Last week I learned that a young couple I know had recently separated. I remembered their wedding and the promising future they imagined together. I don’t know the circumstances of their separation but I do hope that they have tried hard to make their marriage work; that knowledge will be important to their children. I also hope that they are committed to working on an effective partnership as co-parents to their two young girls. I hope that they are supported by other significant adults-family and friends-who can help challenge them to see their daughters’ experiences and feelings as separate from their own.
No man is an island. We need other people to support and to challenge us. There is no time when this is truer than during separation/divorce. The process of divorcing is understandably emotional and the presence of effective “support” people can be critical.
A parent undergoing divorce needs to be reminded of these truths:
1. The relationship change in the child’s family concerns the marital relationship, not the child’s relationship with either parent. Parents need to be reminded to avoid framing the separation as “What your father has done to us” or as suggesting that “Your mother doesn’t care about us”.
2. It is destructive to the child to hear any criticism of their parent. Most parents understand this but may fail to protect the child from criticism. Parents are often surprised at what the child has overheard; they need to be reminded that at this stressful time children are typically highly vigilant, listening carefully for clues about the changes they are experiencing in their family. Some parents speak negatively about the other parent without regard for the impact on the child but few do this intentionally. Sometimes parents fail to insist that other significant adults including grandparents are not critical of the child’s other parent.
3. The child deserves to have his (her) relationship with each parent protected and supported. When parents are living together, the child benefits from unique aspects of his relationships with each parent. It is important to remind a divorcing parent that he or she needs to allow the child to continue to enjoy the benefits of each of those relationships.
4. What does change upon divorce is the opportunity for the child to experience the buffering effect parents have when they are present together. Children sometimes complain about one parent to the other. It is important to remember that the child may be perceiving pressure to choose one parent over the other or to be critical of one to the other. It is important to listen to the child but also to reinforce your valuing of your child’s relationship with each parent; for example, by reminding the child of the qualities or positive intentions of the other parent.
5. Parents can understandably feel and act defensively during divorce. Being critical of the other’s parenting can escalate into long term battles. Parents need to be reminded to be reminded to resist the tendency to criticize or micro manage the other parent- that typically only increases conflict without any positive change to the parenting behavior in question. Conflict undermines the opportunity to work together effectively in the future, that is to collaborate on more important parenting decisions or practices.
6. While parental divorce is traumatic to all children, wise and consistent parenting can help the child adjust to the change in his family. Introducing a new romantic partner to the child before he has had time to adjust typically backfires and undermines any future prospect of a positive relationship between the child and his parent’s new partner. It is also true that when a new partner has become involved in the child’s life, his other parent needs to allow the child to feel comfortable in his relationship with that new “significant adult”. It is important to remember that the child did not ask for his home life to be complicated by parental divorce. The child has the right and need to feel comfortable with and to be supported in positive relationships with the adults who are present in his life.
Family and close friends undoubtedly experience their own disappointment when people they love experience separation and divorce. However, it is important for divorcing parents to be challenged to act in ways that respect the child, protect his relationships with both parents, and fee him from making decisions or expressing opinions that may be rooted in his desire to protect his parents rather than being genuine expressions of his own thoughts and feelings.
My practice includes working with families dealing with divorce, and it is not uncommon to see children and teens who are essentially emotionally crippled by the acrimony in the relationship between their divorced parents. I recall one personable 11 year old who was agonizing over which Middle school to enroll in- her father wanted her to go to one Middle school while her mother was insisting she should attend another Middle school. Rather than being able to consider the relative benefits of either school’s program, this child was attempting to make the decision that would result in less guilt over disappointing one of her parents. It is not unusual in my practice to meet teens who have been growing up in the shadow of their parents’ ongoing conflict. Research proves that their memory of anticipating and experiencing continuous conflict between their parents.
Parents experiencing divorce sometimes need to be challenged to make decisions that support their children’s’ emotional well-being. Divorcing parents may be unable tat times to see how their behaviors are undermining their child’s adjustment and they can benefit from the wisdom of another adult they trust. You may be that person, the one who protects the child from undue and even unending emotional distress. You may be essential to supporting the child’s adjustment to the changes in his family, so that he can ultimately experience his family as a secure and supportive foundation to his development.