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Parents Guide to Helping Kids Through Divorce

The first working Monday after the holidays has been tagged as ‘Divorce Day’ in the United States and the United Kingdom, given the unusually high volume of calls to family attorneys inquiring into divorce proceedings on this day. Interestingly, both the United States and the United Kingdom experience a surge in divorce inquiries after the holidays as reported by The Huffington PostThe Guardian and by The Independent. It is suggested that the stressors of the holiday season, such as expenses, family get-togethers, and decision making struggles, increase the pressure on couples. The strain lends itself to moving toward a path of divorce once the holidays are over.

The divorce statistics remain high, with approximately over 40% of marriages ending in divorce in both the U.S. and the U.K. Although divorce may be the appropriate choice for many couples, it is important for parents to continue to pay close attention to their children in this complicated process.

Children are resilient, and the research suggests that most children fare well after a divorce – if the divorce is done well and the children are protected during and after. Hence, it is important to remind ourselves of the impact of divorce on children, and recommend best ways to protect children through a divorce.

Approximately 1.5 million children are affected by divorce each year (Scientific American, 2013). Research has demonstrated that divorce can contribute to significant consequences in children, including anger, depression, anxiety, school and social difficulties, and even changes in long-term attitudes towards marriage and divorce (Kinsfogel and Grych, 2004; Johnston, 1994; Grych and Fincham, 2001; Ciu and Fincham, 2010). Simultaneously, research also suggests that many children cope, adapt, and fare well after a divorce (Scientific American, 2013).

One of the most emotionally difficult moments for a child with divorcing parents is feeling and believing that he/she has to choose one parent over the other. Although most parents never explicitly place their child in this position, it is not uncommon that inadvertent, subtle messages related to parent preference are communicated to the child in a conflict-ridden divorce. If the child hears and feels that the other parent is at fault, this automatically places the child in the middle of the ping-pong match, which is very stressful for any child.

NO BLAME:  Hence, one of my first recommendations to divorcing parents is avoid the blame game at all costs in the presence of the child. Although the divorce may not be mutual or fair, if the parents share with the child that the other parent is to blame overtly or covertly for the huge family changes, parents are putting the child in a bind. This can burden the child with anger, guilt, and confusion, which can impair his/her ability to cope and recover.

NO PUT-DOWNS: This leads to my next recommendation, in that parents should avoid all ‘put-downs’ of the other parent. Unless it is a critical issue that is genuinely harmful for the child, parents should maintain a neutral and cooperative stance with each other in all their messages to the children. This stance allows children to continue to feel love and attached with both parents, and prevents a disruption in the child’s alliance and trust with each parent – which is key to a healthy divorce and in the best interest of the child.

COOPERATIVE CO-PARENTING: Another critical area that has a profound impact on children is chronic parental conflict vs. cooperative co-parenting. The short and long-term research repeatedly demonstrates that higher conflict divorces and ongoing conflict between divorced parents has a significant detrimental impact on children emotionally. Although most divorces are complicated, how the parents handle parenting during and post-divorce can make an enormous difference to the child. Cooperative co-parenting is key for children to cope and adapt in healthy ways to this significant life change.

Many clients ask what cooperative co-parenting means and what it looks like. Although there is no clear answer, my response always includes the words, ‘compromise, compromise, and more compromise’. Unless there is a safety issue or a life-threatening issue, there should be no reason for parents not to be able to compromise and come to a mutual agreement in the best interest of the child. These compromises could revolve around visitations, scheduling, finances, schooling, activities, nutrition, etc.

Cooperative co-parenting sends a powerful message to the young child that despite the massive changes in their world, their lives will remain stable and they will be well taken care of. Cooperative co-parenting also sends a strong and effective message that the child does not have to choose between one parent over the other – ever.

Although today is divorce day and January is a month of high volume calls to divorce attorneys, I hope these recommendations motivate parents to continue to be the best parents they can be.