Fifty percent of all children born to married parents today will experience the divorce of their parents before they are 18 years old. Fifty percent! Divorce as a childhood experience is real and here to stay, yet it still includes high drama and conflict for those who go about it unwisely. This is unfortunate. The level of conflict a child experiences as they grow up is a significant predictor of their physical and mental health as adults. Conflict and a parent’s ability to resolve conflict affects children’s levels of anxiety and self-esteem, and these effects can carry over into adulthood. At no time are children more vulnerable to absorbing negative consequences of conflict than during their parents’ divorce. In spite of this, parents rarely put their children first even thought they tell their divorce attorneys that putting the children first is their number one priority.
So why do parents have such a hard time truly prioritizing their children in their divorce? For many it is because they can’t separate their own emotions about the other parent, or feelings about the divorce, from what the other parent means to their children. For others, the most difficult aspect of a divorce is imagining a life without seeing their children every day, or tucking them into bed every night. This can feel like a terrible loss. It is crucial that parents separate their own feelings of loss from what is best for the children.
As a parent, you must be prepared to deal with your own feelings of loss, not just of your spouse, but of your relationship with the children as it has been. But when you fail to shield your children from your own feelings of loss or anger or revenge or blame or insecurity, that’s when things get messed up. A parent’s negative feelings about the other parent simply must not be transferred to the children.
A good parent’s job is to accept and embrace the unique gifts and perspectives both parents bring to a child’s life, even if you think your own gifts and perspectives are of a much higher quality. So every time you communicate with your child about your divorce or about their other parent, visualize how your own words and actions can harm your children for years to come. Do you want them to grow up healthy or not?
Healthy children have meaningful and frequent contact with both parents. Healthy children have parents who make it a priority to appear at their children’s events and celebrations. Healthy children don’t know the details of divorce litigation. Healthy children don’t hear you crying in your room at night. Healthy children don’t know if child support is getting paid or if their parents dislike the amount they pay or receive. Healthy children don’t get grilled about what they did at the other parent’s house. Healthy children aren’t used to send messages to the other parent. Healthy children have parents who never say anything negative about the other parent or allow others to do so in front of the children. Healthy children feel they still have a family, even if that family no longer lives under one roof.
Do you want your child’s birthdays, recitals and athletic achievements forever marred by a missing parent? Do you want them to need counseling as an adult because they are unable to form meaningful relationships—all because you allowed your divorce to really mess them up?
Put your children first if you really love them. Don’t just say they come first as a badge of honor in your divorce. Really put your kids first. There is no other way to do it.