How to Have a Child-Centered Divorce
A child-centered divorce allows them (and you) to heal, recover, and move on.
Posted January 18, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Even the most well-intentioned parents can miss the importance of protecting their children from the stress, pain, and damage of divorce.
- Staying out of court increases your ability to protect your children from conflict.
- Ask yourself what story you’d like your children to tell themselves about the divorce and their parents.
January is often called “Divorce Month” due to the spike in divorce filings after the holidays. It is also International Child-Centered Divorce Awareness Month.
Your Greatest Asset
Because of the increase of divorce filings, it is fitting to remind divorcing spouses of their family’s most valuable assets. Since parents often get caught up in conflict around financial assets, my reminder is that your children are your greatest and most important asset.
Divorcing parents are understandably overwhelmed with emotions, most often anxiety and fear of the future. This emotional hijack can cause parents to focus on their own needs, rather than the needs of the children. Even the most devoted and well-intentioned parents can miss the importance of protecting their children from the stress, pain, and damage of divorce.
Fortunately, parents often agree on one thing: they love their children. They want what is best for them, even if they disagree about what that is. The starting point in your divorce should be where you agree—your love for your children. A child-centered divorce will do what you both want for your kids: It will reassure them that things will (eventually) be all right and that the family will still be one family under two roofs, and it will protect them from the worst damage of divorce.
Four Steps to a Child-Centered Divorce
1. Stay out of court. This is the single most important step you can take, right from the start of your divorce. Commit with your spouse to stay out of court. The damage of the court-focused process sets up a win–lose framework. One of you will be the “winner” and the other a “loser.” The “loser” will go back to court, again and again, to try to get a “win.” The revolving door of the court will eat up your financial assets and may cause long-term damage to your children, their recovery, future relationships, success in school, and mental health. And it isn’t good for you either. Staying out of court increases your ability to protect your children from conflict, and research shows that parental conflict is the most damaging aspect of divorce.
Choose a process that gives you more control over decisions and offers confidentiality (which the court does not offer). Choose a process such as mediation or collaborative divorce.
2. Focus on recovery, not on revenge or justice. Look ahead to the future and envision how you’d like your life, and your children’s lives, to look in two years, or five years. Ask yourself what story you’d like your children to tell themselves about the divorce and their parents. Would you like them to say that you carried the burden of the divorce so they didn’t have to? That they felt safe and loved with both parents? Then notice that you are building that story today, right now. Let that vision guide you now in your decisions and behavior, the way you talk to your kids, or how you talk about your ex.
Discussing the process of and/or the reasons for the divorce with the children, settlement proposals, or disagreements about custody or finances—this is all harmful to children. Let your children focus on being kids. If you need support turn to another adult, a friend, or a therapist.
3. Focus on your relationship with your children. Listen to them for a deeper understanding of what their reality feels like to them. Avoid the traps that often show up in divorce. Your kids may look good on the outside but aren’t always as resilient as parents think they are. Kids might work hard to reassure their parents that they are OK, especially if they see you as vulnerable or in need of support, even if they aren’t OK. Other kids might act out with poor behavior or regress to a more needy state. Your job is to understand what is driving their behavior so that you can help your child adjust and adapt to the new family constellation. In the middle of the divorce, it can be helpful to cut them some slack so that you can strengthen or repair your relationship with them.
4. Don’t rush through the divorce, but don’t drag it out either. Because the divorce process can be so emotionally upsetting and destabilizing, recovery begins when the divorce is over. During the divorce, make time for self-care and make time to spend with your children. You will have to do a lot of “chores” to unwind a marriage, separating finances and property, and when you get these chores done, you can finish your divorce and move on with life.
A child-centered divorce will allow them and you to heal from the trauma of the changes in the family. Recovery will take a year or two after the divorce is over, and a child-centered divorce will make your and your children’s recovery easier.
© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2022