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How Can Parents Help Their Children Be Resilient When Going Through a Divorce?

June 1, 2015/by Sarah Samuels

Couples sometimes forget that their divorce is their children’s divorce as well; so they forget that their children’s needs must be kept in mind at every step in the process. Not that this is at all easy. Divorce is a time of great stress for parents. Emotions such as resentment, fear, anger, and sadness are constant companions, often overriding logic and reason. Life’s joy, for many, has departed, and parents can easily lose the focus on their children. Yet, parents must keep their children’s needs in mind. After all, it is what they signed up for when they made the decision to have kids. And, if parents keep their children’s needs as a primary concern, their children will be as likely to thrive as children from non-divorced homes. But how do divorcing parents keep their children’s needs in mind when it takes every ounce of strength they have to “tread water” and not “sink,” as a client described his current situation. AND, what does it mean to “keep them in mind.” Both questions raised above, what it means to keep their children in mind, and how to accomplish this, require parents to consciously and consistently consider how their words, decisions and actions surrounding the divorce may impact their children. Parents can repeatedly ask themselves “how does this affect my children?” They can search out their children’s feelings and notice any changes in behavior. And while parents will, of course, attend to their own needs, they can do so in a way which is mindful of their children. Below are three examples that illustrate how parents can act when considering their children.

  1. Telling the children you are going to get divorced. This is the first opportunity for parents to reassure their children that despite the impending divorce they love them and will always be there for them. Despite this reassurance, the news will likely cause the children anxiety. They will be full of questions, such as: where will I be living, will I still be able to see my friends, how do I tell my friends, will we still be able to afford extra-curricular activities? Parents can anticipate many of these questions and be prepared to answer them in a calm, non-defensive and non-accusatory manner. Telling children needs to be done with attention given to minimize their stress, while addressing their concerns. It is preferable for both parents to tell the children together, if it is at all possible to do so in a civil manner. If not, parents should confer with each other and tell the children the same story, being sure to impress on the kids that the divorce is because of disagreements between the parents and not due to anything about the child. It is important to not blame the other parent and reveal details about character flaws or betrayal. This is not to protect the other parent, but rather to protect the children. Children’s understanding of what is going on will depend at least in part on their age and developmental stage. If parents feel unsure of how to address their kids, they can seek out information online or in the library, or find a professional counselor.

  2. Arguing with the other parent. Parents often disagree about several issues during and after the divorce. Whatever the reason, the conflict should be kept away from the children. Research reveals that parental conflict is difficult for children. It can affect them physically and emotionally and the effect can be long lasting. No matter how angry a parent is at the other parent, the conflict should be contained, so it has the least possible harmful impact on the children. And, discussions which have the potential to lead to an argument should be held away from the children whenever possible

  3. Changing the parenting schedule. Considering children’s needs continues post divorce. A case in point is the parenting schedule. It is possible that a parenting schedule initiated when the children were young may no longer work for the children as they mature. This might happen for many reasons. It may be that their friends or their after school activities are closer to one parent, they wish to spend more time with the other parent, or they don’t want to move around as much. While it is beneficial for children that parents seek their input about the schedule and periodically review the parenting schedule to see if it is working well, the parenting schedule is the decision of the parents. It should, however, be made and adjusted with the best interests of the children in mind.

During the tumult of divorce, the stakes for children are high. They can fare beautifully, but it does require that their parents be attuned to their needs and emotions. If this is too difficult, parents can always seek professional parenting help or join a support group. The first step, however, is realizing just how vital this is for children. Sarah Samuels is a family and divorce mediator in private practice in Long Island and Queens. Learn more

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