Parenting through a Divorce
No one sets out to get a divorce, but unfortunately divorce is where a lot of us find ourselves in this day and age. The plans that we had in mind when we got married and started a family deviated into something painful and hard. Now you find yourself on a new path, a single parent to a child (or children) who go back and forth between two households. If you are reading this, then you are likely concerned and want to know how to best help your child navigate through this difficult time.
Every family is different and every situation has its own complex struggles. Of course I will concede that there is no one size fits all handbook, but I do believe that parents can create a helpful action plan to set their children up for a successful transition. Here’s some tips and tricks that I’ve seen be quite useful for families…
- Focus on your child’s emotional needs. Your child will likely be craving security and stability and their relationship with their parents is the foundation of their emotional state. We often use the term love when describing emotional security, so you can imagine that divorce would throw a wrench in your child’s core belief system (ie all they’ve ever known). They may ask questions like, “If you stopped loving mommy will you stop loving me?”. Unconditional love now seems threatened in their mind. Therefore, it is important that you are able to offer them reassurance that, although you are no longer connected by marriage, you will always be connected to them as their parent. Reassure them that although things are changing, what will not change is your love for them. Making their needs a priority is essential to their wellbeing and security. But what does this actually look like? A simple way to live this out is to make sure to spend one on one time with your child, connecting at least 10 minutes per day when they are with you. Give them your attention and let them take the lead in how your time is spent either in play or talking. This simple effort allows them to have consistency and connection which ultimately promotes security.
- Remember that comparison is the thief of joy. Don’t compare your child to your ex when you are frustrated with them. This directly threatens their sense of emotional security with you. Also, avoid giving into anger when your child compares you to your ex. When your child says something like, “That’s not how mom does it.”, resist the urge to say, “Well if you want it done that way you can go live with mom!”. Calmly explain, “Each household has their own rules and ways of doing things. I do things differently than your mom but we both both have your best interest at heart.”. Trust me, I know this can be a challenge. But, if you can stay away from the comparison game in general, I believe that you and your child will foster a much healthier environment at home.
- Do your best to not put your child in the middle of your divorce. Find another way to communicate with your ex directly rather than sending messages through the children. There are many different programs and methods that allow your children to stay out of the communication circle.
- Help your child grieve. Divorce is a loss for all involved and many children struggle to understand and/or express how they are feel. Children morn in a variety of ways: some cry, others act out and push boundaries, and others try to mask their emotions all together. Grief has different stages (shock, denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance) and your children will likely experience all of these at different times during divorce and even post-divorce. Recognize that things are different and validate your child’s feelings and emotions. Hearing someone they trust acknowledge the pain they are feeling is crucial in helping your child grieve in a healthy way. Take the Holidays for example, when grief can be strong as family traditions are no longer the same. During this time, address the change but also ask for your child’s input. Say something like, “I know things are different this year and I know we are not able to do some of the things we used to do when mommy and daddy lived together. I was wondering if you wanted to think of some new traditions that we could do this year?”.I know one family that simply decided that they were going to go to the movies every Christmas Eve as their new tradition. Just know that your child is going to grieve the family that was and learn to accept the family that is. Your acceptance and acknowledgment of this reality will help them process this change even quicker.
- In that same vein, it is also very important to let yourself grieve. I can not express enough how vital this piece is to the puzzle of overall healing. Whether your divorce was amicable or messy, the likelihood that you yourself will escape any emotional baggage is very low. Letting yourself morn the loss of a relationship in an appropriate way is important for your own mental health but also for your child’s. Give yourself space to grieve and remember that you are only human. Going through a divorce of any kind will have difficult ripple effects that deserve to be acknowledged and sifted through. You do not have to hide distressing emotions from your children but rather show them healthy ways to manage sadness and anger by accessing positive adult supports and demonstrating coping skills. I have found that there are often two extremes that parents fall into when grieving that I would advise against if at all possible…
1) The first extreme parents lean towards is a desire to jump right into a new life. This is a common theme that emerges when I counsel children reflecting on their parents’ divorce. They say things like, “My mom went crazy for about a year after the divorce”. What they are trying to express is that many newly divorced people attempt to try and find themselves and get a grip on their new life as a single instead of as a unit. The problem is that they are not truly a single person as they are still a parent which continually calls for sacrifice. Many times this attempt to redefine one’s social status plays out in new behaviors, new hobbies, or even a new hair cut. And, while these things alone are not bad, they are at times in opposition to your child’s need for stability. Try and give both yourself and your child time before you jump into any big lifestyle changes.
2) The other extreme I’ve seen parents lean towards while grieving is not being able to let go. In this case, a parent’s grief has turned into resentment and, at times, hatred towards the other parent. One of the most damaging ways you can chip away at a child’s security is for them to feel that you hate their other caretaker. There is an underlying fear that can emerge in a child’s psyche that, if your love can turn to hate for another, than the same may happen to the love you have for them as well. For this reason, if you can find no other motivation to accept your new normal with your former spouse, than do it for your child’s security. This is not to under mind the fact that many of your negative feelings/concerns are likely valid. But, I would urge you to express your frustrations when your child is not in your care. The most secure children processing their parents’ divorce have parents who are respecting and supporting each other as much as possible.
***Please note: Working through your own grief and post-mortem of a marriage and avoiding the two extremes listed above takes courage and support. Often times, when a parent has grieved appropriately, they have engaged in individual counseling, or a divorce support group, and/or have mentorship of some kind.***
Let me end by saying that divorce is hard and parenting through a divorce is even harder. You are not alone. There are divorce care groups, churches, counselors, friends, family, and healthcare providers to help support you as you wade through your grief. We recommend Synergy Psych as a great place to reach out for adult counseling services. Our very own Dr. Nangia (another member of our Behavioral Health team) wrote a similar piece on parenting through a divorce that you may mind find helpful as well.
That said, if your child needs more immediate and interactive help, please call us at (864) 272-0388 to set up a Behavioral Health appointment.
Until next time,
Kristin Malik Rich
Parkside Behavioral Health Provider, lifelong learner, and teller of cheesy pirate jokes.