Divorce: What About the Kids?

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By Alan Frankel

So often I am asked "what can we do to help our kids through the divorce?" While this is a wide-open question whose answers range from very simple to quite complex, there are some general do’s and don’ts to seriously consider.

Perhaps the most important issue in any divorcing family is creating a sensible parenting plan. Children should have continued regular contact with both parents whenever possible. Divorce can at times lead to one parent's involvement diminishing, or sometimes even that parent disappearing altogether. This can have a devastating effect on a child, who will likely feel abandoned, unloved, rejected, and may also feel that the parent’s absence is somehow their own fault, too. Kids need both a mother and a father whenever possible. Parents can still provide a sense of ongoing stability despite the fact that they are divorcing which will do their children a world of good.

It is very important that the children not be subjected to an ongoing acrimonious situation in which the parents belittle, demean, humiliate and verbally abuse one another; of course physical abuse and fighting should be avoided at all costs. Out of control grownups frighten children! I certainly do not mean to suggest that parents should never argue, but rather it is the extremes that should be avoided. If you have a disagreement that will likely lead to a heated conflict, try to postpone it until the two of you can talk alone privately.

It is also essential that the children not be used as pawns or messengers of a parent’s anger, disagreements or feelings of resentment. Messages such as "tell your father he's late with the child support again", or "you tell your mother I'm not made out of money!" puts kids in a terrible bind. Kids will likely feel caught in the middle and experience a loyalty conflict. This will likely make them feel quite uneasy, guilty and very unhappy. It also sets them up to become a target of the other spouses' anger. Parents should never “badmouth” their ex to their child. Obviously, that leaves the child in a position which is most unfair to them. If your ex has “badmouthed you”, be the bigger person and don’t respond in kind. Your children will surely appreciate it.

Whenever possible, both parents should strive to maintain regular contact in their children's lives. They need to develop ongoing cooperation and strive to maintain a civil and respectful demeanor with one another even though they may not like each other very much. It's also important for children not to be treated in a fashion that goes against the grain of the other parent; (e.g. one parent holds strong convictions that the children should only eat natural, healthy foods, and the other parent gives them junk food just to spite their ex). You don't have to agree with everything your ex thinks or feels about child rearing, but differences should be discussed, respected and worked out privately, not acted out vindictively through the kids. Compromises can be made more easily than people imagine if they can discuss it in a civil and mutually respectful manner. When divorced parents have even a modicum of mutual respect, cooperation and good communication, their kids will fare much better.

Lastly, if you’re just starting your divorce process, I strongly urge you to consider mediation instead of litigation. Divorce mediation can help lay the groundwork for parents to mutually design plans or "blueprints" for successfully co-parenting together post divorce. Litigation on the other hand will exacerbate their differences and most likely feed polarization. A recent article in MSN Money entitled “Divorcing? 15 Costly Mistakes” specifically mentions the advantages of divorce mediation, both financially and emotionally. Mediation is especially important when children are involved, to help the couple learn how to make plans to co-parent more effectively. Mediation can spare you and your family a lot of pain and aggravation, and can also save you a lot of time and money.

Al Frankel, LCSW is a psychotherapist and divorce mediator. He specializes in helping children, couples and families undergoing a divorce situation. His office is located in Mt. Kisco; he can be reached by telephone at (914)666-0654, or by e-mail at al@alfrankelcsw.com. Visit his web site at www.alfrankelcsw.com.