Divorce is stressful and creates a variety of emotions. It takes time for everyone to adjust to their new normal and for children to acclimate living in two homes instead of one. I often tell parents, adults choose to divorce, children do not, it’s not their decision to make, yet the divorce still happens to them. Children live the schedule and must adjust to two homes, multitasking their belongings, schoolwork and learning a new way of life without seeing both parents every day.
Children and teens adjust to their new realty with resiliency and grace when they have an age-appropriate amount of information, feel heard and validated and have an opportunity to have their questions answered before and during the divorce process. When parents can avoid these 5 mistakes, children and teens will have less stress, worry, and adjust more quickly.
Mistake #1 Exposing your children to adult conflict.
Conflict is inevitable. Signs of intimate partner abuse emotionally or physically, threating, controlling, breaking property, isolating, forcing our partner into sex, and withholding financial support are a few signs of abuse. This list is not exhausted and if you believe you or someone you know is a victim of abuse, please call 800-799-7233. Help is available. But what about fighting that isn’t abusive? Conflict that we regret when it’s over, wishing we didn’t say what we said in the heat of the moment? Research suggests that conflict is the largest predictor to maladjustment, not the divorce itself. When we expose our children to yelling, name calling, belittling, inability to emotionally regulate ourselves and mirror unhealthy conflict, we leave a planted seed of dysfunction. When possible, have those difficult conversations that could turn into arguments when our children aren’t home, or they are asleep and truly can’t hear. Avoiding this exposure of unhealthy conflict allows parents to educate and mirror more appropriate conflict resolution skills and emotional regulation.
Mistake #2 Ignoring your children’s emotions and needs.
When I was a preteen and on my first flight, I remember feeling confused when the flight attendant gave instructions for the oxygen masks. Why would she instruct parents to put theirs on first instead of on their children? I remember looking at my mom and thinking she is supposed to take care of me first. Now that I’m an adult and mother, I understand why I must put my mask on first. So please, parents, always take care of yourself during a divorce. Put on your mask, then your child’s mask. But don’t forget that our children are grieving the death of the marriage too and most of the time, they don’t start the grief process when their parents do. Many children aren’t aware the marriage is ending and when we tell them divorce is inevitable, they start their grief cycle. If we miss the intensity of their emotion’s consequences could happen. Our children could experience a loss of confidence, anxiety, difficulty emotionally regulating, distrust of others, feeling empty and sad to name a few. To avoid this mistake, talk to your children, check in with them regularly and encourage them to share their thoughts, feelings, and concerns with you. Allow them to ask for outside support if needed. Reading books, offering a journal, and sharing your own feelings (if done in a healthy way) and asking opened ended questions are a few ways to help.
Mistake #3 Speaking poorly of your spouse.
If you or your spouse speak poorly of one another and focus on sharing those faults from the marriage, your children could absorb those beliefs, feelings and thinking patterns about their parent. This places them directly in the middle of the adult conflict, hinders ability to stay focused on their own independent relationship with their parent’s verses identifying with how the adults feel about one another. Keeping boundaries between the different roles is crucial. We cannot project our hurts in our martial relationship onto our children to take into their parent/child relationship.
Mistake #4 Helicopter parenting.
Helicopter parents typically exhibit anxiety and obsessive tendencies to control their children and their environment. Divorce can trigger these symptoms and some parents struggle spending time away from their children. This can lead to overreactions, difficult co-parenting, and lack of boundaries. This dominoes into an unhealthy post-divorce relationship. Please take time to evaluate your own independent parenting style and find a few common parenting beliefs for both parents to support and implement into their home. Having some similarities help children and teens predict their environments and help with stability and adjustment.
Mistake #5 Inability to compromise.
No matter how complex your divorce is, there are things most couples can compromise on. When couples can find some points of agreement, we can look forward and recognize these small moments help us shift our relationship from divorcing spouses/partners to a new beginning of healthy co-parenting. Divorcing collaboratively allows us to set our goals and create a parenting plan that meets our family needs. It’s not a one size fits all approach. It allows couples to find those common core beliefs, work with their team to discuss any potential pitfalls a couple might have and find a resolution for them. Choosing collaborative divorce allows couples an opportunity to express their concerns and find a healthy path forward.