Author’s Note: The tips listed in this article are targeted for divorced couples who are actively seeking to co-parent effectively. They are not directed to people who are fleeing unhealthy or dangerous relationships.
Divorce is a beast. It can range to unpleasant to devastating, traversing especially delicate ground when kids are involved. If you are one of the 40-50% of couples in America who get divorced and feel that you have done everything possible to save your marriage but divorce is still inevitable, take heart. The breakdown of a marriage does not have to mean the breakdown of a family, and there are strategies you can implement in both the short and long-term to make the process as smooth as possible for your children. Here, adults who grew up in divorced households and professional therapists share their tips to help your family have an overall happy home environment for your kids, even when spread between two houses.
Do: Work to Communicate Well Enough with Your Ex So You Can Co-Parent Effectively
Setting aside any rage, baggage, or resentment from your marriage can be difficult, but is necessary for the sake of raising your kids to the best of your abilities. If you are unable to have a discussion or be in the same room with a former spouse, the kids’ needs ultimately fall through the cracks.
According to Matthew Mutchler, Ph.D. and Psychology Today contributor, “Some of the negative impacts a high-conflict divorce can have on children include: delayed adjustment, strained parent-child relationships, depression, anxiety and negative coping strategies such as substance abuse. The negative effects of a high-conflict divorce can last for years after the parents separate. When parents have a more collaborative relationship, however, outcomes are more positive.”
In some cases, having these talks peacefully with an ex may mean seeking out a professional family therapist to help mediate co-parenting discussions, especially when the divorce is still fresh. Some people resist the idea of seeing a professional because frankly, they find the idea uncomfortable, they just don’t want to “go there,” they fear getting told something they don’t want to hear by an impartial observer, or it’s too expensive (Spoiler Alert: so is divorce, especially when it drags on). Here’s the catch: whatever the inconvenience or discomfort that counseling may be to help you co-parent with an ex, it is fractional compared to the inconvenience and discomfort your kids will encounter with divorced parents for the rest of their lives.
Even when the dust settles and they have emotionally accepted the divorce, kids will always have to split their time, schlep back and forth between two houses, feel guilt over holidays when they are with one parent and not the other, be forced to explain to their own kids one day why Grandma and Grandpa live separately, etc. As parents, you are two of the only people in the world who know your kids better than most anyone. If your time with your children is now split due to a custody arrangement, it’s even more important for the parents to communicate, especially if they notice a child is struggling emotionally, academically, physically, or in any other way so he or she can get the proper support.
Furthermore, even married parents have logistical challenges that could rival NASA when it comes to balancing kids’ schedules, so it’s especially essential for divorced parents to be on top of things like: Who is in charge of signing the kids up for extracurriculars and sharing the schedule with the other parent? Who is buying new clothes or school supplies? Who is buying what presents for the holidays? Who schedules the doctor and dentist appointments? When is that big school project due? Can your ex-spouse ever help with Ubering the kids around when you have to be in three places at once, even when it’s not technically “their” custody day? (Kids who are having a hard time adjusting would probably love a mini visit with the opposite parent, even just for a short car ride.) If peaceful communication dissolves right along with the marriage, the kids are ultimately the ones who are stuck in the middle and suffer the most.
Don’t: Say Your Kids Are Your First Priority When Your Comfort Zone Is Actually More Important
We’ve heard many a celebrity statements glamorously describing “consciously uncoupling,” putting the children first as they move forward separately with love and respect, and so on. Perhaps you committed to a similar ideal. But be mindful that never having a family dinner with both parents ever again is not putting the kids first. Making them ping-pong back and forth constantly during the holidays is not putting the kids first. Refusing to be in the same room together is not putting the kids first. Living in separate states or countries is not putting the kids first. Fighting or bickering within earshot of your children without putting the argument on hold is not putting the kids first. Bringing massive amounts of tension to their wedding weekend is not putting the kids first. Sitting separately at every single sporting event, graduation, school play, or other milestone is not putting the kids first.
Ben, 30, recalls: “It was my very first band concert and I was so nervous. While I appreciated my parents being there, having to find them separately in the audience was just another reminder that my family was different. Rather than feeling supported, I just felt disappointed.”
Keep in mind that it’s already a huge change for kids to have divorced parents living separately, so being divided at every single function that you were once together for just puts a brighter spotlight on how their world has turned upside down. Divorced couples who can put aside their differences enough to be civil if not friendly enough to have consistent family gatherings are deserving of massive respect and kudos – even more so when they can muster the ability to have regular dinners, take their kids on family outings, or even vacation together. (Cheers to you, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner.)
In the grand scheme of things, divorce might be the best thing for the family to end a toxic or negative environment. But be mindful that your comfort zone is not a stronger priority than your children for the seemingly little things like holidays, milestones, and dinners. Those collectively add up over the years and spending time together with both parents as a family, albeit a modern one, is more impactful for kids than you may realize.
Do: Keep Each Home Environment as Consistent as Possible
This is especially important during a custody agreement that requires frequent back-and-forth between houses. Not only is keeping their lives as consistent as possible between homes essential for kids to know their expectations, boundaries, and responsibilities, it also provides them a sense of consistency, security, and comfort.
John, 26, recalls how different his two households were as a child: “My father was extremely strict and would constantly try to overcompensate for what he assumed was a lack of discipline at my mother’s house, even when they rarely spoke. I would get grounded for weeks for the slightest infractions at his house, even for minor things like momentarily chewing with my mouth open. In hindsight, the over-use of punishment caused me to rebel more because I felt like I couldn’t do anything right, so why try?”
Parents should agree on discipline style, academic expectations (such as when homework gets done), curfew, attending religious services, manners, chores, and any other methods that help cultivate responsibility in kids. If messages are inconsistent, they won’t stick.
Don’t: Blindside Your Kids by Introducing Them to Your New “Friend”
It may seem innocent enough: you are ready to date and want a new significant other to meet your kids. But, do not shellshock your kids with a new “friend” out of the blue, especially in their own home, which should be a safe haven. Pretty much any kid over the age of 5 knows it’s a date, even if you sugarcoat it and don’t describe it that way. If you never had someone of the opposite sex come over for dinner when you were married without your spouse there, you shouldn’t do it now without discussing it with the kids first. Almost all kids do not-I repeat, do not– want to have dinner and make awkward small talk with John-from-work or Brenda-from-tennis. Unless your kids are begging you to date and enjoy playing matchmaker, chances are it still hurts to see their parent with someone who isn’t their mom or dad, even if years have gone by since the divorce. They may not always be accepting of it, but you do owe it to them to discuss it first. Even if you are dating Mary Poppins herself, it still may sting just because she’s not “mom.” Give your kids time and don’t push them. If it’s the right person, the kids will hopefully come around eventually.
Therapist Laura Raine, L.C.P.C., suggests: “Talk to your kids about their feelings about meeting a new significant other. Ask them in what situation would they like to meet this person, and for how long, so it’s on their terms to help them feel more comfortable.”
Keep in mind that just because someone may seem great for you does not mean they are automatically great for your kids. Be sure to choose a significant other that enhances and compliments your family dynamic and not someone who hinders it.
Roberta, 39, particularly dreads the holidays due to her stepdad’s unwillingness to be flexible. “My three kids, husband, and I live four hours away, but my stepdad refuses to ever travel to us for any holiday. We are expected to pack up the kids and all their presents and wake up in their home every Christmas, rather than our own. I’ve asked my mom to reason with him and have tried myself, but his preferences always come first before ours. It’s gotten to the point where I have to be the one to put my foot down to do what’s best for my own kids, which means they can stay home and don’t always see Grandma over Christmas.”
Additionally, you are also responsible for sheltering your children from any negative or even potentially dangerous people entering their lives. If you place your or a significant other’s happiness above your children’s, your relationship with them may be permanently impacted, as well as potentially their health and safety. Do not ignore any red flags when it comes to your kids’ overall well-being.
Do: Be Proactive About Your Kid’s Mental Health, Even Years After the Divorce
It’s easy to assume: the kids seem fine, so they must be fine. Some parents may think it’s best to not bring up the divorce or discuss it to avoid adding more salt in the wound. But kids haven’t forgotten about it and are reminded daily when they wake up to a single-parent household. Keep in mind that the younger the child is, the less resources he or she has, so it’s essential that they are taught healthy processing skills, ideally by a professional. (For example, elementary-aged kids may not yet have the ability to pinpoint what is bothering them, they just know that they feel bothered.) Most adults have the luxury of processing the divorce with friends, family, lawyers, Google, etc.- basically a very wide net, while a child may feel embarrassed talking to friends about it and may resort to processing it internally, which can lead to issues later in adolescence and adulthood.
Remember that kids may not necessarily want to talk with a parent about the divorce, and that’s okay too, but give them the option to know that they can. In the meantime, setting them up with a school counselor or therapist is crucial – IF it’s the right fit for them and someone friendly that they feel they can confide in. It may take a few tries to find the right match, or siblings may need to see separate professionals based on their gender, personalities, and comfort level. (Perhaps a young girl would be much more comfortable with a younger female counselor as opposed to an older man that she feels she has little in common with.)
Don’t: Bash Your Ex to Your Kids
You may have very good reason to want to go on a tirade about how you were wronged. But barring any danger to the children, someone being a terrible spouse does not automatically make them a terrible parent. Those discussions are inappropriate for children to hear and should be saved for friends, other family members, or professionals if you need to discuss or vent about a situation. Your child is not your therapist.
Luisa, 34, recalls this well: “My whole life, I would hear about how awful my dad was from my mom. But he wasn’t a bad person, and hearing all that bitterness and negativity was just so draining. I felt like I had to act like the mature parent, not the other way around.”
Parents should also never make comments like “You are just like your father” in a negative connotation. Full stop. Not only does this reaffirm the nasty divorce, it also attacks the child’s character. They have their own personalities, life experiences, and genetics that make them unique and different from any person on earth and should never be summarized or dismissed as otherwise.
Do: Be Reflective Enough to Recognize Your Own Behaviors You Could Improve
One of the good (and often annoying) things about marriage is that someone is always there to point out your less-desirable habits. (I don’t know how it’s even humanly possible for my husband to sneeze as loud he does, and me leaving a random cabinet door open basically gives him a nervous tic.) While it may be freeing to finally not have to deal with someone telling you how to squeeze the toothpaste, keep in mind that you are now the only one accountable for your own behavior as the sole grown-up in the house.
We all have our own harmless quirks and nuances, but it’s also important to reflect on a deeper level about our not-so-great qualities that could impact the kids when there is no one else to referee. This isn’t a question of “Hmm, do I even have any negative habits and could they possibly affect my kids, if at all?” Rather, it is a question of “What are my negative traits or habits and how do they affect my kids?” We all have them, and the simple awareness of certain characteristics that aren’t serving you or your loved ones can be life changing. I’m sure you are a lovely person, but every single person on the planet has areas to improve on, especially in times of stress or conflict.
If you don’t think you have any negative traits, then take a little more time to reflect (or hey, just ask your ex, who could certainly be of service in this department!) If you still don’t think you have any undesirable habits that could negatively influence your kids now that you’re a single parent, then perhaps your blind spot is that you have narcissistic tendencies or too much pride. Here are some reflective questions if you’re not sure where to start:
1) Parenting Style:
Which of the four main parenting styles best describes you?
Authoritarian-Kids should follow your rules without exception; heavy emphasis on punishments, not logical consequences
Authoritative-Puts a lot of effort into fair disciplining and creating a mutually respectful environment for parents and children
Permissive-Believes kids learn best with little interference; rules are set but not enforced
Uninvolved-Expects children to raise themselves and devotes little energy into parenting
What example am I setting for my kids in this area? For example, do I have a short fuse that inadvertently causes me take out stresses on my loved ones? Or, do I tend to try to hold everything in until I explode like a volcano over minor infractions?
Am I overly rigid with liking things a certain way and expecting everyone around me to adhere to my methods? Or could I be more punctual and organized so my kids don’t miss (another) spirit day at school?
Do I fight “fairly” when in a disagreement with someone, or do I resort to slinging mud to get my point across? Do I always have to be right and win an argument, even when I know it damages my relationships? Or do I tend to play the victim card and feel that my problems are always somebody else’s fault, without any accountability on my end?
Do I drink/eat/smoke/sleep/swear too much around my kids? How do I promote a healthy lifestyle for them – physically and mentally? Do I model exercise and provide healthy meals for them? Mentally, am I spending quality time with them, or am I constantly distracted or scrolling my phone?
Remember that recognizing and actively trying to improve your own shortcomings is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength. Once you have the awareness of a specific behavior that’s not a reflection of your best self, set the intention to be better in whichever area you could improve on.
You’ve Got This
You may feel overwhelmed in a million different ways going through a divorce and worrying if the kids will be okay. While there isn’t a magic solution and every family dynamic is different, try to remember that you and your ex-spouse can still model a respectful, healthy relationship for your kids, even when you’re not together. Communicating peacefully, keeping routines consistent for children, and seeking out the proper professional assistance can make an enormous positive impact on your kids’ lives, as well as your own.
Lindsay Richardson is a writer and educator who has been published in a variety of major publications. She loves writing honestly and humorously about life experiences and lives in Chicago with her husband and two children (three if you ask the dog.) You can visit her website Hope and Happy Hour or follow her on Instagram: @hope_and_happy_hour.