What to Know When Divorcing With Children and Adolescents

Core competencies in best-case divorces.

Posted Sep 21, 2020

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Just as it’s hard to marry well with the additional distractions and responsibilities of parenthood, it’s even harder to divorce well with children and adolescents. To do so, there are several competencies that can be helpful: 

  • Basic understandings to accept
  • Partnership challenges to be met
  • Single parenting skills to be practiced  

Consider one take on what these three might be.

Basic understandings

Although not as harshly formative as abandonment, abuse, neglect, debilitating illness, or the death of a parent, parental divorce is still highly impactful for children and adolescents. A watershed event, the family before and after the divorce are not the same. 

As I suggested in my 1997 children’s book, The Case of the Scary Divorce, a core question for children of any age becomes: “What happens to my family now?” It's important for parents to understand: 

  • Divorce takes children through a painful family change initiated by parents.
  • Divorce creates grief, anger, and anxiety in the child at the loss of the unified family.
  • Divorce demands adjustment to two-household family living.
  • Divorce increases the lifestyle differences between parents.
  • Divorce means missing one parent when living with the other. 
  • Divorce shows how loving commitment is not necessarily forever.
  • Divorce sets children and adolescents more on their independent own.

In these and other possible ways, it’s important for parents to understand how their decision to divorce impacts children and adolescents. Sometimes, in the determination to move on with their lives, parents can feel frustrated with the child or adolescent whose adjustment and acceptance is taking time to catch up with this family change. 

In general, it’s best to be patient and listen to youthful concerns.

Divorcing tasks

To un-marry as parents is complicated and hard to do well.

1. Partners must inform children — making sure that children are not blamed for this decision, there is no pressure to take parental sides, and children can ask questions. Unable to do so, unrealistic imaginings can rule. 

2. Partners must separate sharing — who gets what and when, like custody, support, visitation, primary domicile, educational and health-care decision-making. If they are unable to do so, the relationship can remain opposed and contested.

3. Partners must emotionally reconcile — come to terms of emotional acceptance with whatever marital differences grew them apart. If they are unable to do so, the relationship can remain aggrieved, with children torn in between.

4. Partners must stabilize change — create two-household living arrangements and a familiar pattern and routines of family living that children can rely on. If they are unable to do so, life can feel confusing and chaotic.

5. Partners must re-commit as parents — share a joint concern, cooperation, and communication for the children’s welfare. If they are unable to do so, normal household differences and working together can become divisive.

Divorcing well with children and adolescents isn’t easy. Sometimes, individual or joint counseling can help the couple meet these objectives. 

Single parenting skills

Next, there comes the Refiner’s Fire of in-role education where, through hard-won family experience, effective single parenting skills can be practiced. There are so many to choose from, but here are a few:

  • Commit to being the sole household caretaker of the children.
  • Juggle family and job demands so that both mostly get done.
  • Appreciate all one does and not self-criticize for what is undone.
  • Create small occasions to enjoy time together as a family.
  • Communicate directly about what needs to be declared and discussed.
  • Listen with caring when a child or adolescent needs empathetic company.
  • Employ firm decision-making to make important rules and requirements stick.
  • With so much more to do, become well-organized to see it all gets done. 
  • Expand the range of functions and responsibilities to become two parents in one.
  • Create social support, so in times of need, one does not have to go it alone.
  • Keep priorities: Take care of oneself to take care of the family to take care of the kids.
  • Declare and model values about what matters most in maintaining a family.
  • With limited material resources, make ends meet and do not waste money.
  • Assign household tasks, so children learn to do a share of the family work.
  • Make demands and set limits, being unafraid of saying, “you must” and “no.”

Sometimes, attending a local chapter meeting of Parents Without Partners can provide support and guidance when becoming a single parent and learning the complicated skill set that comes with this challenging family role.

In counseling over the years, some of the most effective family managers I have had the privilege to work with have been single parents. Counter to negative stereotypes about a single parent presiding over a broken home that produces troubled children, I have seen the reverse: strong adult leadership nurturing resilient children and responsible adolescents.

Finally, the divorce understandings, tasks, and single parenting skills described above are not meant to be comprehensive or obligatory. They are only suggestions from working with divorcing couples and single parents over the years. So take what you like, leave the rest, and do what works for you.