Parenting Through Divorce

By Micki McWade, LCSW

The most important indicator of either psychological health or damage in children from divorced families is the post-divorce relationship of their parents. If parents can manage their relationship in a cordial and business-like manner, children do as well as those from intact families. If parents can’t make this adjustment, continuing to argue and disparage each other, the stress and tension will harm children over time. Kids can cope with short-term crisis but they need peace to bloom between the two people they love most as quickly as possible.

As children grow and mature they must complete certain developmental tasks. Stages of development build on each other. Infants need to know that their cries will be answered, that their world is a safe place. Toddlers need to explore their world knowing that their parents are nearby. They move away and come back to the security of mom or dad. School age children must explore socially by interacting with friends and learning to play fairly. They try different activities to determine their own competence and preferences.

Adolescents carry this further by rejecting some of the parental beliefs and further create their own identities. They will try on new ideas, styles of clothing and philosophies. None of these tasks can be accomplished without parental stability. Even when teenagers are testing their parents’ limits and never seem to be home or care about what their parents think, they need to know that dad or mom is aware and are standing by. They literally cannot do the testing they need to do unless there is a solid structure in place.

If there is upset and anger surrounding them, a child’s development will be delayed. They will be spending energy on coping with their parent’s difficulties and not enough on the flow of their childhood. We must protect our children’s innocence and peace of mind by keeping them out of turmoil as much as possible.

Most parents are aware that speaking negatively to their child about his or her other parent is upsetting for the child. However, we may be exposing them to similar disruption without realizing it. Parents make this mistake by speaking disparagingly about the other parent while they are talking on the phone. When the children are nearby and hear what is being said, the effect is the same as if you were speaking directly to them.

Marriage is a safety net for children. When the parental unit separates, children feel less safe. When mom and dad are upset and can’t talk to each other  they worry that they might “fall through the cracks.” One parent has already left the home. What if the other leaves? They may feel that they must be the bridge between the two people they rely on. Some feel pressure to keep the peace and make everyone feel all right. After all, their survival depends on their parents and their well being.

Children don’t know how to do this. They can only guess at what will work and sometimes, to their disappointment, are proven wrong. Kids are not emotionally mature nor is their cognitive development advanced enough to be able to mediate adult problems. Parents need to mediate their issues on the adult level and allow children freedom from parental concerns.

To give a concrete example, it is inappropriate to discuss money worries. It’s fine to set financial limits with children, but to express grave concern will trouble them. Additionally, they are powerless to resolve these issues, adding further worry and stress. Managing finances is an entirely adult responsibility.

Dating is another subject that requires adult judgment. Parents should not be exposing their children to people they are dating unless the relationship appears to be significant and will be around for awhile. This cannot be determined until at least six to eight weeks have past. Discussion of sexual issues regarding either the former spouse or a new partner is also highly inappropriate. This is true regardless of the age of the child—child, adolescent or full adult. We can talk to friends, not our children.

A lot is asked of divorcing people at a time when they are far less able to think clearly than usual. There are ways of taking care of yourself that help maintain stability. Here are a few examples:

medical and dental care

psychotherapy if needed

belonging to a support group


good diet

get rest

What do you plan to do today to take care of yourself?

There are typically two styles of parenting post-divorce—cooperative or co-parenting and parallel parenting. Co-parenting, as the name implies, refers to parents who can work together for the sake of the children.

If you have children, you will be in contact with your ex forever.

How do we improve the relationship with the former partner?

Attitude adjustment: move from an intimate relationship to a business partnership—the wellbeing of the children is the product of your business.

Manage emotion. Find ways to work off anger: exercise, pound a pillow, go for a long walk

Strike while the iron is cold. Talk about difficult issues before emotion is high. Choose times that are good for both of you.

Prepare yourself and other person for a difficult discussion

Take a break if anger, fear or grief become overwhelming and go back to it later.

You know your ex-partner well. Use what you know to manage the situation.

A good divorce takes extraordinary maturity and more than most of us have. It’s worth the stretch.

Children need their parents to model mutual respect, equal responsibility for child care, and  nonviolence.

Children need their parents to  model accepting responsibility for one’s own actions and not to model blaming one’s behavior on others.

Children need their parents to model listening well to each other even when angry and not using anger as an excuse for insulting, demeaning, or intimidating (Bancroft and Silverman, 2002, p.208).

Bill of Rights for Children Whose Parents Are Separated

Our children have…

the right not to be asked to choose sides between their parents,

the right not to be told the details of bitter or nasty legal  proceedings going on between their parents,

the right not to be told bad things about the other parent’s personality or character,

the right to privacy when talking to either parent on the telephone,

the right not to be cross-examined by one parent after spending time with the other parent,

the right not to be asked to be a messenger from one parent to the other,

the right not to be asked by one parent to tell the other parent untruths,

the right not to be used as a confidant regarding legal proceedings between the parents,

the right to express feelings, whatever those feelings may be,

the right to choose not to express certain feelings,

the right to be protected from parental warfare,

the right not to be made to feel guilty for loving both parents.

Not to be on an airplane, train or bus on major holidays for the convenience of the parents

Have teachers and school informed about the new status of their family

Have time with each parent doing activities that create a feeling of closeness and special memories.

Have a daily and weekly routine that is predictable and can be verified by looking at a schedule on a calendar in a system understandable to the children.

Participate in sports, special classes or clubs that support their unique interests, and have adults that will get them to these events, on time, without guilt or shame.

Contact the absent parent and have private communication by telephone, mail or email.

Ask questions and have them answered respectfully, with age-appropriate responses that do not include blaming or belittling.

Be exposed to both parents’ religious principles, hobbies, interests and  tastes in food.

Have consistent and predictable boundaries in each parent’s home. (Although the rules in each house may differ significantly, each parents set of rules need to be predictable within his or her household.)

Be protected from hearing adult arguments or disputes.

Have parents communicate (even if only in writing) about the children’s medical treatment, psychological treatment, educational issues, accidents, and illnesses.

Not be interrogated upon their return from the other parent’s home or asked to spy in the other parent’s home.

Own and display pictures of both parents.

Choose to talk with a special adult (e.g. counselor, therapist, or a special friend about their issues and concerns.

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Collaborative Divorce