Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Keeping Kids Front and Center During Separation and Divorce

Putting your children ahead of your emotions has big payoffs for you and them.

Key points

  • Many parents aren’t aware of their distractions or the effect of their emotional states on their children. 
  • Children who had a supportive home environment during family restructuring will be more resilient.
  • Caring for their own physical, psychological, and spiritual health helps parents provide kids needed support.

If you are a parent contemplating divorce, in the divorce process, or post-divorce, one of your biggest challenges is parenting.

First, adjusting to solo parenting and a shared parenting schedule takes time and is emotional. At the same time, you are processing your own emotions from your marriage, separation, and divorce. Many parents are so overwhelmed by their divorce experience that they find it difficult to focus on their children. You may be distracted by internal shifts of feelings, crushing worries, guilt, sadness, or anger. If this is you, know that this is not unusual, especially early in the divorce process. But many parents aren’t aware of their distractions or the effect of their emotional states on their children.

Prioritizing Your Children Is Crucial

Prioritizing your children is crucial during these difficult months (and years) to ensure the healthy emotional development of your children. Here are some tips to remind you of your children’s needs:

  1. You and your ex should commit to open and honest communication with each other. Schedule regular times to share your observations of the children’s needs, feelings, or behaviors. This reassures your kids that you may be divorced but you are still parenting together. You and your ex should work together as you make decisions about schedules, parenting, or any major life changes (a move, remarriage, etc.).
  2. Create a written co-parenting plan, with the help of a co-parenting therapist if discussions are difficult. Read more about what to include in a parenting plan here. Making many of the important decisions included in the plan will reduce or prevent future parental conflict. Remember that it is parental conflict that damages the children most. Find constructive ways to manage disagreements. Seek professional mediation, collaborative divorce, or counseling for help in resolving conflicts.
  3. Remember to always put your children first. This means you may often need to compromise in disagreements with your co-parent when it comes to putting the children’s needs first. My client Alice had fallen in love with a co-worker and badly wanted to move in with him as soon as she and her spouse separated. Once we talked about what this would be like for her children, she reconsidered their needs and postponed her plans to bring her new partner into her children’s lives.
  4. Maintain stability and consistency between your children’s two homes. As much as possible, try for consistency in rules, routines, and expectations between the two homes. For example, when one parent allows school night TV while the other parent does not, you may have to deal with your children playing their parents off against each other: “Mom lets me stay up later…” or, worse yet, “I only want to stay with Dad because he doesn’t make me do chores…” Parents often have different parenting styles, but this is an area where focusing on consistency between the homes will pay off well. You won’t agree on everything—after all, this is why you are divorcing. But wherever possible, try for consistency.
  5. Use respectful, business-like, and positive communication with your co-parent, especially when your children are nearby. Avoid all substantive conversations at transitions, when you are dropping off or picking up your children. This protects your children from picking up the stress or the conflict between their parents. Also, as my young client Joey said, “I hate it when my parents trash-talk each other. I just feel trapped.” Avoid speaking negatively about your ex in front of your kids or when they might be eavesdropping. You might even say positive comments, like “You have your dad’s talent for sports,” or “I’m so glad mom is teaching you about gardening.”
  6. Provide emotional support, empathy, and validation. Your children will experience a wide range of emotions, and some may appear “fine” when they are in fact struggling internally. Give your children time and space to talk about their feelings and get support. Use active listening to show your children that their thoughts and feelings are heard and respected. Show your children you understand their feelings, that they are normal. Don’t try to change their feelings as this can confuse kids and make it feel unsafe to express their feelings. If after a few months, your children are having trouble managing their emotions, get some help from a child or family therapist. At the same time, as you work at managing your own emotions, you are modeling positive resilience for your children. As you model healthy behavior, showing respect, cooperation, and empathy, your children are also learning how to handle hard times in life.
  7. Be open to being flexible, accepting and adjusting to changes. While predicting the future is difficult, one thing I can predict is that your circumstances will change. Some changes are things you plan for, and others may be unexpected. Being flexible will reduce stress for you, your ex, and your children. You may need to move, change jobs, or change your parenting time, or losses may occur in your family. Your children will change, too. Be willing to revise your parenting plan as your children grow. Be sure to prepare your children for changes in an age-appropriate way. This will help them learn to be flexible, too.
  8. Boundaries are key. It is vital that you and your ex respect each other’s privacy. You can set guidelines in your parenting plan for what is communicated and what is not shared so your children don’t become “messengers.” As one client, Theo, told me, “I just want my ex to stay on her side of the fence!”
  9. Consider professional help for you and/or you and your ex. Therapists can help you develop skills to navigate the tumultuous divorce emotions so that you can co-parent more effectively. You can also find books, articles, workshops, and online resources to help you support your children through divorce. There are many resources available for children as well.
  10. Stay involved with your children’s lives, their school, extracurricular activities, hobbies, and friendships. When both parents stay involved, the children feel supported and connected to each parent without having to choose between them.

Remember that prioritizing your children over your own emotions will provide the emotional support and guidance that your children need during and after the divorce. Even years later, children who experienced a supportive home environment during the family restructuring will heal more quickly, be more resilient and successful in school, have higher self-esteem, and have healthier relationships with peers.

Is this easy? No! Often parents struggle with overwhelming emotions and changes and don’t realize that their children need to have more priority. The best advice is to focus on self-care because parents who take care of their own physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being are better able to provide the support children need. Find other tips for a child-centered divorce here.

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2023

More from Ann Gold Buscho Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today