Building Resiliency In Children After Divorce

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).

Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, will be published by Sounds True in February of 2020 and can be pre-ordered here.


How Children Are Affected by Divorce

By Kristin M. Davin, Psy.D.

Divorce is a game changer in a child’s life. That we know. It creates significant physical, emotional, financial, and psychological changes. Feelings of loss and separation abound. Sadness and pain of the breakup of their family unit, the anger they feel that often gets expressed either internally (stomaches, headaches) or externally (through behavior problems, acting out) are very common.

Children struggle to adjust to living without one parent every day, as they shuffle between two homes, splitting and sharing their time. They are often caught in the middle of potential conflict between their parents, enduring at times economic hardship, broken bonds with a parent, loss of emotional security and stability, and multiple emotional stressors. They do this while hanging on tight as they ride the emotional roller coaster of the inherent ups and downs and uncertainties of their life. Of their parent’s divorce. It’s a new life they never asked for but for one they have no choice to endure.

Long term, children of divorce are more aggressive towards their teachers and parents. They are more often referred for psychological help due to heightened anxiety and depression, struggle to get along with their peers, and more likely to divorce themselves (Wallerstein, 2000).

Yet, although divorce affects a child’s world in impactful ways, there are many things that parents can do – individually and collectively – to help them navigate this major change in their life in positive and healthy ways.

Preschool Children

This is a very sensitive developmental stage for preschool children. They have developed a strong attachment to each parent, but young and vulnerable to possible breaks in attachment and a fear of abandonment because family means everything to them. It is common for many children to fantacize that their parents will get back together again. They are aware of what is happening.

And although they understand many things, they do not fully understand or grasp the meaning of divorce and often react with confusion. This may be demonstrated through thinking if one parent left, maybe the other one will leave, too. Or, thinking they are to blame for their parents break up (thinking I did something wrong or if they behaved better, then their parents would still be together). They will search for an explanation for what they know best – their own thoughts and experiences.

Possible effects of divorce are:

• An increase in separation anxiety with more clingy behavior, and/or an increase in anxiety about losing a parent.
• May become more fearful in general.
• Resistance to being apart from one or both of their parents.
• Group negative emotions together (sadness and anger may feel the same).
• Emergence of attention seeking behavior.
• Regression or loss of developmental skills previously mastered.
• Asking the same questions repeatedly because they are struggling to make sense and understand what is happening (for example, where will I sleep? Will I go to the same school? Will I have the same friends? Where will all my toys go?).

What parents can do:

• Offer stability and a predictable routine. The use of a calendar is a positive way to help your young child, so they can anticipate visits with the non-resident parent helping them to feel more control and consistency over their environment.
• Reassure them that things will be OK (even if in the moment it doesn’t feel that way).
• Spend quality 1:1 time by reading, playing and cuddling together.
• Maintain consistent communication with the non-resident parent.
• Provide a safe space for your child to express their thoughts and feelings.
• Maintain your own self-care by having a healthy lifestyle and having a support system to share your thoughts and feelings.

School age children

During this stage of development, elementary-aged children have begun the process of figuring out who they are and their own identity with a focus on building their self-esteem. Despite the divorce, their relationship with the other parent is critical in how their view themselves and maintaining that relationship. They also have a greater understanding about their parent’s divorce. However, this can increase their feelings of sadness and loss because they are better able to grasp the depth and the full implications of their parent’s divorce. Many may also have second hand knowledge through their friends at school who are experiencing something similar. They are more prone to getting their feelings hurt by negative words expressed by their peers as they deeply value their family unit as it’s an extension of their own identity and divorce makes them feel betrayed by their parents. Yet, they continue to hope their parents will reconcile.

Possible effects of divorce are:

• Worry more about the emotional well-being of their parents and internalize their sadness and anxiety especially when they are with one parent and the other one is alone.
• Feel personally rejected by the divorce.
• Worry about money, living arrangements and how well (or not) their parents are getting along.
• Feel shame around their parent’s divorce.
• An increase in anger, often overt, towards their parents especially if they feel that one parent is to blame for the divorce.
• Difficulty concentrating on schoolwork while being preoccupied with their family and the separation/divorce process.

What parents can do:

• Ensure your child has someone to speak to about how they feel (therapist, school counselor, family member or friend).
• Inform the school of the current situation so the teachers can watch for signs of acting out or a decrease in their grades.
• Keep them informed (to a large degree) what is going on and talk to them about any impending changes with schedules. This will help them feel they are being kept in the loop and that in some ways, the family is still intact.
• Speak to them how the family is changing and what their new family will look like. This could be creating new family traditions or habits after the divorce.


Developmentally, adolescents are more independent, relying more on friends for support and guidance than younger children, they are still dependent on their parents emotionally, physically, and financially. Yet, they are just as affected by their parent’s divorce as younger children but are affected in different ways.

Possible effects of divorce are:

• They may act out more aggressively and in defiant ways that create greater distance with a stronger determination to live life on ‘his or her life in their own way’, with greater self-interest. They may disregard discipline and start taking care of themselves more.
• May try and get back at their parents, as this is a way of expressing their anger, fear, and disappointment at their parents. They may also not want to follow their advice due to a break in trust.
• Act ‘cool’ and say the divorce doesn’t affect them (as a way to hide their true feelings of sadness and loss) because they are often confused and angry by what their parents did, what they saw, and how they were told they should behave.
• Start to question their future that once felt more secure, asking, should I go to college, leave home, get married, and worry if one parent is sad and depressed.
• Experience greater insecurity as they navigate their own way to adulthood because divorce has taught them to be skeptical of trust and loyalty and may struggle to maintain their own close relationships
• Act out in dangerous and destructive ways such as delinquency, drug or alcohol abuse, or sexual promiscuity.
• Worry about money or be concerned they will not be able to do the things they have been doing.
Find faults in their parents and pick sides during the divorce.
• Attempt to fill the role they perceive to be filled by one of their parents. Unfortunately, some parents allow this to happen and place the older child in the role of the parent (‘the man of the house’) well before they are developmentally, emotionally, and psychologically ready (often referred to as being parentified).

What parents shouldn’t do:

• Do not speak negatively about your ex-spouse in front of them keeping in mind that they will always be the mother or father of your child. Doing this only creates greater confusion, stress, and anxiety for them. Find other resources (family and friends) to manage your negative feelings.
• Do not use your child as the messenger by giving them information to communicate with your ex-spouse (money issues, custody, visitation, personal anger).
• Do not use them as a weapon in the divorce battle by putting them in the middle or asking them to take sides.

What parents can do:
• Continue to maintain and nurture your relationship with them.
• Take care of yourself emotionally, physically, and psychologically.
• Encourage support by including extended family and other positive people in their life to help them so they feel less alone and have someone to talk to outside of their parents).
• Maintain routines as much as you are able to. This will help provide consistency and help them feel safe.
• Create a few new habits to help them transition. This will give them a sense of control and ownership and will also help to create resiliency.
• Listen to them. Give them the time they need to talk and process their feelings. Don’t judge and feel they should be further along they are.
• Don’t have lofty expectations just because they ‘appear’ to be doing fine or you think they can handle more information (as they often cannot but will not tell you that because they don’t want to burden you more.
• Create healthy conversations that include them and talk with them, not at them.

At the end of the day, one of the most important things that you can do as a parent is to simply talk with and listen to your child. They need to know that you are emotionally and physically available for them as this will provide them with a safe place to share their feelings, which will better equip you to understand what exactly is bothering them.

Finally, as a parent, it’s imperative that you work through your own negative emotions with friends and family and not use your child or children as a sounding board as this will only prolong their adjustment and increase their distress. Being able to speak positively about your ex as this is your child’s parent speaks volumes and will have a positive long lasting effect on their overall health and well-being both now and in the future.

Kristin M. Davin, Psy.D.
Strategic Professional Coach and Therapist
Counseling, Coaching, and Consulting

This blog was originally posted on on

Spending Time With Your Children After Divorce? Make Every Moment Count

Divorce is a tricky thing for all parties involved. However, many times parents are so focused on their own needs that they forget about their children’s needs. In some cases, they may try to vie for the attention of their kids by purchasing large gifts or using them as a pawn to get what they want.

As a responsible parent, you would never want to do something like that. Whether you are the custodial parent or just get weekends doesn’t matter. You need to make sure that every minute counts. So, if you only have your children on the weekend, how can you make it fun and stress-free? Here are some tips for quality family time.

1. Have Activities Planned

Sure, after any divorce, your children are going to have lots of questions. Rather than giving them too much idle time to sit and think, have something fun planned. Some downtime is appropriate, but you need to have something fun planned too. Having fun doesn’t mean you need to spend a ton of money either. You should know what your child likes and what they dislike. Even if it’s playing a board game, do something that makes him or her smile. Focus on the positive and less on the negative.

2. Find Time to Talk

While you don’t want to make the whole time you spend about the divorce and how things went wrong, make sure that you have time to talk to your child. Even if they don’t want to talk about family stuff, you need to find out what’s going on in his or her life. Keeping the doors of communication open is advantageous. How are they doing in school, and do they have a new friend or love interest? Encourage them to talk about whatever they need to. You are at a disadvantage if you only see them on weekends, but you need to make sure they know you are still there for them.

3. Do Something They Love

The adult idea of fun usually isn’t head banging at a rock concert. However, your child may feel like that is the best thing in the world. Sometimes, as a parent, you must sacrifice and do something that your child will love. They probably accompany you to many things that they don’t like too. It may not be a concert, but find something that allows them to make memories. Take plenty of pictures and a few selfies to document the trip.

4. Be Sure to Have Bonding Time

While a concert or a trip to the mall is fun, it won’t necessarily bring you closer together. In most cases, bonding comes from sharing your heart with each other. Part of going through a divorce is talking about all the emotions going on. Even working together on a school project can make a huge difference as your child will feel that he or she still receives all the support they need – while you will get the chance to be more present in their life.

5. Reassure Them of Your Love

One of the most significant problems with the breakup of a marriage is that children often feel confused. Some children may feel that they were the cause of the union ending. Others may feel like you don’t love them anymore if they only get to see you for short periods of time.

Try to reassure your child of your love. If you must tell him or her ten times while they are with you that weekend, make sure they know that your divorce is not their fault. They must know that your love for them is unwavering. Problems between parents always affect a child. It’s up to you whether you let it change your relationship with your child.

Making the Time Spent Memorable

You want every moment you spend with your child to count. One of the greatest things you can do for them is to try to maintain a relationship with their other parent. Many ex-couples are still good friends even though their relationship didn’t work. Some even go as far as taking their children on vacation together. If you can work together in that capacity or at least be friendly, then you will help build strong and healthy kids.

On the other hand, even if you and your ex-spouse don’t have the best relationship, never speak ill of them in front of your child. Trying to make the other party look bad may hurt them worse than the divorce. Plus, if your child feels that you are always negative about a person they love, they may dread coming to stay with you. This can make the time you spend together full of angst.

If it helps, make a list of all the things you may want to do with your child. The list can include things like:

•Go Roller Skating
•Watch New Movie On DVR
•Support them with homework and/or visit a museum
•Bake Brownies
•Play That Board Game They Love
•Just Chill and Snuggle on The Couch

Remember, it doesn’t have to be big or break the bank, it just must be enjoyable. Spending time with your child should be a welcomed break from the daily grind, and they should enjoy seeing you as much as you enjoy seeing them. Show them a good time and they won’t be able to wait to come back again.

Author Bio: Sean Blaney is an event planner with a passion for self-development and a healthy, positive lifestyle. He is also the co-founder of CalendarTable, a site that provides, among other information, a highly personalizable calendar printout formats for a better time management.


Parental Conflict Alienates/Hurts Children of Divorce Long Term

By Rosalind Sedacca, CCT

In a newsletter from Dr. Mark Goulston I read that: “A majority of teenagers, when asked if they had the choice between their parents being nicer to them or more loving towards each other, will pick the latter. The animosity between parents is very painful to their children.”

Stop and think about that for a moment. Teenagers would sacrifice receiving more love from their parents if they could assure their parents got along better with one another. This reinforces what most mental health professionals have long known: Parental conflict is a source of continual pain for our children – whether the parents are married or divorced!

As a Divorce & Parenting Coach and Founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network for parents, my goal is to make sure both parents fully understand the impact of parental discord upon your children. That’s why I ask every client: Do you love your children more than you hate your soon-to-be-Ex? If you really do, then you need to understand the negative consequences when parents (and other relatives and friends) fight, disparage or in other ways disrespect one another around the children.

Parents are the stability in any family. Children derive security from parental love, support and protection. Even after divorce, if the children feel both parents are still there for them — participating in their lives and providing love and guidance — they can thrive. However, when one parent tries to demean the other parent or uses the kids as confidants to vent their anger or frustration about the divorce, the sanctity of security is broken. Now the children are thrown into a state of conflict and confusion. With whom do they side? Will the other parent resent them for taking sides? What if they still love their other parent who is being criticized and demeaned? Are they being disloyal to mom or dad if they want to defend or support the other parent?

Children, even older teens, are deeply troubled when trying to find solutions to these challenging questions. It robs them of their sleep, affects school performance, and changes who they are emotionally and psychologically. This is a burden no parent should inflict on their children, yet it happens all too often, with little awareness of the consequences.

Feeling guilty, shamed and confused, children start acting out to cope with the internal conflict. They may get more aggressive, start bullying at home or at school, and showing other behavior problems with parents or siblings. Others turn within, disengage from family and friends, withdrawing from school, sports or other activities they used to love. The despair and loss of trusted parental security creates despair and can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide. Child psychologists deal with these challenges regularly as parents bring their children in for “help.” Most haven’t a clue that the cause was their poor parenting choices during and after divorce.

Here are some typical comments to avoid when talking to your children about their other parent:

Do you hear yourself saying: “Sounds like you picked that up from your Dad/Mom.”

Do you make a negative retort about their behavior and end it with “just like your father/mother.”

Do you frequently compare your ex with other divorced parents you know, making sure the kids get the negative judgment?

Do you counter every positive comment your child makes about your ex with, “Yeah, but …” and finish it with a downer?

Do you make your children feel guilty for having had fun visiting the other parent or liking something in their home?

Do you throw around biting statements like “If Mom/Dad really loved you …”

Do you try to frighten or intimidate your kids during a disagreement by saying “If you don’t like it here, then go live with your Mom/Dad?

It’s easy to fall into these behavior patterns – and they can effectively manipulate your children’s behavior – for the short-term. But in the long run you will be slowly eroding your personal relationship with the children you love and alienating their affection. This will bite you back in the years to come, especially as your children move through their teens and grow older.

Minding your tongue around your kids can be one of the most difficult behaviors to master after a divorce. However, it is also one of the behaviors that will most benefit your children on a long-term basis. Don’t let anger, bitterness and indiscriminate remarks hurt and harm your kids. Work on maintaining the best possible relationship with your ex – for the sake of the children. Need help? Join a Co-Parent support group, find a compassionate Divorce Coach, seek out a therapist, talk to a school counselor. Master communication skills and be the role model you want to be for your children. That’s a gift that will keep on giving, enhancing their lives — thanks to you!

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Rosalind Sedacca, CCT is a Divorce & Parenting Coach and author of the internationally-acclaimed ebook, How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook Guide to Preparing Your Children — with Love! For her free ebook on Post-Divorce Parenting, coaching services and other valuable resources on divorce and parenting issues, go to:

© Rosalind Sedacca All rights reserved.

Divorced Parents: Don’t Let Your Children Start Parenting You!

By Rosalind Sedacca, CCT

Children who experience their parents’ divorce are helpless to change the circumstances. But they often try. They want to do something to “fix” the situation, but they haven’t a clue how. Sometimes they create solutions that make sense in their young minds, but actually cause greater complications. That’s why it‘s so important for parents to take the emotional burden off of the shoulders of their children. Reassure them that Mom and Dad are still their parents and will continue to be there for them with compassion and love. Tell them they need not worry … and remind them that none of this is in any way their fault or responsibility.

Divorce is tough enough. When children try to protect their parents from its consequences, the parenting is moving backwards and the results are devastating. Always be careful of what you share with your children regarding your own emotional state during and after your divorce. It can create enormous confusion for your children, along with guilt, frustration and despair.

Children can be very resourceful in how they behave when they sense either one of their parents is vulnerable or hurting. Often they will side with one parent over the other as a means of support. They may fear that expressing happiness about time spent with one parent can seem like a betrayal of the other. They worry about hurting the feelings of the emotionally weaker parent – or experiencing the disapproval of the emotionally stronger parent. Either way, it’s a lose/lose situation for the child who feels caught in the middle.

Parents are not always aware of how children interpret their comments or emotional displays. If a parent confides to a child that they are very lonely when he or she is with their other parent, it frequently creates a need to “protect” the sad parent. So the child may elaborate on the truth by telling you what they think you want to hear. “I miss you too. I wish I could always be with you. If I didn’t have to stay with Mom/Dad I’d never be there.”

These small white lies can grow into larger stories – even outrageous lies – with the intent of protecting one or both parents. It can also become a vehicle for pitting both parents against one another. Children easily sense when they can manipulate their circumstances – and their emotionally vulnerable parents. This becomes even easier and more tempting when the parents are not speaking to one another or co-parenting cooperatively. The result can be devastating for everyone in the family – each pointing the finger at the other in blame.

When parents are too caught up in their own self-righteous dramas to put their children’s needs first, those children have little recourse but to start parenting themselves. The consequences for the children can take many directions: a sense of mistrust of adults, guilt about knowing they are exploiting their circumstances and deep insecurity because their world is no longer safely guided by parental boundaries. The responsibility here must always fall upon the parents – not the innocent children who are trying to cope with an adult-made situation beyond their control.

Communication is the key to avoiding these complex backward parenting situations. Talk to your children about divorce-related issues as a parent, not a confident. Remember that your former spouse is also a parent that your children love. If your communication with that parent is poor or limited, you are setting your children up for compensating in any way they can – with guilt, frustration, confusion, shame, anger – even revenge – as the motive.

When you accept responsibility for creating a Child-Centered Divorce and co-parent in the best way for your children’s well-being, they will feel more secure, stable, loved, protected and supported. That gives them permission to continue being children without bearing the burden of having to parent their parents after divorce.

Do you want your divorce to rob your children of their right to enjoy their childhood? Of course not! Then understand the serious consequences of backward parenting and communicate mindfully and responsibly when discussing divorce or related family issues with the children you love.
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Rosalind Sedacca, CCT is a Divorce & Parenting Coach and author of How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook Guide to Preparing Your Children — with Love! The book provides fill-in-the-blank templates for customizing a personal family storybook that guides children through this difficult transition with optimum results. For more information about the book, divorce and parenting issues, free articles and free ezine visit

© Rosalind Sedacca All rights reserved.

Fathers and Daughters: An Essential Bond After Divorce

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW 

The relationship a daughter has with her father is one that has a profound impact on her life. The breakup of a family often changes the dynamic of the father-daughter relationship and it can be a challenge to stay connected. Research has shown that fathers play an important role in the lives of their daughters but that this relationship is the one that changes the most after divorce.

There’s no denying that a woman’s relationship with her father is one of the most crucial in her life. The quality of that connection – good, damaged, or otherwise – powerfully impacts dads and daughters in a multiple of ways.  A father’s effect on his daughter’s psychological well-being and identity is far-reaching. A daughter’s sense of self, for instance, is often connected to how her father views her. A girl stands a better chance of becoming a self-confident woman if she has a close bond with her father.

While divorce can be problematic for all children, it poses unique challenges for girls, in part due to a tendency they have to crave emotional closeness more than boys do. She may feel that if her family is broken, she is broken. Due to a delayed reaction to divorce or a “Sleeper Effect,” a girl might go undercover, and develop an increased sensitivity to loss that may go unnoticed.

Why is the father-daughter relationship so vulnerable to disruption after a parents’ divorce?  Dr. Linda Nielson, a nationally recognized expert on father-daughter relationships, posits that that while most daughters of divorce are well adjusted several years after their parents’ divorce, many have damaged relationships with their fathers. Unfortunately, if the wound is severe, a girl may grow into adulthood with low self-esteem and trust issues.

Dr. Nielson found that girls tend to spend more time with their mothers (and less time with their dad) after their parents’ divorce. In her extensive research, Dr. Nielson found that only 10 to 15 percent of fathers get to enjoy the benefits of joint custody after the family splits.

My research for Daughters of Divorce spanned over three years and was comprised of 326 interviews of young women who reflected upon their parents’ divorce. The most common themes that emerged from these interviews were trust issues and a wound in the father-daughter relationship. My previous study published in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage concluded that lack of access to both parents and high conflict between them contributed to low self-esteem in young women raised in divorced homes. Most of the young women that I interviewed expressed a strong desire to improve their communication with their fathers yet lacked the tools to be able to pull this off.

Certainly a strong father-daughter connection is a challenge when it comes to post-divorce relationships. In a recent episode of Oprah’s Lifeclass Bishop T.D. Jakes concludes “It’s not a lack of love that stops an estranged father from reconnecting with his child – it’s the fear of rejection.” Bishop Jakes recommends that every father needs to “court” his child and discover his or her world in order to reconnect.

In his recent book Always Dad, Paul Mandelstein, advises divorced dads to find ways to play a crucial role in their daughter’s life. He suggests that divorced parents call a truce with their ex-spouse – to put an end to active fighting and to collaborate. The father-daughter connection, even several years after a family dissolves, is heavily influenced by consistency in contact and the quality of the relationship.

Daughters who have a strong relationship with their father are more likely to be self-confident and mature – possessing a purpose in their lives. A daughter’s relationship with her father is the first one that teaches her how she should be treated by a man. But Dads often lose touch with their daughters after a family splits up and they don’t always know how to reconnect. I know firsthand about this loss because I experienced it with my own father and fortunately was able to heal the rupture in our relationship.

Why is the father-daughter bond so vulnerable to disruption after divorce?

  • Girls tend to spend more time with their moms after divorce (and less time with their dads).
  • During early adolescence, a girl tends to feel distant from her dad and she may resent her stepmom or his girlfriend. Meanwhile, she may tend to have an intense, complicated relationship with her mom (confidant, too close, lots of conflict and love).
  • Mothers and stepmoms don’t always understand the importance of the father-daughter bond so they may not encourage it.
  • Dads don’t always know how to connect with their daughters around activities that are mutually satisfying so they start spending less time together.
  • If the father-daughter bond is severely damaged it can cause daughters to have trust and intimacy issues in adult relationships. It may push them to pick romantic partners who are all wrong for them because they set low standards.

The truth is that girls go through many changes during adolescence and at this pivotal time, they may become more distant from their dads. There is also more tension between mothers and daughters – even in intact families.  Divorce often intensifies issues between family members. The good news is that it’s not too late for fathers and daughters to connect.

10 Tips for fathers with daughters of all ages:

  • Express loving feelings: Hugs, praise, and suggesting activities are ways to do this.
  • Connect through notes: Texts, emails, or a postcard or letter if you are away.
  • Idle chats: Ask her questions or exchange small talk while you are driving in the car,  helping her with homework, cooking, or a doing a project together (puzzle, decorate her room).
  • Special dates: For younger daughters, a visit to the zoo or the park are possible ways to connect and relax together. Throw in a picnic or ice cream cone too! For teenage or young adult daughters: Take her to lunch, the gym, or a wonderful movie – ask her for ideas!
  • Include her in vacation plans: Ask her where she wants to go (with limits).
  • Find ways to help her to build self-esteem such as encouraging her to develop interests and recognizing her strengths. It’s okay for her to abandon these interests when she decides to check new ones out. Try to be accepting of her need for independence as she reaches adolescence. She still needs your approval but requires a little space to explore and grow.
  • Encourage her to spend close to equal time with both parents. Be flexible – especially as she reaches adolescence and may need more time for friends, school, jobs, and extracurricular activities.
  • Be sure not to bad-mouth her mother – even if she complains about her. For instance, mothers and daughters can experience more tension during adolescence and you can serve as a buffer. Keep in mind that her mother is still her model and so saying negative things about your ex-spouse will hurt your daughter and may spark a negative reaction.
  • Attempt to help her repair any father-daughter wounds. If your relationship has been damaged and she doesn’t want to connect, you may want to seek professional help from a divorce coach or therapist.
  • Be patient and persistent in showing your daughter you want to spend time with her. It’s never too late to develop a stronger father-daughter bond or to reconnect while you’re still alive! Don’t let your fear of rejection of the past prevent you from enjoying a positive bond with your daughter.

10 Tips for daughters of all ages:  

  • Be honest about your relationship with your father and any wounds that exist.
  • Let go of self-blame and forgive yourself (for whatever you told yourself) and your dad.
  • Give up the dream of a perfect connection with your father.
  • Look at ways you may have accepted relationships that were not healthy for you to fill the void your dad left (dating unavailable men or ones who are all wrong for you).
  • Examine your relationship with your dad and attempt to reconnect if there have been any wounds. He may be able to help you be your best self.
  • Be patient and have realistic expectations.  After all, it may take time to reconnect if your relationship is damaged or distant.
  • Invest your time in something that interests your dad – such as attending a sporting or work event with him if you have the opportunity.
  • Express your needs clearly and calmly. This could be verbally, a letter, or release (“I release you from not being more active in my life, even if I don’t know why or it hurts”). You may decide not to share your letter with your father, but this step can still be therapeutic.
  • Accept that people usually do the best they can and attempt to be more understanding of your father and his situation.
  • You may want to seek professional help to deal with your wound with your father if your relationship doesn’t seem to be improving.

If fathers can remain an integral part of their daughter’s life after divorce, a loving bond will help them get through rough patches in life. Dr. Peggy Drexler, author of Our Fathers, Ourselves writes, “Likewise, even the most troubled, overwrought , baggage-laden relationship is not without hope – if not of reconciliation, then at least of the daughter finding a new way of seeing her father that might help her to make sense of the forces that shaped him and his actions.” In most cases, It’s not too last to connect with your father or your daughter, even if you haven’t done so in some time.  

The information contained in this blog also applies to many father-daughter relationships when the parents are unwed. All daughters benefit from a close bond with their father. It is never too late to heal fractured relationships and for love and forgiveness. Fathers can be an integral part of their daughters lives even if they live apart or have had limited contact in the past.

For more suggestions check out our bi-monthly enewsletter which will be sent to your email address – sign-up at the end of this blog. I look forward to hearing from you! 

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).

Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, will be published by Sounds True in February of 2020 and can be pre-ordered here.


What Are The Long-term Effects Of Parental Divorce On Children?

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

What Are The Long-term Effects Of Parental Divorce On Children?

Part 2 of a series: Children’s Adjustment To Parental Divorce: The Role of Conflict

Today, more than 40 percent of all Americans between the ages of eighteen and forty are children of divorce. For years, researchers have identified the damage divorce inflicts on the lives of children. In recent decades, many studies have examined the impact of parental divorce on children into adulthood. However, when my daughter Tracy and I first decided to write a book about daughters of divorce in 2009, we were struck by how few articles there were on this topic – at least available to readers on the internet or at bookstores.

My own research on this topic, conducted at the college where I teach, supports the view of renowned researcher Paul Amato who examines the impact of divorce utilizing the resources and stressors model. In sum, Amato concludes that parental divorce, like other major events, can have detrimental effects to the degree that it engenders other stressors but that these negative effects can be minimized by the addition of resources and protections. Those resources include: parental closeness, open communication, competent parenting by both parents, and low conflict among family members.

My findings support Amato’s perspective that an increase in parental conflict after divorce is a stressor for children into adulthood. In Towards a Resources and Stressors Model: The Psychological Adjustment of Adult Children of Divorce, I also note that gender, financial hardship, and a parenting plan which limits access to both parents are risk factors impacting an offspring’s vulnerability to divorce. This blog will explore both risk factors and protective factors drawn from my own research and other experts.

Let’s face it, divorce is not just a single event whose impact stops once the papers are signed. Yet adult children of divorce tend to be the forgotten ones, because our focus tends to be on parents and children. Authors who specialize in studying adults raised by divorced parents conclude that such adults  have much strength – but they also have challenges to overcome. For instance, Susan Gregory Thomas, the author of In Spite Of Everything: A Memoir writes “I think the generation X has been defined as the divorce generation, and about half of us grew up as latchkey kids, so we’re well trained in making our own meals from age six and letting ourselves into our houses after school and basically being little adults.” Thomas makes many excellent points: young adults today are clear eyed realists, practical, self-sufficient and self-directed. However, she also mentions that they tend to be cynical – especially about commitment and marriage.

What are some of the challenges faced by adults raised in divorced homes? In his book, Adult Children of Divorce, psychologist Jeffrey Zimmerman, Ph.D. writes “The dynamics faced by children of divorce do not end when you turn eighteen years old. In many families these dynamics continue well into adulthood. Some divorce family’s replay the divorce over and over again at holidays, special occasions, and even at the routine times when a child (now grown) speaks to one parent in the presence of the other. These dynamics can take their toll on you as they continually exert their influence.”

Other researchers, including myself, have written extensively about how parental divorce can cause young adults (especially females) to suffer from wounded trust and to have shaken faith in love. Every person harbors a desire to love and be loved, but the problem for many daughters of divorce is that they fear they won’t be loved and cared for, that their partner will not have their best interests at heart.

Many of the women I interviewed for my book Daughters of Divorce were extremely self-reliant – working hard in school, holding down multiple jobs, and managing life on their own. However, most of the over 200 women noted that while autonomy is surely positive, it can also rob a woman of the love and intimacy they deeply desire.

While daughters of divorce may be more vulnerable to wounded trust than males, many authors have noted that both men and women raised in divorced homes tend to have unrealistic expectations going into marriage. In some cases, they may be unaware of the damage done by their parents’ breakup decades before, and they may be looking for their partner to heal them.

This could be one of the reasons why Paul Amato found that adult children of divorce have approximately double the odds of divorce compared to adults raised in intact homes. Susan Gregory Thomas, author of the memoir In Spite of Everything, describes how her own divorce occurred even though she was determined not to divorce because she harbored unrealistic views of marriage – not having a template of a healthy marriage to follow.

If you grew up as a child of divorce, you might find yourself asking: Why am I afraid of conflict? Why am I waiting for the other shoe to drop, even during times of success? Or, why am I afraid of commitment? The late Judith Wallerstein who studied the same sixty families over twenty-five years, concluded that while divorce doesn’t have to be universally detrimental to children it can cause them to harbor powerful ghosts from the past that impact their ability to have a positive mindset about intimacy that can lead to relationship issues later on. While her research has been criticized due to her case study methodology and conclusions, Amato states that there is validity to her findings if we look at them as having a moderate rather than severe impact.

Certainly most parents who split have reasons for hope since researchers have found that only a relatively small number of children of divorce suffer from serious effects. E. Mavis Hetherington’s results from her landmark study of 1,400 divorced families found that the short term effects of divorce – anxiety, anger, shock, and disbelief are overcome by the end of the second year. Researchers such as Amato and Hetherington have consistently found that high levels of parental conflict during and after divorce are associated with poorer adjustment into adulthood.

In summary, Amato’s stressors and resources model makes a lot of sense and gives us a working framework for examining the long-term impact of parental divorce on children. The stressors that are engendered by parental divorce can be damaging but the protections afforded by lower conflict, and competent co-parenting can reduce the negative effects of parental divorce over the long run.

In the next and last part of this three part series, I will address: Building Resilience in Children After Divorce. I would love to read your comments and questions to this blog or series.

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”

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Should Parents Stay Together For The Sake Of The Children?

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Children’s Adjustment to Parental Divorce: The Role of Conflict

The First in a Three Part Series About Children of Divorce

By far, this is one of the most commonly asked questions about divorce. Even though I’ve lectured on this topic many times, I still find myself pausing and choosing my words carefully. The reason why this question is so difficult for me to answer is because every family is different and one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to divorce. Other reasons include: conflict plays a large role in children’s divorce adjustment and there is quite a lot of controversy about research findings.

Consequently, I will break down my answer into three parts or a series of blogs. This series will be posted over the next six weeks and will stay on this site (in case you miss one). It is as follows: Part 1: Should Parents Stay Together for the Sake of the Children? Part 2: What are the Long-term Effects of Parental Divorce on Children into Adulthood? Part 3: Building Resilience in Children After Divorce.

Whether parents should stay together for the sake of their children depends to a large degree on the level of stress and disruption in family relationships associated with an unhappy or conflictual marriage. An important question is: would the well-being of the children be enhanced by a move to a divorced, single-parent family? If the answer is yes, then a divorce can be advantageous. However, if a divorce will expose children to diminished resources, such as more conflict and more difficulty parenting, the answer may be stay together.

The challenge is to decide how the “ifs” will play out whether parents stay together in an adversarial marriage or decide to divorce. In terms of the long-tem effects of divorce, some adults raised in divorced homes report they would have preferred that their parents part ways earlier – rather than stay in an acrimonious marriage. For instance, in a recent Huffington Post Divorce series Lessons I Learned from My Parents, Mark B. Baer, Esq., a family divorce lawyer and foremost legal authority writes: “As I mentioned previously, my parents’ marriage was miserable from the onset, even though they remained married for over 20 years for “the sake of the children.” In his series, Mark goes on to detail infidelity, high conflict, and parent alienation and gives the reader the impression that he and his siblings would have fared better if his parents had ended their marriage earlier. He reminds us that as a society we don’t always take many things into consideration with regard to the “best interests of the child.”

Let’s face it, marital conflict can have negative consequences for children whether their parents are married or divorced. In a longitudinal study spanning over many years, renowned divorce researcher Paul Amato found that conflict in intact families was associated with emotional problems in children. Amato also points out that many of the problems children of divorce face begin during the predivorce period since it is a time of increased conflict for most parents. Thus, an increase in emotional problems experienced by children after divorce may well be due not only to dealing with their parents’ divorce but marital conflict that led up to it.

In her landmark book For Better or For Worse, eminent psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington highlights the results of her study of 1,400 families and the importance of examining the type of conflict children experience. She notes that high-conflict that involves the child, is physically violent, threatening or abusive, and conflict in which the child feels caught in the middle, has the most adverse consequences for children.

In another review of this topic, Paul Amato states “When parents engage in a pattern of chronic, overt, destructive conflict, children may be no worse off (and perhaps better off) if the marriage ends in divorce.” The main finding highlighted by Amato and Hetherington is this: while parental divorce may expose children to more risk factors for subsequent social and psychological problems,  that association is moderate and the majority of youth (75%) reach adulthood as well-functioning individuals.  Even the late divorce expert Judith Wallerstein who tended to emphasize the detrimental impact of parental divorce writes “Children raised in extremely unhappy homes or violent homes face misery in childhood and tragic consequences in adulthood.” She goes on to say, “I don’t know of any research, mine included, that says divorce is universally detrimental to children.”

On a related topic, most parents remarry within six years post-divorce and many second marriages can be happier than the ones left behind. For many children, remarriage can be seen as a resource that can bring the addition of more financial security, support, and opportunities to observe appropriate role models for marriage (Hetherington). However, Amato writes, “The evidence that parental remarriage is more likely to help or harm children is mixed. Nevertheless, parental remarriage makes it possible to experience a second (or third) remarriage prior to reaching adulthood, and some studies show that multiple divorces are more problematic for children than a single divorce.”

The one thing that all divorce researchers agree upon is that family functioning – including level of conflict among family members – matters a great deal when it comes to looking at the adjustment of children.  Hetherington concludes that while divorce might cause a huge disruption in the family following divorce – by two years later, stabilization and parenting skills have usually improved. It’s clear that conflict between parents, whether it occurs in an intact, divorced, or remarried family is associated with a wide range of negative effects for children.

A recent study by psychologist Robert Bauserman and published by the American Psychological Association was highlighted in an interesting article entitled Equal Split (Cheryl Kane Heimlich, Boca Raton Observer; 9/2013). Conducting a meta-analysis that compiled data from thirty three studies over seventeen years, Bauserman found that children in joint-custody arrangements had fewer emotional problems and better school performance than children in sole-custody arrangements. He also reported that parents who shared parenting also had lower levels of conflict. Bauserman attributes this to them being able to equally participant in their children’s lives. Previously, studies with anecdotal evidence suggested that parents who shared custody had higher levels of conflict than those who don’t.

Here is a summary of findings regarding whether it is better for parents who are involved in a conflict-ridden, acrimonious marriage to stay together for their children:

  • Divorce is painful but sometimes necessary if a child is exposed to certain types of conflict or abuse. At times, the well-being of a child is enhanced after divorce but every family situation is unique.  Whether a child will benefit or be harmed by divorce depends on how many resources and stressors are present.
  • Avoid exposing your child to high-conflict that involves the child, is physically violent, threatening or abusive; and conflict in which the child feels caught in the middle.
  • Examine factors that influence an individual child’s vulnerability to suffering negative consequences of divorce if it occurs. These factors include: the child’s temperament, gender, and parenting plan.
  • Attempt to practice joint custody or shared parenting if you divorce because most research shows that children in these situations fare better than those in sole-custody situations (given there isn’t any abuse).
  • Minimize adversarial interactions and encourage positive bonds between both parents after a divorce. This is especially important for fathers since this is the relationship that’s most vulnerable to disruption after divorce.

In sum, many factors are involved in determining how divorce influences a child’s adjustment. In part two of the series, I will explore the impact of parental divorce into adulthood. Part three will address: Building Resilience in Children After Divorce. I’d love to hear from you if you have questions or comments.

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”


How to Tell Your Child You’re Getting a Divorce

Telling your child that you’re getting a divorce may be one of the most difficult things you have to do as a parent. January boasts the highest number of divorce filings out of any month of the year. Unfortunately, this is a conversation many parents will have with their children this month. In many ways, the way you break this news to your children will set the tone for how the divorce will be handled in the years to come.

I’ve compiled some strategies that may help you share this difficult news with your child. It’s important to note that the approach you take with your child will depend largely on his age and on his ability to process information.  When in doubt, always consult a family or child therapist about the best way to explain this news to your child.

  1. When possible, both parents should tell their child about the divorce together. You should outline together what you agree to tell your child about the divorce. Even though divorce is not always a mutual decision, it is important for the child not to perceive that the responsibility rests solely with one parent.

  2. Pick a time and place that is appropriate and works best for the child.Make sure you are in a quiet environment that is free of intrusions from other people. Avoid bringing up this topic the night before a child has a big test, an audition for a school play, etc.

  3. Communicate your message in a clear and blameless manner. Many times, if you and your spouse have had problems for some time, your child may be expecting the divorce or already understand some of the reasons (although this can depend on the child’s age.) Saying something like, “Your mom and I have tried really hard to get along, and we just can’t anymore.” Avoid: “Your mom has a bad temper.”

  4. Emphasize that your child had nothing to do with the divorce. Explain that there is nothing your child could have done to prevent the divorce and there isn’t anything they can do to fix it. Remind them that you love them very much and nothing will change that.

  5. Tell them what will change, and what will stay the same. Your child will probably have basic questions about what will happen next, like “Where will I live?” or “Who will take me to school?” This is why having a parenting plan in place is so important. Explain where mom and dad will live, and how often you will both see the child. Explain important things related to your child’s routine, and underscore what is staying the same, like: “Mom will still drive you to school every morning.”

  6. Give your child room to ask as many questions as she wants. It’s impossible to predict your child’s reaction. She may sit there stoically and ask very few questions, or her face may be streaming with tears, as she asks every question in the book. It’s important that all of her questions are answered as honestly and completely as possible. You don’t need to give her more information than she needs, such as: “Dad has cheated on mom twice in the past year.” But you can give her basic information such as: “Mom and Dad have fallen out of love, but still love you very much.”

  7. Reinforce the idea that your child still has a family. Although you and your spouse have decided to break up, this is not the end of your family. Your family is simply changing. It’s so critical that your child understands this. Your child will crave predictability and constancy now more than ever. If he knows he is still part of a loving family unit, it will help him on his journey.

  8. Remind your child that as the divorce experience progresses, you want to encourage an open dialog. The first conversation you have, when you break the news of the divorce, should not be the last. Your divorce will unfold in your child’s life in unexpected ways as the years progress. If your child knows  he has two parents who are open to continuing the conversation and healing from divorce, everyone’s best interests will be protected.

Tracy Clifford

I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order our new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”


A Mother’s Day Reflection: 6 Lessons I Learned From My Daughter

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Mother’s Day is a perfect time to reflect on how my divorce changed my relationship with my daughter. When I was a young teenager, I used to make lists of the things that I would teach a daughter – if I was lucky enough to have one. Since I’m a natural born coach, I’ve been thinking about what lessons I want to pass on to my daughter. In the meantime, it struck me recently how much my daughter has taught me about love, letting go, and resiliency.

Being a mom has always felt like an honor, a gift – something to feel proud of! However, no one prepared me for how much my relationship with my daughter would be altered by my divorce. Too much closeness, misunderstandings, love, and conflicts – there are many ways to describe this relationship and not a lot of research to draw from.

Since nearly one third of all daughters have parents who are divorced in America, and most of them reside with their mothers after the breakup, I was surprised to find so few studies on this topic. Perhaps it’s because we live in a culture psychologist Harriet Lerner refers to as mother-blaming rather than supportive of mothers. In The Dance of Connection Learner writes, “Mothers are held responsible not only for their own behavior (which is fair enough) but also for their children’s behavior, which they can influence but not control.”

Some studies posit that the mother-daughter relationship becomes more intense after divorce due to proximity and amount of time spent together. Psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington studied 1,400 divorced families over a period of thirty years. She considered the connection between mothers and daughters to be a protective factor after divorce. After extensive examination, Hetherington concluded that preadolescent girls develop close supportive relationships with their mothers but that this shifts during adolescence when there is more upheaval in their lives. In For Better or for Worse, she writes “In adolescence, there is a notable increase in conflict in these relationships, particularly between early maturing daughters and their mothers.” She concludes, “In addition, divorced mothers and their adult daughters are closer than divorced mothers and sons, and sons feel somewhat closer than daughters to their fathers.”

It makes sense that the mother-daughter bond would intensify after divorce since girls spend much less time with their fathers according to Dr. Linda Nielsen, author of Between Fathers and Daughters. She writes: “Sadly, only 10-15 percent of fathers and daughters get to enjoy the benefits of shared parenting.” Nielsen is a supporter of shared parenting, whenever possible, and recommends that parents encourage their daughter to spend close to equal time with both parents. Giving her messages such as “Both your dad and I made mistakes in our marriage, but we are good parents” will help your daughter to avoid loyalty conflicts and will strengthen her connection with both of her parents.

What are some concerns about the mother-daughter bond after divorce? Based on more than two decades of research on fathers and daughters, Linda Nielsen concludes that many mothers lean too heavily on their daughters for advice and caretaking and this can turn the daughter against her father. Another point made by Nielsen that I noted in my own research, is that daughters are more upset about and negatively impacted by parental conflict than sons post-divorce. Specifically, high parental conflict before and after divorce, was associated with lowered self-esteem for girls more so than sons in my study. Since girls tend to be more focused on relationships, and spend more time with their mothers post-divorce, it makes since that they would internalize feeling of low self-worth during times of conflict and take it personally when their father is absent or inconsistent in his contacts.

Some mothers may get too involved in their daughter’s lives after their divorce and have difficulty setting boundaries. An expert on parenting and gender issues, Dr. Peggy Drexler notes that many mothers want to feel connected to their daughters and, in many cases, their daughters’ friends. She writes, “At a time when there is so much societal pressure to stay young, this helps keep us feeling youthful. It also helps us feel appreciated long after our children stop “needing” us to survive. Dr. Drexler makes the point that many mothers seek validation through their daughters. In my opinion, this need could be exaggerated after divorce when the mother’s coping skills might be strained. In fact, the mother-daughter best friend idea doesn’t leave room for the more traditional role of mom and could even lead to a competitive edge between them.

Like many divorced Moms, Rita is a woman who craves closeness with her daughter, Shana, and this intensified after her divorce four years ago. During a recent counseling session, for instance, Shana talked about needing space from Rita: “I love my mom but sometimes things get a little stressful between us.” Rita described shopping trips with her seventeen-year-old daughter Shana and her friends. While they both enjoy many aspects of these outings, Shana admits that her mom may be living vicariously through her. Shana says, “My mom likes to go shopping with me and my friends and I don’t have the heart to tell her it’s not cool.”

Boundaries are an important part of any relationship, but they are especially critical for mothers and daughters after the breakup of a family. As mothers, we want our daughters to grow up to be independent and self-confident. But when we are overly involved and encourage them to tell us all of their deep, dark secrets, this may make it problematic for them to break away and to establish their autonomy – a crucial developmental task of adolescent identity formation.

Another important aspect of raising a daughter after divorce is to transmit a message of optimism about relationships. Be careful not to bad-mouth her other parent or to make disparaging comments about love or marriage. Hopefully, the legacy you’ll pass on to your daughter will be one of resiliency and hope.

7 lessons I learned from my daughter:

Learn to let her go and try not to lean on her too much. Give her space to grow and to develop her own identity – this will strengthen your bond.
Be her mother and mentor but realize this isn’t the same as being a friend. Don’t confide in her (when it comes to personal information that doesn’t involve her). You can enjoy each other’s company and be connected, yet be autonomous individuals.
Honor your daughter’s boundaries. Try not to take it personally if she doesn’t want to invite you to join her and/or her friends for social activities.
Be a strong and supportive role model. But in order to help her find her way, she’ll need to question your decisions and personality at times. Lead by example.
Don’t ask too much of her. Keeping your expectations realistic will improve your relationship with your daughter. She can’t make up for what you didn’t get from other people.
Have faith in your daughter. While it may be hard to let go, you can delight in watching her grow into a self-confident person.
Send out a message of hope about relationships. Be careful not to pass on a pessimistic view of love or mistrust of partners. Encouraging her to spend close to equal time with you and her other parent will help to restore her faith in love!

In sum, respecting the differences between you and your daughter will strengthen your connection in the years to come. Letting go means accepting that your daughter is separate from you and that she has her own personality, interests, and choices to make. She needs to learn from her mistakes just like you did. You can’t live through her or save her from the pain that comes with growing into womanhood – but you can delight in her joys.

I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome The Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”