Divorce is hard for spouses, no matter the circumstances. But it may be even harder for your child. Children generally do not have the life experience, self-awareness, and even the emotional vocabulary to deal with the transition of living in two separate households, especially if the child has grown accustomed to living with both of their parents under one roof for a significant period of time. Therefore, it is imperative for your child’s development to avoid common mistakes parents make during and after their divorce.
Common Mistake #1: Going at it alone.
Divorce is an incredibly challenging event, especially if this is a first divorce. Feelings of anger, frustration, betrayal, and even separation anxiety, are all too common. But despite the high divorce rate in our country, we are generally very ill-prepared to deal with the emotional ramifications of a divorce. They do not teach it in school nor is it discussed openly in social circles. And while therapy has become less stigmatized in recent decades, many individuals still feel uncomfortable with the idea of seeking professional help. The common thought is, “I can handle this on my own, with the help of family members and friends.”
Unless your family members or friends are licensed mental health practitioners, chances are none of them can provide you with the proper tools to cope with the emotional stress of divorce (and even if they are licensed practitioners, they will most certainly have a natural bias towards you which negates their ability to provide proper help).
A few sessions with a professional can pay massive dividends in you and your child’s life. Whether we realize it or not, our own mental health impacts our children in an enormous way. The sooner you can manage your mental health, the better your child will transition into their new paradigm.
Common Mistake #2: Not discussing the divorce with your child.
Very few parents discuss their separation and divorce with their children. This inevitably creates frustration and anxiety, as well as a feeling of loneliness, with the child.
Instead, tell your child in simple terms what is taking place and how it will affect them. Encourage your child to ask questions. And most importantly, be patient. Children of different ages respond to their transition at different speeds. Respect their space while supporting an open and honest environment in which they can feel comfortable discussing the transition with you when they are ready.
Common Mistake #3: Giving your child too much information about the divorce.
On the other hand, giving your child too much information may be harmful. Never share court or related documents with your child or leave them out for them to read. Never discuss court hearings or court-related matters with other parties in the presence of your child. If you must, be sure your child cannot hear you while you discuss these matters (children, by nature, are very curious, so expect them to try to listen in on conversations even when they are told not to).
Common Mistake #4: Using your child as a messenger.
Asking your child to relay a message to the other parent is a common mistake that should be avoided altogether. Placing this responsibility on your child is too much for them to emotionally handle. It is important to remember that your business with the other parent is strictly between you and the other parent.
Children who are used as messengers or “spies” often become depressed and frustrated which may lead to behavioral problems down the line. With that in mind, do not put your child in the middle of your divorce.
Common Mistake #5: Maintaining your same parental role after separation.
In a marriage, usually one parent plays the role of the disciplinarian while the other parent is the softer one. But once parents separate, the child will be living in separate households with separate sets of rules. If you played the role of the disciplinarian during your marriage, try to implement a softer side. You want your child to feel comfortable opening to you and not clam up because they fear the consequences from the disciplinarian. Similarly, if you played the role of the softer parent during your marriage, implement and enforce rules while your child is with you. Children need structure and discipline in both households, not just one.
Common Mistake #6: Not being on time.
Being late for (or missing) exchanges is not just inconsiderate to the other parent, it’s also inconsiderate to your child. Children strive in a routine, so be sure you maintain a regular exchange schedule. This will promote stability in your child’s life. If you are going to be late, or if you need to reschedule a visitation, be sure to let the other parent as far in advance as possible. This will ensure an environment in which parents are not bickering with one another due to tardiness or no-shows.
Common Mistake #7: Conflict with the other parent.
This is easily the most common mistake, and also the most understandable one. There is a reason(s) why there was a divorce to begin with. It’s very likely not because the two of you were getting along. Former partners know how to push each other’s buttons. Do your best to not push the other parent’s button and also do your best to not let your buttons be pushed by the other parent.
First and foremost, never argue with the other parent in front of your child. If the other parent initiates conflict, step away and inform them that a conversation can be had at a different time when your child is not present.
Inevitably, there will be disagreements regarding parenting issues. In these moments, try implementing the following techniques to resolve your disagreements in a healthy and productive manner:
- Have the conversation with the other parent at a time and place convenient for both of you.
- Do not blame the other parent or become defensive when attacked by the other parent. This will simply lead to alienation and invite more conflict.
- Be as objective as possible when discussing the disagreement. How would an uninterested third-party view the situation? How and why is the disagreement a problem for you and/or your child?
- Do not interrupt. Interruption can be viewed as a form of an attack and make the other parent defensive. Instead, listen to the other parent while taking notes. When it is your turn to talk, you will have your notes to help focus your train of thought.
- If the conversation becomes too heated or uncomfortable, take a time out. Suggest that the conversation continue at a later time when you both have had time to process the discussion. This requires being the bigger person, which is not easy to do. However, it will create a more productive environment if both parents understand the boundaries of how they should speak to one another.
- Create an action plan. Write down which parent is going to do what and by when.
Always remember, a peaceful and respectful conversation will go a long way towards building a healthy environment for your child, which ultimately should be your highest priority.
Common Mistake #8: Believing everything your child tells you.
This happens more regularly than parents care to admit. Unfortunately, children have a tendency to fabricate or exaggerate events in order to please one of their parents, oftentimes for their own gain. This doesn’t mean your child is “bad”. It means your child is a child! Be sure to investigate any claim before accusing the other parent of any wrongdoing.
Common Mistake #9: Introducing your new partner to your child too quickly.
Children need time to adjust to the new makeup of their parents lives. At some point, you will be ready to date again. If, however, your child is introduced to your new partner too quickly and your relationship with this new person does not last, it may lead to anxiety and trust issues in your child.
Introducing your child to your new partner slowly, on the other hand, will allow your child to grow more comfortable with them and less likely to feel they are in a competition for your attention. Encourage your child to talk with you about any concerns they may have about your new partner.
In some cases, it may even be beneficial to speak with the other parent about your new partner as you are slowly transitioning them into your child’s life. This will avoid problems when the child inevitably discusses your new partner with the other parent. That’s not to say that you need permission to date. But, children will often make judgments about their parent’s new partner based on the other parent’s reaction. If it’s not a surprise to the other parent, they will less likely have an inappropriate reaction when discussing it with your child for the first time.
Common Mistake #10: Not focusing on your future.
It’s easy for parents going through a divorce to put their future on the shelf. This is one of many reasons why having an experienced family law attorney handle the bulk of the divorce is so beneficial.
Whether it’s your financial, emotional, or physical future, the best way to transition through your divorce is to focus on you and your child, not the other parent. Your child will also benefit tremendously when they observe you handling the situation in mature and confident manner by focusing on your future goals.
If you have read through this article and spotted some mistakes that you may have committed, don’t be too hard on yourself. We all make mistakes. What separates successful relationships from toxic relationships is the ability to recognize our mistakes and implement an action plan to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
Children are also very forgiving, especially pre-teen and younger children. It’s never too late to turn it around and create an atmosphere that is sensitive to your child’s best interests. Being a parent is akin to working a job. The more work you put in, the more likely your child will be set up with the tools to venture into adulthood with a strong and healthy foundation. The Zarin Law Firm wishes all parents the best of luck as they transition through this difficult stage in their lives.