Divorce is difficult for everyone involved, but especially for the children. When parents divorce, their children often feel like they are to blame and that they have done something wrong. It is important for divorced parents to be aware of how their actions affect their children during this process so they can make changes to thoughts, behaviors, and language to ensure their children emerge from the divorce as unscathed as possible. After years of working with divorcing parents, I’ve asked some of them to share their best pieces of parenting advice that they have learned through their own divorces. All of them have said they wish they knew these tidbits sooner and that they work hard to continue to implement this advice in their post-divorce lives. I hope their advice will help you and your loved ones as you navigate through this difficult process!
“Using your children as messengers sets everyone up for failure. Just don’t do it.”
Most of the time parents will start passing information through the children as a means of convenience. When the other parent pulls into the driveway to pick up the kids, suddenly everything the parent needs to know comes flooding into their mind and they start rattling off a list of things for little Johnny to tell his other parents when he gets in the car. There isn’t any malicious intent, but the pattern for this to become a routine is being set. It will only take a couple of parenting exchanges before the child is being asked to communicate back and forth all of the parent’s personal feelings about things going on in each home and the whole emotional house of cards begins to crumble down around the child.
From the very start of their separation, the parents should agree on how they will exchange parenting and other child-related information between them. There are numerous apps available for this purpose if documenting the communication is important to your case, but many parents simply use text messages or email for these types of communication. The key is to avoid putting your children in the middle of things as much as possible. Let them be kids and do what you can to preserve their ability to enjoy what’s left of their childhood.
“It’s okay to not be friends with your ex, but it’s not okay to badmouth them in front of the kids.”
Many times, when people divorce they want nothing more than to never see or speak to their ex again. And while that might be possible and even desirable in some cases, it’s important to remember that you will always be linked to this person through your children. Because of this, it’s important to try to maintain a civil relationship with your ex for the sake of your children. It’s okay if you’re not friends, but it’s not okay to badmouth them in front of the kids or in other words, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
Children love both of their parents and they want nothing more than for their parents to love each other too. When you speak badly about your ex in front of your children, you are essentially telling them that half of them is bad. This can be very confusing and hurtful for children. They might start to wonder if they are bad too since they are related to the person you’re saying all of these negative things about. It’s important to remember that divorce is hard enough, but making your negative feelings about the other parent blatantly obvious to your children can only make things much worse for the child.
“Expect that there will be hiccups along the way and plan for them.”
Divorce is a process, not just an event. Just because the divorce decree has been signed by the judge doesn’t mean that everything will go smoothly from that point on. There will be hiccups along the way and it’s important to plan for them. Hopefully, you and your ex created a detailed parenting plan as part of your divorce. When problems arise, this document should be the first place you check to see what the Order says about handling the situation. Many “standard” parenting plan outlines include provisions on how to handle schedule changes and some events that can be anticipated. However, life isn’t always predictable and there’s no way a family court order could possibly address every conceivable situation that will come up in every family over the course of a typical childhood.
While it may be impossible to plan for every possible situation in detail, you can plan for how you’ll react when faced with something that isn’t addressed in your child custody or divorce Order. If you don’t want to have to hire an attorney and go to court every time something new comes up and there’s a disagreement between you and your ex, try to agree with each other that you’ll use a mediator as a first step to resolving those differences. Mediation is cheaper than litigation and might also give both of you some new perspectives that you can use in resolving future differences.
“Remember when creating your child’s schedule in your parenting plan that it’s your child – not you – who has to do all the packing and moving under that schedule. You need to understand how hard that will be for them at times.”
Many parents want to see their children as often as possible when a divorce happens. As a divorce attorney and now a full-time Guardian ad Litem, I’ve seen some pretty crazy schedules devised by parents who clearly love their children, but who also forget that constantly uprooting a child from their environment and routines will eventually lead to exhaustion, irritability, and even resentment towards one or both parents. There will be plenty of times that the child just simply doesn’t like the schedule or asks to change the schedule to allow more time in one place and require less back-and-forth. It’s important to remember the child usually isn’t requesting this change because he or she doesn’t love one parent, but that they need more stability in their life.
Parents should start their parenting plan negotiations by thinking through what it was like to be their child’s age. What did they like to do? Who did they like to spend time with? What types of activities did they want to be involved in on a regular basis? Then, with every proposed schedule that is considered, try to see if that schedule will create any problems or obstacles for the child being able to participate in the typical childhood things he or she enjoys. Yes, time with both parents is important, but so is a schedule that allows for normal childhood experiences and development.
Parenting a child will always mean some level of sacrifice on the parent’s part to ensure the child’s well-being. That fact doesn’t change just because a divorce has happened. In fact, it likely means there will be even more sacrifices to protect the child from the negative effects of the divorce. By putting the child’s needs first, you may not always get what you want in the situation, but you will help ensure the child has what he or she needs first and foremost.
“It’s important to remember that divorce is about the adults, not the children. The children didn’t ask for this, probably never saw it coming, and they certainly didn’t do anything wrong to cause it.”
In every divorce case I have ever worked on, one thing has always been true – the children want their parents to be happy. They may not understand everything that’s going on or why mom and dad can’t just get along, but they know divorce is hard on everyone. Unfortunately, because most children never saw the divorce coming, they will often blame themselves for their parents’ decision to separate. It’s critically important for parents to be on the same page with how they will explain the divorce to the children.
This includes being prepared to provide constant and consistent assurances that the children are not to blame for any part of it. If either parent notices the children struggling with big emotions related to the divorce, their new schedule, or other changes that have taken place post-separation, they should agree to work together to find an experienced child therapist who can help the child process the changes to their family’s structure and schedules. Allowing these big emotions to go unchecked will potentially lead to bigger problems for the child down the road. There’s no shame in asking for help when it’s needed. If you’re not sure who to go to in your community, ask your divorce lawyer or your child’s pediatrician. Both resources will usually have several trusted referral sources in the community to help your family through this process.
The divorce process is never easy for the parents involved, but it can be especially difficult for the children involved. By following the advice offered by these divorced parents, you can help make the transition a little bit easier on everyone and potentially salvage your child’s happy childhood in the process.