Divorce isn’t fun or easy for anyone, but there are good reasons to think that the people who get the shortest end of the stick in any divorce are the children of the divorcing couple. Children have no control over either the divorce proceedings or their parents’ actions, after all. They don’t get a say in whether their family stays together or not, they don’t get to decide who will stay in the family home and who will move out, and they don’t get any input on whether and how a divorce will impact their current standard of living. Some older children may get to have some input on which parent they live with or how often visitation occurs, but even that is limited, and the younger the child, the less input they’re likely to have.
As a parent, it’s always your job to advocate for your child, and that applies even when you’re in the middle of a divorce and your children’s needs may not perfectly align with your own. Take a look at some of the things you should know about doing the right thing for your child during a divorce.
Acknowledge How Things Have Changed
You may be feeling anxious to get through the paperwork and legal issues and get on with the rest of your life. That’s understandable. Often, divorces aren’t sudden for the couple involved – they’re the culmination of months or years of conflict or incompatibility. If you’ve been through a long process of trying to save your marriage and slowly realizing that it can’t be saved, it’s possible that by the time you’ve decided on divorce, you’ve already done your grieving for the relationship. Alternatively, if the divorce was dropped on you suddenly, you may be too angry or stunned to grieve right now, and moving on quickly might seem to be your best bet.
But it’s important to remember that your children have not experienced your marriage in the same way that you have. They won’t necessarily be aware of what led to the decision, they were most likely not processing their feelings about divorce before you told them you were divorcing, and their more limited life experience means that they’re less able than you are to predict what their lives will be like going forward. This can all be very disorienting for children.
It’s important to take the time to acknowledge that this is a big change, that there may be other big changes as the result of the divorce – like a move, for example – and that it will take time to find a new normal. Give your children time to adjust and space to grieve, to ask questions, and to process their emotions.
Leave Your Children Out of the Fight
Some divorces are incredibly amicable. Some are extremely acrimonious. And many fall somewhere in the middle – it may not be an epic grudge match, but it’s not all hearts and flowers either. It’s understandable and normal that you might have hard feelings toward your ex, or vice versa. But it’s up to keep your children out of any hostility that you have with your ex.
Whenever possible, it’s best for children to have healthy relationships with both of their parents. You don’t need to be married to your child’s other parent for this to happen, but you will have to make your child’s relationship with their other parent a priority of yours.
If you’re the custodial parent, you can do this by making your child available for any visitations that you’ve agreed to or that were ordered by the court. If you’re the non-custodial parent, you can do this by paying the support you owe for your child and by upholding the usual rules and routines when you’re with your child – don’t try to make yourself out to be the fun parent and your ex the bad guy. Both parents should take care when it comes to how they speak about each other in their children’s presence. If you want to vent about your ex, save it for your friends, and make sure that your child can’t hear you.
Avoid Leaning on Your Children
Once you and your ex have separated, your children may appear to be the people who best understand your situation. After all, they lived in the same house with all of you, and they’re experiencing the same separation and divorce that you are.
Once again, however, it’s important to remember that while your children may be experiencing the same events, they’re experiencing them a different way and from a different angle. Don’t be tempted to pour out your feelings about the divorce to your children just because they’re there.
That means not talking badly about your ex, but it also means not oversharing about your money worries, your uncertainties, or your own grief over the end of your marriage. That doesn’t mean that you have to lie to your children. It’s OK to admit to your kids that you’re sad or angry and that it may take some time for you to feel better. But avoid oversharing. They don’t need a lot of details, and they shouldn’t be put in the position of feeling like they have to take care of you, or of having to worry about things they have no control over, like your financial situation.
Reassure your kids that you’re able to take care of yourself and work through your own feelings and that you’re there for them if they want to talk about how they’re feeling. And make sure that you actually do take care of yourself! If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, this may be a good time to consider counseling. Reaching out for help when you need it is the smart move – you won’t be able to take care of your kids if you aren’t taking good care of yourself.
If possible, you and your ex should work together with your legal services to come up with a custody and visitation scenario that works for both of you and for your children. A legal resources group like National Family Solutions can help you find mediation services or prepare for court if necessary. Even though your marriage is over, the two of you will always be parents, so it’s important to make that the priority.