What a divorcing parent needs to know
I have been in your shoes. Now I teach other parents about how to navigate this sometimes difficult transition into co-parenting following a divorce. In the state in which I live it is required that divorcing parents attend a seminar intended to help minimize the potentially negative effects of divorce on children. Below is information you might learn if you were to attend one of my classes.
Switch to a business relationship with your child’s other parent
You may have had an emotionally close relationship with your child’s other parent. During your marriage, you may have shared a great deal with your ex-partner about your feelings. Now it’s time for something different, particularly if there was conflict leading up to and during the divorce process. Not all divorced parents can maintain an air of friendliness, but a business partnership can be equally beneficial for your child.
Business partners communicate without unnecessary emotional content. Business partners work together to make decisions that help to achieve their goal (in this case, the well-being of your child or children). Following an effective business model, try limiting your emails to three sentences: an opener, a specific request, and a polite invitation for a response to this request. This type of communication reduces the risk of emotional and off-topic material and increases the possibility that you will achieve your goal.
Take the high road around your child at all times
In any war there is collateral damage. If you are continuing to battle with your ex-partner following your divorce then it is your child who will suffer. Children experience stress when they hear their parents arguing. Therefore, the first goal would be to reduce the amount of conflict in your communications (see first point above). This includes nonverbal communication (e.g., eye rolling) which conveys plenty to your child.
The second goal would be to avoid your child seeing or hearing negativity that may still exist. If maintaining civility is difficult, children should not be nearby when a parent is communicating with the other parent. If communication continues to be tense or volatile in person or over the phone then try to limit contact to emails whenever possible, following the business model described above. (I recommend emails over texts in these cases as texts often result in immediate reactive responses that can be fueled by emotion over reason.)
Furthermore, we all need someone to vent to about our struggles, but kids should not be present when a parent is discussing these issues with a trusted adult. Your child may be using her best listening skills during and following your divorce due to her anxieties about the many changes that are occurring.
Consistency and routine is key
Particularly early on in the separation, it is important that children know they can count on some things remaining the same. If you can avoid making a change in your child’s life for the first year of divorce, avoid it! There are some changes that simply have to occur (e.g., new home for mom or dad), but if some routines remain the same. then those inevitable changes are easier to manage.
Get into a routine quickly and stick to it. Show up for visits on time, every time. Use a wall calendar in each home that clearly shows which day is “dad’s day” and which day is “mom’s day” so that there are no surprises or additional reasons for anxiety. Even when schedules need to change for work or vacation, it’s important that children are informed as early as possible so that they can adjust their thinking and feel confident in their understanding of the plan.
Your well-being is essential
If your child is worried about how you are doing then he is not able to attend to his job: being a child. If your child is unsure if you will be able to take care of her, then she may not be able to adjust to the many changes required of her during a separation and divorce.
If divorce has been one of the most difficult experiences you’ve encountered, then it may be that the tools you’ve relied on in the past to get you through hard times will not be enough. You may need to look for additional sources of support (e.g., friends, therapist) and appropriate outlets (e.g., exercise as opposed to drugs or alcohol) to help you at this time.
When your child puts her head on her pillow each night does she know, without a doubt, that you have the strength and composure to take care of yourself and her? Make it so.
Build a new support system for your new life
Your well-being depends a great deal on your ability to acquire practical and emotional support. Whom will you call on if you are stuck at work and the school just called to let you know that your child is ill or injured? Whom will you call on late at night when your child is with his other parent and you are feeling miserable? A lot of newly divorced parents find that they have less support around them than they did when they were married.
Now is the time to rebuild a support system for yourself. Some common sources include: parents of your child’s friends or classmates (i.e., parents who might also need some support from time to time); neighbors — get to know them so that they can provide extra pairs of eyes on your children; friends or family members you’ve lost touch with who may not know your current situation; people in your community. Join clubs, organizations, places of worship in order to build more people into your network.
Things get easier with time — but there’s help available
Although this may be a difficult period of your life, most things get easier with time and practice. Not having your children with you during certain parts of the week can be a particularly powerless feeling and divorce can sometimes feel quite lonely and isolating. Developing your new support system, identifying specific goals for yourself and working to create a warm, dependable environment for your child helps to alleviate much of the negativity that can accompany divorce.
If you find that you or your child are still struggling long after the separation or that you or your child begin to exhibit signs of more serious problems (e.g., feeling suicidal), then help is available. Most communities have counselors who are trained to help with divorce transitions and adjustment difficulties, and most towns and cities have resources available on a sliding fee scale that can make help more affordable.
Take home message
As you proceed through your divorce, your children need you to be good to yourself and to be a positive and consistent role model for them. Keeping this in mind can help you navigate this time successfully.
Amy Heesacker is a licensed psychologist working as a therapist and supervisor at a non-profit family counseling center. She is also an instructor for a required divorcing parents seminar in her state.