Whenever parents seek advice about helping their children adjust to the fallout of divorce, they are, more often than not, instructed about what not to do rather than provided with useful ideas about how to behave in a positive manner to the benefit of their children.
They are typically told: “Don’t put your children in the middle of conflict between you and your ex” or, “Don’t badmouth the other parent.” Although such advice has its place, it nevertheless assumes a deficit perspective in relation to divorcing parents, and overlooks parents’ good faith efforts and capacity to do the best for their children, given a little support. Many such prescriptions also fall short in regard to offering concrete, practical steps that parents can take to enable their children to not only cope with the divorce but flourish in its aftermath.
The following principles are offered in the spirit that parents have the strengths, capacities, and abilities to help children through the difficult transitions attendant to divorce, and will be able to do the best for their children with concrete, practical support. It is the responsibility of service providers and support networks to help parents in their quest to address their children’s needs during and after divorce. What we expect of others, they endeavor to provide: If we expect divorcing parents to be responsible and act in their children’s best interests, and provide the supports to enable them to do so, they will act accordingly; if we expect them to fail, they will fail.
Although there is no “typical divorce” and no “magic formula” for ensuring positive child and family outcomes, and every child and family are unique, there are some general principles for successful co-parenting that apply to most, if not all, divorcing families:
1. Be there for your children, both physically and emotionally. Quantity of time matters; quality relationships are not possible without sufficient routine time to develop and sustain those relationships. But although quantity of parental time is necessary for successful child outcomes, it is not sufficient: Children also need their parents to be emotionally present, engaged and attuned, taking an interest in all aspects of their lives and actively involved in their day-to-day routines.
2. Talk with your children about the divorce. Above all, children need to know that they will not be abandoned, physically or emotionally, by either of their parents. Reassure them by first of all creating a safe environment for the discussion, and a safe way to express their feelings of shock and confusion, self-blame, fear, grief, anger, or guilt. Recognize that divorce is a long-term process for children, not a one-time event, and be prepared to have several such talks. If possible, talk with your children together as parents, reassuring them that you will cooperate in the future.
3. Let children be children. Don’t involve children in adult problems; rather, maintain continuity in their existing routines and relationships, and shelter them from the struggles that are properly the responsibility of their parents.
4. Support the other parent’s role and relationship with your children. The idea is to maximize and optimize the time that your children can spend with each of their parents. It is extremely difficult for parents to be at their best when having to parent under duress, and when having to deal with a co-parent who is less than supportive of their role and relationship with their children. You can support each other as parents by keeping to the co-parenting schedule, remaining flexible in accommodating each other wherever possible, and moving from a place of conflict and antagonism toward that of cooperation as parents. A big part of this is to separate your previous hostilities as a couple from your ongoing co-parenting responsibilities.
5. Speak about and act in a respectful manner toward the other parent, especially in front of your children. Conveying an attitude of respect toward your co-parent is vital to children’s well-being, and shielding children from conflict is essential. There are few things more damaging to a child than witnessing conflict between parents, and ongoing conflict cuts to the heart of a child’s well-being, as children see themselves as essentially half their mother and half their father. Keep this at the forefront of all interactions between you and the other parent in front of the child.
6. Wherever possible, maintain open communication channels with the other parent. Open and regular communication is the key to cooperative parenting. If this is not possible, then phone calls, emails, or stockpiling concerns to be discussed at periodic “co-parenting meetings,” with or without a third party present, are good alternatives. If you are unable to communicate without resorting to conflict and recriminations, a parallel parenting plan in which co-parenting arrangements are spelled out in a detailed agreed-upon schedule, is another effective option.
7. Maintain your child’s community of support. Essential to children is the security of maintaining existing relationships and routines with extended family members, friends, school, and other activities. This adds to children’s sense of stability, continuity, and predictability in their lives.
8. Educate yourself about children’s needs, co-parenting options, and community resources. Shared parenting offers parents an almost infinite variety of co-parenting scheduling possibilities commensurate with children’s ages and stages of development, and can be tailor-made to children’s and families’ unique circumstances. There are a variety of web-, print-, and community-based resources (including divorce education programs) for parents to access.
9. Seek out formal and informal sources of co-parenting support. Family members, friends, and informal support networks are vital in helping parents work through difficult feelings, including anger management, and the multiple challenges and transitions attendant to divorce. More formal sources of support also span a wide array: therapeutic family mediation focused on the development and implementation of co-parenting plans, divorce coaching, and parenting coordination in high conflict situations.
10. Maintain your own health and well-being as a priority. Taking care of yourself is essential not only for your own but for your children’s well-being. Your children depend on you, and you owe it to them to prioritize your own physical, emotional, and mental health. For parents struggling in the face of systemic barriers to co-parenting: never, never give up.
Above all, it is critical to keep in mind that the two most important factors in children’s successful adjustment to the consequences of divorce are the maintenance of a meaningful routine relationship with each of their parents, and to be shielded from ongoing parental conflict. The challenge for parents is to develop and maintain a co-parenting relationship that ensures that both of these essential needs are met. The challenge for both professional service providers and informal support networks is to support (and not undermine) parents in the fulfillment of their responsibilities in regard to these needs of children in particular.