Protecting the Kids: Raising happy, healthy children after divorce

We've all heard the statistics about children whose parents get divorced (children of divorce are less likely to do well in school or go to college and more likely to become sexually active at young age or get involved with drugs). But if you're getting divorced, there's some good news -- research shows that kids are more resilient than we once thought. It's a tall order but if parents can maturely work together to avoid risk factors during and after their divorce, kids can cope and grow up to be happy and healthy adults despite the divorce drama.

The top risk factors for children of divorced and divorcing parents include:

  • Being exposed to their parents' fights - in the heat of the moment, people often say things they don't mean out of hurt and frustration. While adults are able to take this into account after an argument, this is something kids don't really understand. What you or your spouse says in the heat of the moment could stick with your child for a long time to come.
  • Being the "go-between" - If you and your spouse have decided to call it quits, it's likely that your ability to communicate effectively with each other is at an all-time low. Despite this fact, it is essential that parents remember that their kids are kids, not messengers. It might seem convenient to ask your child to pass along a message to mom or dad, but consider the difficult position a child is put in when he or she is tasked with mediating communications between their divorcing parents. Even trained mediators have difficulty getting ex-spouses to communicate, why would you expect your child to fare any better?
  • Being "abandoned" by one parent - Divorce is emotionally exhausting. It's normal to want to "check out." But it's essential that parents maintain a close relationship with their kids, regardless of the custody schedule. Not getting to see your kids every day is a challenge, but it's not an excuse to slack off. Just like any other relationship, the quality of the time you spend together is more important than the quantity of time you spend together.

Ten steps divorcing parents can take to protect their children:

  1. First, reaffirm with the other parent that your child's emotional health is a priority both of you: You may not be marital partners anymore, but you will always be parents so you need to be on the same page. Try to remember this every time you get mad at your ex because, as parents, you are setting the model for maturity for your children in all of the interactions you have with each other.
  2. Stay involved: It is in the best interest of the children for both parents to stay involved in the kids' lives. Maintaining a healthy relationship with your kids might mean sharing custody or it might mean letting the kids live with the other parent and keeping a regular and frequent visitation schedule. It is equally important to support the other parent's bond with the children, so avoid destabilizing a child's routine by switching up the custody schedule too often.
  3. Break the news together: If at all possible, sit down together with the kids to tell them about the divorce. Don't place the blame on either parent and don't apologize for the decision. Instead, explain that you think that the divorce will give everyone a better life in the long run, even though the transition time will be tough.
  4. Think before you speak: Before you sit down with the kids to break the news about the divorce, talk to your spouse to plan what you will say and how you will answer common questions. Do your best to work together to avoid interrupting your child's life as much as possible. Being able to assure your child that their home, school, activities and life will remain as stable as possible can go a long way during this difficult time.
  5. Reassure your child that they are not responsible: You and your spouse may know the reasons for your split, but remember that your child doesn't (and shouldn't) know the details. Because they don't know exactly why mom and dad are getting divorced, it's easy for a kid to assume they had something to do with it. This is the kind of guilt that can weigh heavily on a child's emotional health.
  6. Don't make promises you can't keep: During this tough time, your children are going to be hurting. It's a natural parenting response to want to find a way to "fix" everything. Don't tell your child that nothing will change if change is inevitable. Instead, assure your child that you and your spouse will do everything they can to avoid major changes in your child's lifestyle and schedule.
  7. Let your child cry, rage and vent: A divorce is like a death in the family and like losing a loved one, everyone grieves differently. Children are especially unpredictable when it comes to expressing their emotions, but this is natural. Just remember, this is not about you, it's about them - they're entitled to their feelings.
  8. Never say negative things a bout each other to the kids: Remember that your ex is still a parent, just like you and your kids love them just as much as they love you and saying something about their mom or dad will hurt their feelings. It might be tempting for you to "vent" to your kids about your spouse, but that kind of thinking is backwards. As a parent, your role is to be a counselor for your child, not the other way around.
  9. Take the high road: If your spouse is acting irresponsibly it's tempting to behave similarly. Remember that you are the role model! Giving in to this temptation just teaches your child that it's okay to behave badly toward someone when someone is behaving badly toward you. Just think about how this message might translate at playgroup!
  10. Put off dating for a while: There are a number of reasons to take a hiatus from the dating world after you divorce but the most important one is to protect your kids. Kids need time to get used to the changes brought about by the divorce and too much change can be disorienting. We all know that it's easy to act in haste when you're on the rebound, but we also all know how that story usually ends. Take some time to work through your own feelings, and help your children work through theirs, before you jump into a new relationship.

If you need assistance with your PA child custody case, contact our Pittsburgh family law firm for help.