

· Try to Cooperate

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.

· Establish a Business Relationship

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.

How to Deal With a Difficult Co-Parent

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.

Keep Records of a Difficult Co-Parent's Behavior

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.)

A Dozen Tips for Successful Co-Parenting

  1. Put aside your anger and hurt. How you feel about your ex is less important than how you act toward them. Acting civilly sets a good example for your child and fosters a better long-term co-parenting arrangement. Don't say derogatory things about your ex.
  2. Respect each other's privacy. The only information that needs to be shared between co-parents is that pertaining to the children. Don't try to use the children to gain information about your ex.
  3. Recognize that 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 prearranged schedule.
  4. Acknowledge your ex's right to develop their own parenting style. As long as no harm is being done, let your ex-spouse relate to your child as they see fit.
  5. Appreciate 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 if you keep affirming your commitment to the new relationship, it's more likely that your ex will begin to play by the same rules.
  7. Allow access to the other parent and extended relatives. Neither parent should deny the child reasonable use of the telephone or computer to reach out to loved ones. Nor should either parent intercept, "lose," derail, "forget" or otherwise interfere with communications from the other parent to the child.
  8. Conduct discussions about legal and business dealings outside of the hearing of the children. Overhearing such discussions can place stress on the children and cause them to worry about things they have no control over. Never discuss child custody or support issues in the presence of the children.
  9. Don't undermine the authority of the other parent. It's important that you not encourage or instruct the child to misbehave for the other parent or reward the child to act negatively toward the other parent.
  10. Allow your child to bring or keep items that make them feel comfortable. For example, within reason, permit the child to carry gifts, toys, clothing, and other items belonging to the child to the residence of the other parent or relatives.
  11. Introduce new people slowly. Ensure that boyfriends, girlfriends, and potential stepparents go slow, stay out of the divorce, and don't interfere in a child's relationship with either parent. Don't encourage the child to call potential stepparents "Mom" or "Dad."
  12. Conduct transfers gently and respectfully. Transfers can be painful times. Be kind and patient with each other and your children. At pick-up time, don't honk your horn in front of the other parent's house. However, don't go into the house unless you are invited in. Always be on time for pick-up and drop-off and have the children ready to go.

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.

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