Can you guess which of the following statements is true concerning divorce?

  1. In the U.S., approximately 40%-50% of all marriages end in divorce.
  2. On average, 50% of children who are born with married parents, will experience divorce before the age of 18.
  3. Almost one-third of American children live with one parent.

The answer to the above question is that all the statements are true. More prevalent than teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, or the death of a parent, divorce is the most common problem facing kids today. Divorce has become a major change factor in our society today, and the ramifications of divorce are profound––both for parents and their children.

While dealing with their own difficulties with one another, caring parents must also concern themselves with the effects of profound family change in the lives of their kids. If divorcing parents “get on the same page,” they can play a tremendous role in helping their children deal with the new family dynamics associated with divorce.

Five Tips

Here are some tips for divorcing parents to ease the transition and minimize the damaging effects of divorce on children:

  • Provide structure for your children.

While keeping things flexible, maintain some regular routines and schedules so that your children have a sense of security and continuity in their lives. If possible, keep the same carpools, music lessons, soccer schedules, church affiliations, family traditions, etc., as before.

  • Go directly to the other parent if you need information.

Don’t ask your children questions about the other parent’s life or circumstances. Even if the children want to do so, don’t have your children become messengers or spies. If you want information regarding your former spouse, communicate with them directly.

  • Listen to your children.

Let them express their feelings, including the negative ones. When children are able to freely express their negative feelings, they are helped to release them harmlessly.

  • Make sure your children know that the divorce is NOT their fault.

Often, children feel like they are the cause of the marital split, “If I had behaved better, maybe my parents wouldn’t have fought like they did.” Make sure your children realize that the problem lies between you two adults and that it has NOTHING to do with them or anything that they have done. Tell them that things are going to turn out all right and that you will always be there for them.

  • Get on the same page with your ex-spouse in regard to the rules.

A fair set of rules and boundaries–consistently enforced–is important to a child’s sense of security. Children raised in a permissive environment often feel unloved (“If my parents really cared about me, they would insist upon my having a curfew!”). If the custodial parent has certain rules around the house, the non-custodial parent should enforce those same rules. In cases of joint custody, get together and agree on a set of mutually-acceptable rules. There is nothing more confusing to a child than to have two different sets of rules for behavior. Also, avoid trying to “buy the child’s affection” by being more permissive or more generous than the other parent.

Three Cardinal Rules

Regardless of how they personally experience their divorce, divorcing parents should cooperate in providing a loving, secure environment for their children. There are three cardinal rules both parents can follow in helping their children successfully negotiate this difficult period of transition.

  1. Both parents agree to keep the children out of the middle of their adult disagreements.

It’s not fair to use your children as “weapons” in your warfare against your former spouse. Do not do anything that creates a feeling of conflicting loyalties. Children have enough problems dealing with the pain of divorce without being asked to take sides. So, make a pact with your former partner that you will NEVER bad-mouth or criticize one another within earshot of your children. Share your frustrations with good friends or your counselor but keep the kids out of it.

  1. Both parents support the other parent’s relationship with the children.

Deliberately and explicitly give your children permission to continue loving your former spouse. Your children need a mother and a father. For the good of your children, encourage them to have a good relationship with the other parent. It is extremely helpful to a child to hear you say something like, “Your mother (or father) is a good person. We just have trouble living together anymore. Your mother (or father) loves you, and I want you to have a good relationship with her (or him).” Help your child to feel that he still has a family but that it now resides in two homes instead of one.

  1. Both parents make the children feel unconditionally loved and wanted.

The absolute best thing you can do for your children is for both parents to let them know you love them unconditionally (no matter what!). Unconditional love–loving a child for who he is rather than for what he does–is the primary element in building a child’s sense of self-esteem. Learning how to discipline the behavior while still affirming the worth of your child is the key to great parenting.

When given the unconditional love and nurturing that allows them to value themselves, children of divorced parents blossom and often cope with life as well if not better than many children from intact families. For the future well-being of their children, parents must agree to provide the environment of nurturing love that kids so desperately need in dealing with divorce.

Parents who truly care about the emotional health of their children learn to lay aside bitterness, anger, and personal animosity for the sake of their kids. Working together and employing the principles of unconditional love, caring parents can help their kids survive the trauma of their divorce and, in the process, enable both themselves and their children to grow in their compassion and understanding.

Dr G

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