In a divorce, parents need to develop a working partnership with each other so they may effectively parent the children. It is unlikely that both parents will have identical styles and views of raising children. However, parents need to agree on some basics structures and learn to ignore the smaller differences.
Children view things differently during a parent’s divorce. Most children will experience bewilderment, anxiety, loneliness, sadness and anger. However, they may worry about increasing stress for their parents and hide these feelings. Further, parents need to be able to put aside their own distress and create a safe place for the children to express their feelings.
Children often fear that they have done something wrong to drive mummy and daddy apart. They need reassurance that this is not the case. They may develop unrealistic expectations that if they behave perfectly, their parents may not split up.
Children need to be told about the divorce by their parents in a straightforward way. It is very unlikely that a child is totally unaware of conflict or unhappiness in the home. They need reassurance and honest answers to their questions. These can include the immediate concerns: “Where will I live?” to the larger questions: “Aren’t people supposed to love each other forever?”
Certain steps are crucial to minimize the effects a divorce may have on a child. Remember, there is no way that a child will be unaffected. However, there are things one can do, to help the family cope with the changes.
Take time to spend with your child. This will give the child an opportunity to talk with you about questions that may arise. Keep as much of the daily routine intact as you can. Also, keep the conflict away from the children. Hold meetings, negotiations and arguments away from the house. Don’t rely on “the children are asleep” to protect them from tension in the home.
Make sure that you do not “lean” on the children for support, or expect them to replace the role of your spouse. Children should not be emotional supports, caregivers or confidantes to their parents. Additionally, don’t assume that if a child behaves in a calm or inexpressive way, that he or she is unaffected by the news. The child may be simply pushing things aside, because they are too overwhelming. Finding books or movies that deal with divorce may help the child open up. Finally, do not put down the other parent or undermine the child’s relationship with the other parent. Children should not have to choose sides.
Do not pump children for information about the other parent. Children should not be “spies.” Also, they may interpret your curiosity about the other parent as “interest” and develop false hopes about reconciliation.
Be alert to behavioural changes in your children. If they start having nightmares, wetting the bed, or doing poorly in school, these can all be signs of anxiety and conflict. Don’t hesitate to seek professional support for the child and the family. There are counsellors, therapists and mediators available to sort out conflicts.
Families resolve the practical issues of divorce in different ways. Joint custody can be a good solution when parents have an amicable situation, and can agree on how to divide time with the children. If one parent has custodial rights and the other parent has visitation, the balance may differ. Often the custodial parent will feel like the “enforcer” and consider the other parent, “the spoiler.” Parents need to share time in a way that both parents participate in both the routine and fun activities. They need to decide on ground rules – such a bedtimes, homework and television hours for both households.
It does not matter how each family resolves the joint parenting and domestic arrangements in a divorce. However, it is crucial to put the needs of the children ahead of those of the conflicted parents. Children, who are given support, information and reassurance, will learn to cope with their new family situations.