When parents divorce or separate, one of the biggest concerns is the impact it will have on their children. The decision to separate is not usually made quickly or easily and the process of ending a relationship is difficult. This is an emotional time for both parents and children and while we can't help how we feel, we do have a choice about how we choose to act on those feelings. We can choose to respond in ways that help children, over time, to make a positive adjustment to the divorce or separation.
Children's worst fear when faced with their parents' divorce is that they did something wrong, that it is somehow their fault. Research shows that what children most want to know is that both mum and dad will continue to love me; that the fighting will stop and that both mum and dad will be in my life (or if there are safety concerns, that at least one parent will be here in my life).
Telling the children can be one of the hardest, most painful parts of the divorce process. Children need lots of reassurance during this conversation and it is best if both parents can tell the children together. They need to hear that although things are going to be different, that you will continue to take care of them, provide for them and keep them safe. They need to know that they didn't cause the separation and nobody thinks they did or blames them in any way. Tell them that you love them over and over again and this will never change.
It's important to have a clear plan about what the divorce or separation means for your children before you tell them. Let them know what the future living arrangements will be. Ideally you will have an outline of what the co-parenting schedule will be. Be sure to address possible concerns around friends, toys, activities and school. Encourage your children to talk about their feelings and help them to express it in a way that is comfortable for them.
There are many practical ways that you, as parents, can help your children to come to terms with your divorce or separation. Throughout the transition, structure is very important. Wherever possible, maintaining a daily routine, school, playdates and activities can really help kids to adjust. Children thrive in a stable, predictable home life. By maintaining consistency, you are helping your children to feel secure. Never argue or fight with the other parent in front of the children.
In most cases, it is in the best interests of the child to have a close, stable and ongoing relationship with both parents. This protects your child's emotional wellbeing and helps them to recover from your divorce. It can also help a child from feeling divided loyalties and stop them worrying about why the other parent doesn't want to see them.
Parents who have separated or divorced usually develop a parenting plan. This plan describes your parenting arrangements and outlines the decisions you have made about caring for the children. For example, how you will share information with the other parent, how each parent will spend time with the children and how you will make decisions about the children.
Children benefit from a respectful and co-operative relationship between both parents. However, it can be very hard for parents to transition to this new type of relationship. How do you move away from an intimate relationship to a more business-like relationship, which is focused on the children?
The first step is to separate your former role as partner from your ongoing role as parent. Even though the relationship is ending, you will be parents together forever. It's important to separate the children's needs from your own and to create new boundaries with your former partner. It helps if you can focus on what you have done well together as parents and build on those strengths. Treat the other parent as your business partner – where the business is raising healthy, happy children.
When communicating with the other parent, always try to keep things business-like, purposeful and child-focused. Co-parenting calendar and communication tools such as coparently can help parents to communicate in a professional, business-like way and to focus on child-related issues. Parents involved in a qualitative study conducted by the University of Missouri 1 found that using technology effectively can make co-parenting easier, which places less stress on the children.
Divorce changes but doesn't end families. Take the time to find the tools that work best for your family and, as business partners, make the investment needed to ensure a positive outcome for your children.
1 Communication Technology and Postdivorce Coparenting. Lawrence H. Ganong, Marilyn Coleman, Richard Feistman, Tyler Jamison and Melinda Stafford Markham