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Divorce Pitfalls to Avoid, Part Two

Retaining your family when ending a marriage.

(This blog identifies the remaining pitfalls that terminate healthy family relationships. These common traps for parents blur boundaries, effecting both the parents' relationships with the child and the child's ability to build successful relationships with others.)

4. “Parentification”

"My parents told me way too much information. I became an adult when they split up. I was aware of every hidden flaw each parent had, and I felt betrayed and abandoned. It set me up for adulthood in the worst way because I was forced to grow up quick and take care of my parents. I did everything wrong and allowed people to treat me bad. I closed myself off from friends." --Twenty-six-year-old (age twelve at the time of parents' divorce)

Children forced into taking adult roles or placed into situations, essentially serving as their parents’ therapist, get parentified, made into parents, when they need to be parented themselves. Such children feel required to take on leadership roles to rein in their parents. During the chaos of divorce—when children need more guidance, support, and direction than ever—parents often do not enforce rules or provide solid direction essential for guiding their children’s development.

Here are five basic steps that you can take to create the types of boundaries your children need for healthy development:

1) Clarify expectations. 2) Discuss the rules and regulations of your home. 3) Follow through with reasonable consequences for violating house rules. 4) Uphold respect for the other parent. 5) Retain your parenting role through sound leadership.​

5. Power Imbalance

A shift in power from the parents to the children often occurs during a divorce. Most often the shift has a destructive impact on the children and the home environment. Parents may become friends with their children or try to win the children over by literally buying their affection. Such actions do not establish genuine authority but instead feign power, which children do not respect as legitimate.

Though everyone should have appropriate power consistent with his or her position in a family, during a divorce, when parents do not fulfill their needed roles, their position of leadership deteriorates. This may occur because of formal court decisions or because parents do not responsibly manage their parental roles. When parents do not execute their parenting responsibility, children are placed in positions of judgment or given power inappropriate for children their age. Their is no question that parents can often feel disempowered by the divorce, the actions of their former spouses, the children, the custody arrangement, or their own inaction.

"I know I rushed into another relationship; and I don’t know where that relationship will lead. But my children are important to me. I will do anything for them. I was just tired of parenting alone, working, and dealing with all the problems by myself—and there were many...Dealing with the kids alone really has taken a toll on my mental status."—Parent (married nineteen years)

Children need parents to be parents. Taking control may be tempting for children and they may manipulate situations because the authority structure weakens and breaks down during divorce. Although their role may not be completely within their control, parents need do their best to stay in charge. In doing so, they avoid confiding in their children, sharing inappropriate information with them, or placing adult responsibilities on them. Although families will regroup and redefine their roles during the divorce process, parents do not have to forfeit their role of how they empower their children.

Frequently there will be a redefinition of roles and responsibilities as situations and resources change. However, even when you feel disempowered by a court decision or a child’s resistance to recognize your authority, you need to remain true to your role and do what’s right based on your moral compass.

"When I explain car insurance is the law, and her father states he doesn’t have any, again I am pointing out how her father is not doing what he is supposed to do. This is not my intent, but it is my job as a parent to teach her right from wrong. This co-parenting with an ex-spouse is tough for everyone." —Parent (married four and a half years)

6. New Liaisons

The lack of awareness for parents—particularly those leaving a marriage for another partner—is not recognizing the disturbing impact relational changes have on children. For a child in a divorcing family who was not given the opportunity to make adjustments, new liaisons are often perceived as interlopers and often met with opposition. Forcing such engagements is highly disruptive. Adults may make such changes more easily than children because they are directing the change, and they are not the one losing a parent. But children require time to accept the change in their parents’ roles—to recognize them as separated and emotionally connected to other people.

I feel lonelier because I can’t trust anyone anymore. I can’t even trust my parents. . . . Never in my life have I been this angry, this upset, even aggressive. I still feel like I want to smash someone with a baseball bat multiple times until my anger is over. —Twenty-five-year-old (age twenty-three at the time of parents' divorce).

If you are seriously interested in another person, it is often recommended that you take at least six months before introducing him or her to your children so as not to overwhelm them. Similarly, it is a mistake to parade different romantic interests before your children, particularly if they form attachments to these people; this can recapitulate loss. We want to keep in mind that we are forming a model of family life for our children’s future by how we behave.

7. Losing Continuity

During divorce, boundaries are often eliminated on many levels and routine can be replaced by unfamiliar and unexpected events. When we sustain continuity, children feel secure. On the other hand, we do not want to become rigid and inflexible, which can deny natural growth and development and create understandable opposition.

Establishing and maintaining positive, healthy, and clear boundaries provides solid care for your children. When you align your objective and your ultimate principles—looking into the eyes of your child and confirming in your mind that you are taking the best actions—you should know that you’re doing your best.

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a part time lecturer at Harvard Medical School and author of Collateral Damage: Guiding and Protecting Your Child Through the Minefield of Divorce. For more information visit (link is external), and