How parents handle their divorce determines a lot about how their children will fare, both today and tomorrow. That sounds like a big responsibility, and it is. But it is also an incredible opportunity, for no one -- no psychologist, member of the clergy, teacher, friend, or relative -- shares with your child the extraordinary relationship you two have. No one knows your child better than you do, and no one is in a better position to give him the security, guidance, structure, and support he needs now. You may not be a child development expert, but you are something much better: a concerned, conscientious, and loving parent who's willing to learn how to help your child. With your help, your child will not only be shielded from unnecessary pain and confusion surrounding divorce, he will grow and thrive. One day he will be able to look back on his childhood as a loving, joyful time touched by divorce, not a once-blissful state ruined forever by divorce.
Time for a change
The first step we should take as parents, teachers, and concerned adults is to change our thinking about divorce. We need to realize and to begin acting as if we believe that divorce is an appropriate option for a troubled couple who cannot resolve their differences. In fact, many studies have determined that children living in high-conflict but "intact" families grow up with more problems than children from low-conflict, divorced families.
We must stop regarding new family structures -- single-parent, step, and blended -- as somehow inferior and support these families for what they are: real families. We owe it to our children and to ourselves to acknowledge the positive lessons that can emerge from divorce and to communicate with our children so that those lessons can be learned.
I'm always fascinated that we can look back on even the most dire tragedy and see it as a catalyst for emotional growth, yet fail to view divorce in the same light as, say, a parent's death or some other uncontrollable event. Until we separate social, largely theoretical attitudes toward the institution of divorce from our feelings toward those who must experience it, we force families already struggling to rebuild their lives and reshape their dreams to bear an additional burden. In doing so, we punish the children by increasing their alienation and diminishing their self-esteem.
Your child's greatest asset: you
At the risk of repeating myself, I will say what every parent must believe: no one has a better chance of helping your child than you do. Only within the security of your love and understanding can your child find the safety and freedom to learn, to grow, and to make mistakes. One cruel irony is that divorce heaps upon families new problems while limiting their ability to cope. At a time when children most need attention and emotional support, you may be preoccupied with your own emotional issues. Just when children need to spend more time with their parents, your new work commitments or living arrangements may leave you with even less time, energy, and patience. And when kids most need the comfort and stability of familiar surroundings and routines, your family may be forced into new circumstances that disrupt them.
Parents who keep the lines of communication open and humming, who acknowledge their children's feelings and help them master their divorce experience, do more than improve their child's chances of future happiness. Simply by facilitating that process, they create an environment in which their children will be comfortable discussing other important issues. These parents reduce the chances that unresolved divorce-related issues will create future problems. And by just remaining in touch with your child, you relieve yourself and your family of the stress of misunderstanding, shutting down, and losing each other.
This is not to say it is always an easy process. It's not unusual for a therapist to feel that a child who has begun expressing his emotions and speaking his mind has made an important breakthrough. To some parents, however, this new openness is a Pandora's box. "It was much easier when he was quieter about the divorce," the mother of twelve-year-old Elliot says. "Now he gets upset and says that he's angry about the divorce, or disappointed in his father and me because we couldn't make it work -- things that I'd really rather not hear, to be honest. Before, I didn't have to stop and talk to him or deal with what he was feeling. I almost convinced myself sometimes that he was really handling it well. Now it's right there. I've got to deal with it, and it's a lot more work."
Parenting does require energy and time-consuming work when you do it right. But what parents like Elliot's mother tend to overlook is the time, energy, and emotion they expend on the effects of not dealing with their kids" true feelings. A few weeks after Elliot began expressing his feelings, his mother noticed some interesting changes: fewer arguments about housework and homework, a better attitude at school, and a renewed interest in his friendships and hobbies. "Okay, so I spend more time talking to Elliot, but I'm spending less time fighting with him about his messy room or getting calls from his teacher. The time I spend with Elliot now I view not as spent or wasted, but invested, and we have the "returns" to show for it."
Helping your child to truly understand
Children are usually fully capable of understanding things if they are presented information in a way that is meaningful to them. Too often, we adults conclude that "kids just don't understand," when in fact it is we who don't understand how to talk to and listen to them. Here are some general guidelines.
Before you talk with your child on any important matter regarding your divorce, remember to plan ahead and structure your comments to:
Communicate your point in clear language
Empathize with your child
Acknowledge and describe how it will affect your child
Anticipate & answer questions you're reasonably sure your child will have
Invite further questions & answer them clearly
The long-term effects of divorce
The overwhelming majority of children of divorce feel sad, confused, angry, guilty, and conflicted. When these feelings are not expressed and dealt with in a healthy, productive way, they endure and taint children's views of themselves and of others. This is why, decades after the fact, most adult children of divorce view it as the most devastating event of their childhood, if not their lives. How well a child copes with her family's transition and its far-ranging implications will be a -- if not the -- major influence on several important aspects of her life, including the ability to forge and sustain loving relationships and be a good parent herself.
As you hold your sobbing child or prepare for another family holiday that seems somehow incomplete, you may wonder if your child will ever be happy again. You may worry that your divorce has set the stage for your child's dropping out of school and experiencing chronic depression, alcohol or drug abuse, low self-esteem, and problematic future relationships. It's important to remember two key points. One, children whose parents do not divorce also share these problems. And two, because the study of children and divorce is relatively new, kids who do experience these negative outcomes may in part reflect a previous lack of awareness of divorce-related problems and intervention to help children deal with them.
We rarely confront these issues until a problem develops, only to discover its root stretching back to a childhood event or unresolved emotional issue. The lesson here is pretty clear: for all parents, but for parents of divorce especially, the future really is now. Understanding how children experience divorce will help you identify and address problems early on.
How to build a co-parenting relationship
Here's a comment I've heard too many times to count -- in therapy, in workshops, from people I meet while traveling: "Now that I'm divorced, my therapist keeps lecturing me on the value of co-parenting. While I can see why it's best for our children, and I would do anything for them, the truth is my ex and I can't maintain even a civil relationship. The whole reason we got divorced is that we couldn't agree on things, including raising our kids. And now we're expected to magically agree or risk our kids growing up with serious problems. The upshot is that I feel like I'm less of a parent and that my children are doomed forever because my ex and I can't be in the same room together. What's the solution?"
Divorce often presents us with problems that have no clear-cut solutions. For many families, the best, most realistic course is learning how to cope. The promotion of co-parenting -- in which each parent has roughly equal input and involvement -- as an ideal relationship for families of divorce has had several positive effects, namely keeping both parents actively engaged in a child's life. Yet there are many divorced couples for whom co-parenting is simply not a viable, realistic option, for whom the pressure to co-parent often results in even more conflict. For all the positive benefits of co-parenting, a solid, low- or no-conflict relationship between ex-spouses soon after divorce seems to be the exception, not the rule.
While divorce may seem to solve one problem, it often creates others. Conflict between ex-spouses is, perhaps understandably, all too common. With the marriage ended, ex-spouses often lack the incentive to work towards compromise. You may be reading this, thinking, "If we could have communicated and cooperated before, we wouldn't have divorced in the first place," and you might be right. But keep in mind that just because the two of you couldn't make one type of relationship (a marriage) work, that doesn't mean that you can't be successful in a different one (co-parenting).
Most parents want to do what's best for their kids, but the intense emotions of divorce cloud their views. In rare cases, both exes dig in their heels and refuse to give an inch on anything, no matter how trivial. More often, however, one parent is willing to give in and overlook the other's bad behavior, at least for a while. After a few arguments, some insults, and a few times "forgetting" to pick up the kids, the more cooperative parent just gives up and gives in to what our children would call the Dark Side: "What's the difference what I do?" He'll never change." The next thing you know, Mom is slamming down the phone every time Dad calls to wish Jenny happy birthday, and Dad keeps "forgetting" to get Carlos back in time for Sunday dinner at Grandmother's.
It's important for parents to view their co-parenting venture in both the long and short term. The fact is that few divorced couples have respectful, cooperative relationships in the immediate wake of divorce. If this is where you find yourself, know that you are not alone, and you may want to take extra care to avoid conflict. However, before you decide that this is how it will always be and that there's no point in extending yourself, you should also know that after a few years, the situation usually changes. While divorced spouses may not consider each other buddies, most do manage to establish a civil if not cordial relationship, if only for the sake of their children. Doing this may require you to separate your personal issues with your ex from those that involve your children. It may also require you to compromise a little more than you might like at times, to bite your tongue, and to hold your anger. Always remember, however, that you have a clear and worthwhile goal: your child's ability to grow through this divorce.
"Perhaps just consider..." (as opposed to "You should...") "Obviously, it's up to you..." (as opposed to "I think you ought to...") "In this case it's helpful..." (as opposed to "The way I do things...") "It may not work for you, but here's something that worked for me..." (as opposed to "Do it this way...") "Of course, you can figure out your own solutions, but here's an idea for you to consider..." (as opposed to "Here's the solution...")
Before you open your mouth or dial the number, resolve to resist the impulse to call names, explode in anger, or shut down communication completely. If your ex won't listen to you, consider asking a friend, family member, or someone your ex respects to speak on your behalf. This might upset your ex, so be sure your point is important and that there's a reasonable chance that the behavior will change. If your ex has ever abused your child -- emotionally, physically, or sexually -- or you have reason to suspect he or she may be doing so now, you have an obligation to contact authorities (e.g. pediatrician, psychotherapist, police, attorney, public abuse investigative bureau) and take the proper steps to protect your child.
This article has been edited and excerpted from Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way (Random House) by M. Gary Neuman, a family therapist and the creator of the nationally recognized "Sandcastles Program," and Patricia Romanowski. Mandated by family courts across the US, Sandcastles has helped thousands of kids understand and cope with divorce. This comprehensive and practical guide covers all the big issues, offering age-tailored scripts and activities to help parents connect with their kids, and answers to the most common questions about visitation, custody, handling holidays and birthdays, dating and remarriage, and more.