By Gabi Granoff, PsyD
In my work as a therapist I have had the honor of working with children and families who are managing parental divorce. Parents frequently ask how they can protect their children from the negative effects of divorce that sometimes seem inevitable. In fact, research tells us that the effects of divorce on children have the potential to permeate their entire lives; they might struggle with school, have trouble with friends, experience changes in regulating or expressing emotions, develop low self-esteem, or struggle with other issues.
Fortunately, researchers have also found ways to soften the negative effects of divorce on children. It is important to remember that you and your ex-spouse create the climate for how the entire family reacts to such a large transition. Being mindful of the 5 tips below during and after your divorce will help you and your children thrive during through the divorce and adjustment process.
1. Keep routines consistent
There are so many physical and emotional changes that occur in the divorce process. One way to help your children adapt smoothly is to maintain consistency wherever you can. Consistency will give your children an opportunity to put their energy towards adjusting to the bigger, unavoidable changes.
Construct as much stability as possible by,
- Creating a visible, consistent schedule so there are no questions like, “Who’s house am I staying at tonight?” or “Who is picking me up from soccer today?”
- Following the schedule as much as possible.
- Creating rules that are followed in both homes, and stick to them!
2.Rein your anger in
A multitude of research studies have found that the number one reason children have difficulty adjusting after a divorce is due to family conflict. Although keeping things calm and cool with your ex-spouse is included here, it is also important to reduce the level of conflict all around: think extended family members on both sides. You may finally be free from managing some of the challenging in-law relationships, but remember that your children still see their relatives as warm and loving and they rely on your example for how to relate now.
- Refrain from speaking ill of your family members.
- Keep conflicts to a minimum by seeing your family members through your children’s eyes.
- Any conflict that does occur should not be displayed in front of your children.
3.Make sure your children maintain a relationship with your former spouse
Sometimes there is one parent who is allotted more responsibility for the children’s wellbeing. Yet, researchers have found that children experience many fewer negative effects of divorce when they sustain positive relationships with both parents. In fact, there is evidence that the child’s relationship with the non-custodial parent is as important as their relationship with a custodial parent, despite the court’s decision that one person has more parental rights than the other. Regardless of the court’s opinion, and regardless of your negative feelings toward your former spouse, keep in mind that your children have a bond with their other parent that is independent of anyone else’s feelings or judgments.
Remember, parents set the tone for all of the family relationships, so,
- Help your children see their other parent as safe and loving by holding back your negative thoughts in the presence of your children.
- If you have teenagers, do not express your anger in texts or emails. Their curiosity might entice them to look in to written communications.
- Follow the family schedule to ensure your children spend enough time with your former spouse.
- And again, any conflict that does occur should not be displayed in front of your children.
4.Maintain a cordial relationship
This statement seems to keep coming up: parents determine the emotional climate of the family during and after divorce. Researchers have found that the relationship between ex-spouses is a large and important factor in how the entire binuclear family functions. To ensure that the climate is stable, friendly, and calm, your relationship with your ex-spouse must emit these qualities first.
Ways to ensure that you maintain a cordial relationship with your ex are,
- Talk about your ex-spouse in a cordial or neutral way – No bashing.
- Communicate with your former spouse in a way that is effective and non-explosive, such as scheduling one phone call per week, using texts or emails for arranging schedules.
- Remember why you are keeping your relationship cordial: it’s for the kids.
5.Define what “being a family” means
Post-separation or divorce, you have entered a whole new world of the “binuclear family.” Given that you want to maintain a relationship with your ex-spouse and you want your children to have a relationship with their other parent, it is important to define what being a binuclear family means to you. Developing a new definition of “family” will allow family bonds to continue and grow. It’s similar to an extended family, except the relational names coined by society have a distancing effect: “your mother” or “my ex-husband” does not connote a relationship. Spend time defining how you will think about your new family structure in a way that brings true meaning to these new relationship boundaries.
Ahrons, C. (May, 2013) The good divorce. Retrieved from http://charlottemediationgroup.com/Archives/Newsletters/2013/May_2013.pdf.
Amato, P.R., Keith, B. (1991) Parental divorce and the well-being of children: A meta analysis. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 110(1) 26-46.
Hess, R.D. & Camara K.A. (1979) Post-divorce family relationships as mediating factors in the consequences of divorce for children. Journal of Social Issues, 35(4) 79-96.
Wolchik, S. A., Wilcox, K. L., Tein, J.-Y., & Sandler, I. N. (2000). Maternal Acceptance and Consistency of Discipline as Buffers of Divorce Stressors on Children’s Psychological Adjustment Problems. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology: an Official Publication of the International Society for Research in Child and Adolescent Psychopathology, 28, 1, 87-102.