Divorce, Separation, and Parenting: A Primer

Boy with teddy bear and parents fightingGetting divorced or ending a long-term relationship is considered one of life’s biggest stressors. Even when it feels like the right or necessary choice for both partners, most couples who separate struggle with feelings of failure, shame, anger, and/or loss. For parents who separate (for purposes of this blog, I will use the term “separation” in place of “divorce or dissolution of the relationship”), these feelings are often intensified by concern over the impact of the separation on their child(ren).

Separation is usually painful for children; of that there is no doubt. However, how your child experiences the separation and in what ways it impacts him or her over the short, medium, and long terms largely depends on how you, the parents, handle the process.

If the separation process is handled in a way that provides your child with some degree of reassurance, respect (towards the other parent) and routine, your child can thrive regardless of or, in some cases, because of the separation. For some children, having one’s parents separate can actually (believe it or not) be a step towards a healthier, happier life—particularly when there has been a climate of disrespect, tension, and fighting between the parents. In any event, regardless of the circumstances of the separation, it is important to keep in mind as you go through this process that children, for the most part, are very resilient.

Reassuring Children

The biggest emotional pitfall/danger for a child whose parents are separating is self-blame. Most children, no matter what age or stage of development, will harbor the fear that they are the cause of the break-up, either because they did something wrong, were too difficult to parent, and/or were not lovable enough.

It is incredibly important, therefore, for parents to reassure their child that s/he is not to blame in anyway for the breakup and that their love for him/her is for always. The message needs to be: Parents sometimes stop loving each other and/or stop being happy together, but parents never stop loving their children and never stop wanting to be with them.

How you deliver this message obviously varies according to the age of your child. When telling your child about the separation, if at all possible, you should tell your child together. This will make the news less confusing and help your child integrate the information more easily. Here are some examples of the kinds of things you can tell your child:

  • “We are separating because of a change in the way we feel about each other (the parents); NOT about how feel about you. We will always love you. That never changes. Partners and marriages break-up sometimes; parents do not break up with their children.”
  • “The separation is NOT your fault; it is something that happened between us.” In explaining why you are breaking up, just give the basics (e.g. “We are no longer happy together”); do not include any details of your relationship, especially negative, accusatory ones.
  • “We will try to keep your daily life as much the same as possible.” Here you may want to spell out, to the extent to which you know at this stage, what the arrangement is in terms of where your child will sleep, when s/he will see each of you.

Make sure to give your child space to express how they feel and ask questions, at the time you tell them and on an on-going basis.

Respect Your Partner

When couples split, more often than not they are separating because, at least in part, they lack respect for some aspect of their partner’s personality or behavior. If this wasn’t the case before the separation, it often becomes so during.

When you don’t respect your partner, it is really difficult not to convey this to your child, and to some extent that is just inevitable. Nonetheless, to the degree that you can control it, it is really better for your child if you do not speak disrespectfully (with complaints, insults, etc.) to or about your ex in front of your child.

Why? Because although you may not love your ex any more, your child most certainly does, and while you may get to decide that your ex is not part of your family, your child cannot.

When your child hears you speak disrespectfully to or about your ex, s/he may feel disloyal and/or guilty about loving both of you and feel s/he needs to choose, which is a very painful and confusing position to be in. What’s more, your child will probably experience your disrespect as self-criticism (deep down all children identify to some extent with both parents).

For these reasons, it is best to avoid saying anything disparaging about your partner in front of your child. Keep to neutral statements, such as, “Mommy forgot to bring your teddy bear back here with you,” rather than, “Your mother is so careless! How many times do I have to remind her not to forget to bring your stuff?! What is her problem?!” This will go a long way in helping your child feel safe and manage difficult, conflicted feelings.

To say you should not be disrespectful to or about your ex is not to say that if your child is upset about some thing your ex-partner did, you can’t validate your child’s experience, but it meana sticking with your child’s experience, rather than using it as launch pad for your own litany of complaints.

For example, say your child tells you that your ex forgot to pick him up from school. As tempting as it may be to say, “That jerk!! He is so irresponsible!” you are probably helping your child more by saying something like, “That must have been scary for you. What did you do?” That doesn’t mean you don’t feel angry or that you sit back and do nothing about the incident, but it does mean that you keep your focus on your child in that moment and not on your own feelings about your ex.

In incidents like the one above, depending on the age of your child, you many want to help your child figure out how to communicate his feelings to his/her other parent or you might decide to communicate directly with the other parent. In those instances when you need to communicate with your ex directly, it is best to communicate when your child is not present. Otherwise, your child may very well feel torn between the two of you and/or guilty about “causing a problem.”

Keep to a Routine

Let’s face it: separation can be very disruptive for everyone involved, parents and children alike. For children, especially young children, however, the disruption to their routine that separation causes can be particularly stressful.

Kids crave routine. It gives them a sense of predictability and control in a world that is already fairly out of their control and out of their decision-making realm, particularly during big transitions such as a separation. Being able to predict the ins and outs of their daily lives can be very grounding for kids and can greatly reduce their feelings of anxiety and loss.

Although it is unrealistic (and not necessarily ideal) to think that routine and predictability can be achieved at all times, as much as possible you and your ex should try to maintain a basic routine within each of your households and between the two of you. This will mean setting up a weekly schedule for visitation or for shared custody, trying to agree on the big parenting decisions, letting go of the smaller ones, and establishing some new traditions around the holidays and birthdays, to name a few. Some things to keep in mind when setting routine are:

  • Try to set up rules that are as consistent as possible between both parents/homes (but don’t sweat the small stuff)
  • Set up details of arrangement as much as possible in advance such as the drop off and pick up routine, concerts, holidays, etc.
  • During drop-off, pick-up, and other occasions when you may come in contact with your ex, the amount of contact between you two should reflect the nature of your separation (cooperative, acrimonious, etc.). Minimize contact with your ex if the contact is acrimonious.
  • If you have a cooperative separation, celebrating holidays, birthdays, concerts, etc. jointly (where both parents are present) can be helpful. Otherwise, try to set up new traditions that become routine.

Children Are Resilient

Having one’s parents separate or divorce can be very painful for children. However, children are resilient. Their capacity to adapt and move on is remarkable. Provided they continue to feel loved by both parents, feel that they don’t have to choose between their parents and have a sense that their new life, although different in many ways, is predictable and safe, children can thrive after a separation.
Of course, if you are worried about how your child is being impacted by the separation, it can be helpful and reassuring to have your child meet with a therapist and/or speak with a professional yourself. Certainly, if you see that your child is suffering in a way that seems to be interfering with his/her functioning (at school, with his/her peers, or at home) it is always a good idea talk to a professional.

Even if you are not worried about your child, you may find it helpful to consult a professional at some point, for your own peace of mind. In any event, you may also find the following resources helpful:

Resources for Parents:

  • Raising the Kids You Love with the Ex You Hate, by Edward Farber, PhD. Greenleaf Press, 2013.
  • How to Parent with Your Ex: Working Together for Your Child’s Best Interest (for Residential and Non-Residential Parents), by Brette McWhorter Sember. Sphinx Publisher, 2005.
  • Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making Two Homes for Your Child, by Isolina Ricci. Fireside, 1997.

Resources for Children:

  • Was it the Chocolate Pudding? by Sandra Levins. Magination Press, 2005. Ages 5-10.
  • The Divorce Workbook for Children, by Lisa Scab, LCSW. Instant Help Books, 2008. Ages 9-13.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ruth Wyatt, MA, LCSW

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Flora

    April 23rd, 2014 at 10:33 AM

    In my own experience I would say that the children of a separation or a divorce do best when you tell them what is going on and you maintain civility with your ex. I know that this is hard because I know from my own experience there were times when I wanted to rip his head off and I am sure that he felt the same; but we were able to keep it civil and be kind enough to each other in front of the kids that I think that they became ok with it. It was not ideal and obviously if we had been able to stay together then we would have but it didn’t work out that way. I ended up respecting him more though that we were able to do all of this amicably instead of having it turn into some awful split that the kids would feel bad about.

  • Ruth Wyatt

    April 25th, 2014 at 9:52 AM

    It sounds like you were really able to stay focussed on what was best for your kids (no easy feat!).

  • clyde

    April 24th, 2014 at 3:28 AM

    I see this situation run the gamut from totally friendly and kind ot each other to being evil to one another, and the kids are the only ones who suffer from that type of relationship.

    If the parents could only take a little step back and remember that at one time they were together and must have loved each other, I think that this would at least create an environment where they could try to get along fairly well at least in front of the children.

    But the parents who drag the kids into everything and nveer have anything at least a little nice to say about their former spouse are the ones who are really hurting the children and creating in them this idea that they have to choose sides, which these kids should never have to do.

  • Ruth Wyatt

    April 25th, 2014 at 9:12 AM

    Wise words!!!

  • Rhondi

    April 24th, 2014 at 1:58 PM

    The court system should make this mandatory reading material.

  • Ruth Wyatt

    April 25th, 2014 at 9:47 AM

    Great idea!!!

  • jf

    April 25th, 2014 at 3:49 AM

    Good grief my parents’ divorce was hideous! It always felt like me and my brothers were being forced to take sides even when we didn’t want to or didn’t care and it was all some big competition between them to get us to choose them. I can’t tell you how many times I cried myself to sleep at night or just wanted to run away to get away from it all. I know that their relationship and what they modeled to me is why I too have been in so many failed relationships and why I am still struggling to figure out how a healthy relationship with someone is supposed to work. All I feel like I have to fall back on is what I saw growing up, and believe me, that isn’t that good.

  • Ruth Wyatt

    April 25th, 2014 at 9:16 AM

    It sounds like a very difficult situation your parents placed you in. How positive though that you were able to develop the awareness of their dynamic and it’s impact on your current life. That can only help you in your struggle to develop healthier relationships. So many people do not have this awareness and end up repeating it over and over again.

  • Harriett

    April 26th, 2014 at 10:50 AM

    The children who are made to feel like they are to blame are the ones who suffer the most. Kids are kids and they are always looking to others for how they should feel and if they think that someone thinks that they are the reason that the parents are splitting up then this is what they are going to think too. No child needs to or should have to bear that much responsibility for something that in no way has anything to do with anything that they have done. They are being caught between two supposed grown ups who have no concept of what it should be like to raise a child and make things feel comfortable and safe for them at all times. Parents who lay the blame at the feet of their children are really nothing more than children themselves.

  • Andrew

    April 27th, 2014 at 4:53 AM

    Yeah kids are resilient but only up to a certain point. There is only so much that many of them can wrap their little minds around and as adults we should try to be more aware and respectful of that.

  • rhonda

    April 28th, 2014 at 3:45 AM

    I hate it when I see the families who are simply torn apart through all of the fighting and the battles that emerge during a divorce. As much as I wouldn’t want this to happen to me, the families that I see who do things in a respectful manner and do it this way for the children? Those are the people who are doing it right and the ones I look at and think that if it has to end then this is the way that it should be done.

  • MorGan

    April 29th, 2014 at 3:41 AM

    Doing what you can to keep consistency for the child is so important. Make sure that they do not feel like they are being shuffled back and forth with little to no regard for their activities and plans. Let them know that they are free to voice their complaints too because who wants to have to pack a bag and go elsewhere every other weekend or for the whole summer and miss out on time with friends at home? I know that there are parents who just try to make things work the best way that they know how but then there are others who think about themselves and what this means for them and never once give any consideration to the upheaval and how this affects the children.

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