When I talk with parents about children and divorce, the first thing they usually want to discuss is how they can protect their children during the process. The most valuable advice I can give is to minimize conflict and to ensure that the kids are not placed in the middle of the conflict. Children shouldn’t feel that they need to choose between their parents or that they are responsible for protecting their parents emotionally.
While this is the most important things that parents can do for their children during divorce, there are other ways that parents can put their child’s needs first:
Managing schedules can be challenging for married couples and divorce only exacerbates those challenges. Developing a manageable and realistic parenting schedule needs to take into account a child’s developmental stage and unique personality. It is easy to recognize that a parenting plan for a 15-month-old and a 15-year-old look different.
A 15-month-old is likely on a schedule with an early bedtime and naps, so any transitions need to recognize those physical needs. In contrast, a 15-year-old’s schedule is less about physical needs and more about activities such as school, extracurricular events, and social interactions. Building around your child’s developmental stage will reduce their physical and emotional stress by meeting their unique needs. The other layer to consider is a child’s temperament and personality. For example, some kids thrive on routine; these kids need to really know their schedule and might struggle with transitions (especially younger and special needs children). They will need more physical and emotional support to ensure the transitions are not disruptive.
Parents who share decision making around issues such as medical treatment, religion, extracurricular activities and education, need to have a process in place to resolve disagreements because they will occur. For instance, you’ve both been on the same page about medical issues, but then one of you wants your child to go to therapy, while the other one doesn’t see the need. When I work with couples to write parenting plans, we create a process that involves multiple steps. For example: first, the parents have a discussion, they might go for consultation to get more information (e.g. medical provider, teacher) and then meet with a neutral third party (e.g. mediator, divorce coach) before going to court. Creating these steps provided a structure that minimizes post-decree litigation.
This is the hardest step to take because it is often not conscious. This requires the hard work of digging deep to be honest with yourself about your motivations. For example, if you have primarily been a stay-at-home parent, sharing co-parenting can be a loss to your identity. It would not be uncommon to say the kids need to be with me more often because they’ve always been with me more often. Divorce is an opportunity for the other parent to become more involved and take on more parenting responsibilities. We know from the literature on divorce that one of the best predictors of a child doing well post-divorce is to have a positive relationship with both parents. On the other hand, a parent who travels Monday-Friday needs to be honest with themselves when they request 50 per cent parenting time. Going outside of your comfort zone, being open to new ways of parenting, and accepting your limitations are an important part of adjusting to a new parenting dynamic.
These steps can be difficult and they might require professional assistance. Being in therapy during the divorce process can allow you to sort through painful feelings so that you make decisions that are good for your future, as well as your children and divorce priorities. Utilizing a divorce coach or child specialist during the process can ensure that the kids’ needs are front and center. While all these things can be emotionally and financially challenging at times, they will be worth it in terms of protecting the kids.