Divorce is emotionally trying for all members of the family, but before parents can help their children, they must first take care of themselves.
“One of the most important things to do when we’re under stress –and particularly parents going through such a major life change- is to take good care of themselves emotionally, physically and spiritually…and to understand that asking for help when we need it is a sign of strength,” says Pedro-Carroll.
Aggression, social withdrawal, depression or a significant drop in school grades may show that children need help from a professional counselor. Parents should reach out to friends, neighbors, clergy and extended family for support.
“Divorce does put children at risk for emotional and behavioral problems; however, those risks are not inevitable,” says Pedro-Carroll. “We need to remember that there are many, many children after that initial period of adjustment, that get back on track and can be quite healthy and well-adjusted. And one of the biggest factors in how children fare over time is how their parents go about handling the family changes and the quality of the family life they put into place after a divorce.”
The simplest and most powerful thing parents can do is spend one-on-one time with each of their children. Take time to listen to them and respond with empathy which sends the message that they are valued.
Although divorce marks the end of a marriage, the parents’ responsibilities continue. When ex-spouses work together and maintain consistent rules and a nurturing, open relationship with their children, they help create a healthy, safe family life where kids feel loved and secure.
Pearls & Perils
Learn the blueprint for making joint custody work
Establishing custody rights is a decision that can critically affect the life of your child. The most popular type of arrangement is joint custody. Parents can have joint legal custody, which means both parents have legal responsibility for decision making about the children’s welfare. Some parents with joint legal custody also have joint and physical custody, wherein children spend significant amounts of time with both parents.
The debate over whether joint custody works is a parenting issue. What’s in the best interest of the children? Which type of arrangement works best for reasonably cooperative parents? For high-conflict parents? What has been learned about children and divorce that can guide these decisions?
Thankfully, we have learned much about parenting and divorce since we were children. Both research and practical experience suggest that, in most cases, two parents are better than one.
Dr. Sanford L. Braver, professor of psychology at Arizona State University and co-principal investigator at ASU’s Prevention Research Center, agrees children typically fare better when both parents are significantly in their lives. Therefore, the current trend is for courts to favor joint custody over sole custody.
Cheryl Wilson, divorced parent of 12-year-old Tori, says sole custody would be in her daughter’s best interest. Although Wilson and her ex-husband have joint legal custody, his involvement in his daughter’s life has decreased over the years and they now have a strained relationship.
“He doesn’t try to fit into my life, he just does what’s convenient for him,” says Wilson, adding that if she had sole custody, the situation would be easier for her daughter. “I know that it is best for Tori to have a healthy relationship with her dad, but right now, it’s not healthy and it’s not what Tori wants,” explains Wilson.
-Healing with time. Sanford Braver, Ph.D., suggests time is an essential element for a divorced parent. He says one to two years after separation, parents have dealt with their own issues and are able to re-focus on parenting issues.
-Focusing on children’s needs. Placing importance on children’s needs helps parents focus on commonalities (i.e. parenting) versus differences. Learn to separate adult issues from parenting issues.
-Learning to negotiate. As co-parents, it is helpful to learn negotiation and communication techniques to use in stressful interactions. In their book, “The Co-Parenting Survival Guide,” authors Elizabeth Thayer and Jeffrey Zimmerman suggest when emotions run high, parents should keep their interactions short and simple, focusing on goals. They should seek to understand the other’s perspective and listen to what the other parent is saying.
-Dealing with problems before they escalate. Think of creative ways to solve problems. Dr. Marlene Joy, a therapist in Scottsdale, says many legal conflicts can be avoided if parents think creatively. Based on her experience working with the Arizona court system, she helps families use “out of the box” thinking to find solutions to visitation and other custody issues.
–Supporting your child’s relationship with the other parent. Children need both parents. Even if your child would rather go to a sleepover, spending time with the other parent is important and should be mandatory (e.g., except in cases of suspected emotional or physical abuse).
-Coordinating with busy schedules. It is often challenging to keep parents’ and children’s schedules straight. To prevent children from feeling “shuffled” between households, set clear schedules and stick to them. When changes need to be made, parents and children should discuss changes.
-Parenting disagreements. “Parents should create the illusion that they get along with the other parent in front of the children,” advises Dr. Joy. Experts emphasize that parents should never degrade one another and be mindful of subtle body language and voice tone; your children will pick up on it.
-Taking advantage. Children are smart and quickly learn to take advantage of and get what they want from parents by exploiting inconsistencies. For example, your daughter might try “Mom lets me go to the mall with my friends, why won’t you?” Consistent schedules and rules set clear expectations and reduce potential conflict.
-Trusting the other parent. What happens when one parent is often late or doesn’t keep promises? Trust erodes and resentment builds. Trusting the other parent to be dependable and reliable can be very difficult. Use your communication and negotiation skills to discuss these problems.
-Creating loyalty conflicts. Well meaning parents can place children in the middle of their conflicts. Children should never speak on parents’ behalf. Even in times of conflict, parents should support spending time with the other parent.