As family court attorneys in Charleston, we know that divorces can be an intensely stressful experience for any child, regardless of the child’s age or developmental level. Whether a child will be traumatized by a divorce depends not only on the child’s resiliency, but also on the environment created by the divorcing parents.
Children in divorced families typically experience several losses. For example, children often feel as if they have lost the parent who left the home thereby causing the children to feel lonely, rejected, and unloved. If you ask a Charleston custody attorney, they will tell you that when the parents divorce, the parents double their living expenses between two homes which causes financial instability and sometimes poverty. Just like the adults, the children feel the financial loss. Many children lose their sense of security due to the many changes that come with divorce such as moving into another home, perhaps attending a new school, new routines and schedules to accommodate visitation, and a new family structure which may include third parties when divorced parents begin dating or get remarried. These changes leave many children feeling vulnerable and insecure. In hostile divorces, especially those involving custody issues, the psychological effects of divorce on children tend to be more extreme, and these children may suffer from a variety of psychological problems like increased moodiness, panic, denial, guilt, low self-esteem, physical problems, depression, anger, sleeping or eating problems, drug or alcohol use, or even criminal behavior.
Divorcing parents can decrease the impact on their children by following guidelines with their children, by avoiding conflict with the other parent, and by maintaining their own well-being:
Dealing with Your Children
- Don’t treat your children as adults – Some parents believe that their children must “grow up” quicker because of the divorce. Unfortunately, just because some parents treat their children like adults does not mean that their children are emotionally or intellectually equipped to deal with adult issues. Let children be children.
- Don’t rely on your children for your emotional support – Although it may seem natural to turn to your children for comfort during an emotional time, you are likely to cause greater instability and more pressure on the children. Some children begin to feel responsible for their parent’s emotional well-being, whereas some children suffer other emotional side-effects such as increased anger or depression. If you need emotional support, turn to another family member or a friend instead.
- Don’t bad-mouth the other parent, the other parent’s relatives, or the other parent’s friends – Whether you dislike these people or even have good reason to feel resentment, oftentimes your children have other feelings towards them, especially the other parent. When you talk poorly about others that are loved by your children, you create conflict within your child that may result in your child feeling protective about these other persons and resenting you for making negative comments about them. Let your children feel free to love the other parent, their grandparents, and others.
- Don’t blame the other parent for the divorce or for bad things that happen in your life – Doing so goes hand-in-hand with not bad-mouthing the other parent.
- Don’t talk about money or child support – Financial issues are “grown up” issues. Plus, talking about child support, etc. has a tendency to make children feel less like people and more like possessions with costs attached to them.
- Don’t talk about the “divorce” or other grown up stuff – This issue ties in with not treating your children as adults.
- Don’t send your children on a “guilt trip” for enjoying time with the other parent – Similar to not bad-mouthing the other parent, guilt-tripping your child creates much of the same conflict.
- Don’t block visitation or prevent your children from speaking to the other parent – There are many psychological studies illustrating the benefits children reap from spending time with both parents. No matter how you feel about your former spouse, don’t deprive your children of having a healthy relationship with the other parent.
- Don’t interrupt your children’s time with the other parent by calling too much or planning activities during their time together – At some point, if these interruptions are combined with other actions such as poor-mouthing the other parent and blocking visitation and communications, then the children may be abused (brainwashed) into thinking the other parent is the enemy. Taken together, such actions are known as Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). PAS can cause significant and long-lasting psychological and emotional harm to the children.
- Don’t argue with the other parent in your children’s presence – As simple this advice may sound, so many parents tend to argue in their children’s presence. These arguments cause a tremendous amount of emotional stress for the children and teach the children to resolve their conflicts by arguing too.
- Don’t ask your children to spy on the other parent or report back to you – Children in divorce already may be experiencing conflict in their loyalties and feelings toward both parents. Asking children to spy or to report places the children in an extremely awkward and emotionally stressful position of pleasing one parent while betraying another.
- Don’t ask your children to keep secrets from the other parent – Dividing a child’s loyalty between parents’ places them under extreme stress. Further, the child is learning to become manipulative and may later play one parent against the other using lies and secrets.
- Don’t ask questions about your children’s time with the other parent or the other parent’s life– This is similar to spying and reporting on the other parent.
- Don’t use your children to deliver messages to the other parent – This puts the children in the middle.
- Realize that your children have two homes and not one – Try to understand, and accommodate, the fact that your children will be living in both parents’ homes from time to time, and that your children’s lives are not identical in both homes.
- Allow your children to take items such as their toys back and forth between homes as long as they can carry them – Oftentimes parents are reluctant to allow toys, books, and other items to go to the other parent’s home because these items may not be returned. Think of these items as the children’s things, not yours, and let your children have a sense of continuity by taking familiar and comforting items such as toys back and forth between homes.
- At the moment of transition, be organized and make goodbye brief, warm, and loving, not long, sad, and languishing – During visitation exchanges, do not make the moment of transition highly dramatic and, consequently, traumatic for your children.
- Reassure your children that the divorce was not their fault and that they will be safe – Some children believe that they are the cause of the divorce, and the many losses children experience leave them feeling unsafe. They need reassurance from you.
- Create a stable routine and give appropriate discipline – Especially at the first stages, the changes and losses that come with divorce may cause some chaos. Also, many parents feel sorry for their children and begin relaxing their discipline. Your children are going through enough changes already, and they will benefit more by being consistent.
- Give your children ample advance notice of changes whenever possible – Some parents would rather tell their children about these changes at the last minute because these parents believe the children are better off not worrying ahead of time. However, your children are likely to be “shell-shocked” from all of the major life changes that stem from a divorce. If further changes are on the way, such as moving or changes in visitation, giving them a “head’s up” gives them a chance to prepare mentally and emotionally for what is to come.
Dealing with the Other Parent
- Don’t ignore the other parent or sit on the opposite side of the room during special events involving your children such as athletic matches, school plays, etc. – As emotionally difficult as it may be for you to be that close to the other parent, it is more difficult for your children to see parents distance themselves at these times. Overall, it is a small sacrifice to make for your children’s emotional wellbeing.
- Support your children’s relationship with their other parent – By supporting the other relationship, you are creating security and stability for your children.
- Ignore (rather than arguing back) when the other parent tries to tell you how to parent – This argument is one that no one can win.
- Accept that there is more than one “right way” to parent and support different parenting styles – Even if you had not divorced, chances are that you and your former spouse may have or would have parented in your unique styles. If you can accept and deal with the difference in parenting styles during marriage, then you can accept these differences in divorce too.
- Find ways to communicate with the other parent that eliminate (or reduce) hostility – The more you communicate, the more chances for conflict. There is no need to communicate about minor things, so don’t communicate unless you have to do so. When you do communicate,be factual, concise, and business-like. Avoid sarcasm. Don’t tell the other parent how to parent and avoid criticizing their parenting. Also, consider communicating by email or letter which will give you an opportunity to be careful with your words.
Dealing with Yourself
- Take good care of yourself by eating well, exercising, and nourishing your spirit – You can’t make your children feel safe and secure if you let yourself fall apart. There is nothing selfish or self-centered in spending the time and effort to take care of yourself during a divorce. In the short and long run, your emotional and physical well-being will help you cope with your children’s needs.
- Maintain and/or build a support system from extended family and friends, and consider professional/therapeutic support. – Don’t be ashamed to ask for help during difficult times.
- Inform yourself of the challenges faced in divorce and co-parenting – There is a wealth of knowledge and literature on the subject of children and divorce. The more you know, the better you will be equipped to help yourself and your children cope with and adjust to the divorce.
- Stay busy and make your own plans when your children are away, especially on weekends and on holidays – Oftentimes, we focus on the impact visitation has on the children and forget that it has an impact on the parents too. Many parents have never been away from their children for any extended period of time. By making plans and being active, you may avoid experiencing problems such as anxiety or depression when your children are gone.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself; be forgiving and accepting of yourself – Chances are you will make some mistakes. Forgive yourself, don’t dwell in the past, and try to keep moving forward positively.
- Trust your children to tell you or another trusted person if things don’t seem comfortable or safe – Even if you do not have confidence in the other parent, have faith in your children to adapt to the circumstances and to communicate their needs and concerns to you.
- Let go of your need to control every aspect of your children’s lives – As parents, we want to protect our children from every possible harm and to grow strong physically and emotionally. Keeping them in a stranglehold, no matter how good your intentions, may cause your children to become, among other things, timid and emotionally co-dependent or perhaps resentful and rebellious. Don’t let your instinct to protect them overshadow their need for individual growth.