Ending a marital relationship through separation or divorce is a difficult process for everybody involved, especially for children. Once this major decision is made, it will be followed by many more concerns related to your children and their well-being. You may wonder, “How will our children be affected by our divorce?” or “How can I make this experience less painful and easier for our children?” or “How will we share custody with the children in a way that is the least disruptive for them?” During times of separation and divorce, older children and teens may feel a sense of relief if there has been extended turmoil in the household, whereas younger children tend to be more worried and anxious about the uncertainty of their future.
Think of divorce as more of a process rather than a single event. Cooperative co-parenting will be one of the most important tasks you need to master. As adults, you may both be hurting and perhaps grieving the loss of the marriage that once was or you may feel a sense of relief now that the arguing is over. Please keep in mind the experience of separation and divorce is totally different for your children. Each child has a right to love and be loved by their parents. Children have attachments to both of their parents and are sensitive to the conflict their parents experience. They often feel put in the middle of their parents’ disputes, may have lost their sense of “normal” if both parents are living apart, and may blame themselves for the breakup of the family.
It is of utmost importance to learn how to co-parent well. If you are ending a high-conflict marriage, you may find it is more difficult to problem-solve and make decisions that are in the best interests of your children. In order to create safety and security, you will need to provide your children with two healthy and separate home environments.
Children have attachments to both of their parents and are sensitive to the conflict their parents experience. They often feel put in the middle of their parents’ disputes, may have lost their sense of “normal” if both parents are living apart, and may blame themselves for the breakup of the family.
When issues with co-parenting arise, the following tips may be helpful when you are trying to make decisions and solve problems:
- Stop thinking of your ex as your enemy. If you have been in a tense, conflictual relationship for quite some time, you may have cultivated a highly negative perspective of your spouse. However, continuation of harsh conflicts and hostility after divorce makes life more difficult for your child and puts them at risk for long-term behavioral and emotional problems. It is important to support each other’s roles as parents in the lives of your children. Instead, try to focus on appreciation for what your spouse is doing right by your child. It is often helpful to try to see your ex-spouse as your child’s father or mother. Encourage your child to spend time with your ex and support each other’s roles as loving parents.
- Remember: the children come first. This is a time to focus on your children’s needs and what is best for them. Make sure to keep their scheduled lives as normal as possible. Children often feel different than other children with intact families. Make sure the children are not exposed to and keep them protected from any hostility between you and your ex.
- Pick your battles. If your ex-spouse is particularly negative and difficult, it may be tempting to turn a minor issue into a major one. Some problems will be perpetual, whereas others are solvable. Ask yourself, “Does it really matter that an article of clothing was forgotten or my ex was running a few minutes late?” It is easy for younger children to believe they are somehow at fault for perpetual issues between their parents. Take a few seconds to pause, think it through, and decide if this is a minor or major problem. If it is a small matter, refrain from making the mistake of catastrophizing the issue. You must protect your children from parental disputes.
- Focus on child-centered communication. You both love your children and want what is best for them. Set boundaries on what topics are up for discussion between the two of you. Since you have ended your couple relationship, it may be best to keep your communication with each other strictly about the children. Have an agreement that from now on all conversations will be child-centered. This strategy may help reduce tension and hostility between the two of you and keep you focused on the lives of your children.
As your relationship ends and takes a different direction, supporting each other in the lives of your children is a critical step in creating a spirit of harmony as you navigate the difficult situations divorce will bring. Attempting to establish new, healthy boundaries will be helpful when facing difficult decisions as you attempt to solve problems together as parents.
If you find problem solving between the two of you becomes too difficult, it is wise to contact a counselor or therapist who can guide you back to a place of harmony for the well-being of your children.
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