By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Building Resiliency in Children After Divorce
Part 3: Children’s Adjustment To Parental Divorce: The Role Of Conflict
How do I build resiliency in my children? I hear this question every time I lecture to parents or go on radio shows. For the most part, when parents’ split up, they feel badly about putting their children through the emotional pain of divorce. As I discussed in part one of this series, there isn’t a foolproof answer to the question “Should I stay together for the sake of my children?” It all depends on the severity and type of conflict in the home, as well as the resources and stressors inherent in a particular family.
However, if you have been following my three part series on the role of conflict in children’s divorce adjustment, you’ve probably learned that I believe divorce is a necessary outcome in some cases. If your marriage exposes or has exposed your children to high-conflict that involves them, is physically violent, threatening or abusive; or conflict in which they feel in the middle, it might be in their best interests. If there’s repeated conflict in your marriage accompanied with yelling, screaming, and any type of abuse, I’d say get a divorce and the sooner the better. I also believe that even though parental divorce puts adult children (especially females) at risk for challenges with love, trust, and intimacy in adult relationships, most conquer these issues and go on to lead successful lives.
If you have decided that divorce is the best option for you and your children, it’s important for you to approach your situation with a positive mindset. As a wise parent, you should trust that your children have the capacity to come to their own judgment about your divorce and to move on. But what you may not realize is the importance of reducing conflict in their lives during and after divorce. One of the key ways to do this is to model harmonious interactions with your former spouse so they can maintain a healthy bond with both parents.
All children, even those in intact homes, suffer emotional pain at times. Whether at home, in school, or in the neighborhood – children experience a wide range of emotions daily and they usually bounce back without permanent harm. According to author, Ken Barish Ph.D., many day to day experiences (especially bullying or having difficulty reading) can trigger a profound sense of shame. I agree with Dr. Barish that emotional injuries, just like physical ones, must be healed or the damaging effects of the triggering event – in this case divorce – will spread or get worse.
First and foremost, there are certain conditions that set the stage for healing after divorce. If these conditions are not met, or if your children in any way feel alienated from one of their parents, this could set the stage for more serious social, emotional, or psychological problems.
This is a list of the factors that are essential to supporting your children’s healing after divorce:
- Respect for your children’s needs (not strictly wants) such a routine, stability, love, and a sense of belongingness with both parents.
- Low-conflict among family members: including interactions between parents, stepparents, siblings, stepsiblings, and extended family members.
- Shared parenting or a parenting plan close to that which ensures that your children have equal access to both parents (assuming your children feels safe with both). New research shows that joint or shared parenting actually reduces conflict between divorced parents.
- Attempt to avoid moving or getting remarried too soon after divorce because drastic changes can interfere with the healing process. If this isn’t possible, consider counseling for your children to help ease the pain associated with adjusting to new people and situations. Too much change may challenge your children’s ability to cope effectively.
- Respect boundaries. When your children are with one parent, the other parent needs to respect their time with that parent and not plan activities or partake in excessive communication with the other parent (phone, text, etc.) that would interfere.
If the above conditions are in place, you can predict that there will still be some rough patches. This includes holidays, birthdays, and special occasions which set the stage for loyalty conflicts. If possible, try to ease transitions between the two homes and communicate in a non-adversarial way to your former spouse about schedules, finances, or your children’s well-being.
After divorce, it’s your responsibility to stop the blame game and recognize that divorce forever pits children (even as adults) between their parents’ two disparate worlds. Even if you aren’t guilty of bad-mouthing your ex, you can help your children cope with disparaging comments from their other parent. Kate Scharff, a divorce expert and therapist writes “It takes practice, but you can learn to address misinformation about you (and address the emotional damage it causes) without resorting to counterattacks or pulling your kids into an alliance against the other parent.”
Children of all ages sense when their parents are cooperating and this will mean the world to them and help them feel calmer and to have fewer divided loyalties. Never bad-mouth your ex in front of your kids or make disparaging comments about them such as “he never pays child support on time,” or “what was she thinking marrying someone who can’t get a decent job.”
In summary, here are some strategies to help your children bounce back from divorce:
- Explain the separation or divorce. The overall theme of this discussion is to tell your kids about your divorce in a clear and blameless manner, and make sure they know they still have a family. Please see the blog on this site How to Tell Your Child You’re Getting a Divorce for more details.
- Explain that your divorce is not their fault. This is a crucial message that needs to be repeated over and over again. Even if your children say they know it isn’t, most kids will succumb to these thoughts during times when they feel vulnerable or are dealing with transitions or stress.
- Explain that it will take time to feel better and that you will be there to support them.
- Keep the door open for further discussion. Kids have an uncanny ability to avoid serious discussions when their parents want to talk, so make sure they know you’re waiting in the wings when they feel like chatting.
- Stay connected through their daily lives and routines: idle chats, bedtime rituals, new projects, special dates; also notes, text messages, or Skype are helpful.
- Allow your children age appropriate decisions, responsibility, and independence. Don’t rely on them too much for babysitting, household chores, or share adult details about your divorce. Don’t confide in them about personal issues – especially negative feelings about their other parent.
- Gain a support system for yourself and your children. It is important for you and your kids to have a built in safety net. Keep your eye on your children’s adjustment and look for red flags such as excessive fatigue, sleep problems, drop in grades, using or abusing drugs or alcohol, extreme shifts in mood, or a tendency to isolate from family or friends.
Most importantly, keep in mind that as you put the disappointments of your marriage behind you and adjust to your divorce, the dust will settle and your children will bounce back. Let’s end on the words of the late Judith Wallerstein: “With luck and good judgment, the divorce will turn out to be a turning point that leads you to greater happiness and to be a better parent.” I look forward to your comments and questions.
Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter and Facebook. She is pleased to announce the publication of Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks).