Divorce between two people who don’t have children versus two parents who do is an entirely different animal.
Their first response can easily be to try to please. So, they’ll say they’re okay. Usually when younger children first learn about the change in the family, they want to know the pragmatics of it all. Will Santa Claus come to Mommy’s house or Daddy’s? Teenagers can be angrier about a decision being made that dramatically affects their lives… without their consent. One child can feel as if they need to “side” with the parent who doesn’t live in the house any more, so that parent won’t be “lonely.”
How children ultimately fare depends on the maturity and sensitivity of the parents, specifically how much you’re working on the health of your relationship post-marriage. I’ve seen many parent divorce respectfully and with great concern for their kids. But others? It not only brings out the worst in them, but they’re so emotionally wrapped up in continuing the battle with their ex that they use the children as pawns in that battle.
It’s awful to watch. And even more terrible to live through.
There are some factors that you can’t control. But there are certainly others that you can. And in order to make your children’s lives less chaotic, it’s critical to do your best to control what you can.
The factors you can’t control…
Current wisdom may say that the younger the children, the better they’ll cope with the divorce. However, a very young child can still be sensitive to rage and harsh emotion, even if you’re attempting to shield them from it. Additionally, if they now see far less of their primary caregiver, that can be highly stressful.
Their personality, especially how sensitive to change they are
Some children are more easy-going and adapt to change fluidly, while others crave consistency and thrive on routine. If you have a child who likes order, things happening in a way that’s predictable, it will take more time for them to settle into the new normal after divorce. This ideal is to gradually disentangle with your ex. If your relationship with your ex is healthy enough to have some celebrations together, like you did when you were married, then that consistency for the children can be helpful.
Some parents carry this choice a little far, however, and continue to live as if nothing has changed; this can be confusing and perhaps even instill false hope in their children. At some point, for the sake of clarity, the fact that two families exist where there was one has to be addressed. The two families can get along very well. But it’s still two families.
Their closeness to individual parents
If a child has a closer relationship with either parent, and that suddenly changes, it can be very hard on them. Joint custody is much more the norm in our society however, so this is one of the transitions that need to be made with sensitivity.
What a judge orders is the guideline if you and your ex can’t agree, If your child needs time to adjust, then be flexible to ease that child into their new life.
But these are factors you can control…
Sudden moves away from their norm.
Keep the rest of your children’s lives as constant as you can, or as much as is possible. It gives them more stability to have other aspects of their lives intact; being able to go to school and have their same friends and teachers makes life overall feel more normal.
Quickly moving ahead with another relationship
You can far too quickly introduce your children to a new “friend.” Maybe you had an affair; maybe you’re just lonely. But waiting to give your children time to adjust to one thing before another comes along is important.
Please don’t do that. It’s such a mistake.
Showing favoritism to one child
If a parent entices a child by smothering them with attention, the other children can feel abandoned and left out as they see their sibling gain undeserved or random gifts and favors. This choice can set your kids against one another, as the parents continue the emotional battle them.
Being used as a messenger
With little to no communication between the adults, frequently the children are used to communicate, “Tell your mother to pick you up Friday after school and that she needs to fill out your school forms.”
Sometimes it’s far worse, “Tell your father that I know he’s still seeing that bitch that broke up our marriage.” Using your children to fight your adult battles puts them in a highly unfair position.
A non-custodial parent dealing with depression/disenfranchisement
Let’s say there was a fight for custody. And you lost.
The “losing” parent can feel a sense of disenfranchisement, cut off from the basic rights of parenting and the control over decision-making that comes with it.
This disenfranchisement can lead to depression, or even in the worst case, a decision to pull away from your children. “It’s just too painful.” It can be tough.
When all they hear is blame and disrespect
Kids want to love both their parents. Painting your ex as a bad, stupid or weak person can either cause your child to defend that parent, or give them permission to also show disrespect.
Your anger or disappointment needs to be worked out with a therapist or a friend, not your child.
How many times have I seen old hurt show up in an adult’s eyes, as they remember long waits for Mom or Dad to show up… And they didn’t.
Too many times.
That hurt entrenches itself. The child’s self-worth and sense of security plummets. The best way you can help your child? Get emotionally divorced yourself. Quit fighting the same battles you fought within your marriage. Focus on what is best for your children.
And try to be the best parent and parenting partner you can be.
If you want to get some help with emotional divorce, click here! It takes time.
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Originally published Dec 12, 2015; updated and republished on March 4, 2023.