Divorce between two people who don’t have children, versus two people who do, is a different animal.
Children often look and sound like they’re okay. At first they want to know about how it’ll affect their lives, if Santa Claus will come to Mommy’s house too, or will both parents be at their birthday party.
Yet 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 the children are victimized over and over.
Some of these factors you can’t control. But some you can. And you must — if the choice you made to divorce doesn’t make their own lives much more chaotic.
The factors you can’t control…
Current wisdom may say that the younger the children, the better they’ll cope with the divorce. However, if all of sudden they see far less of the parent who’s been their primary caregiver — that can be pretty difficult. A very young child can still be sensitive to rage and harsh emotion.
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 faced. It can be two families that get along very well. But it’s still two families.
Their closeness to individual parents
If a child has spent a lot of time with their dad or mom, and then that’s taken away, it can be very hard on them. Joint custody is much more the norm in our society, as culturally, men have become more involved in day to day parenting. The move to joint custody can be devastatingly difficult for a child that has a special bond with one parent.
Especially early on, you need to be sensitive to this. 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.
But these are factors you can control…
So these are factors you can control. It takes you being aware, but if you work on it, it’s more than possible.
Sudden moves away from their norm.
You may try hard for this not to happen, but sometimes you can’t prevent it. Yet you can do your best to keep the rest of your children’s lives as constant as 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.
Having as little change as possible in the rest of their lives as possible for a good amount of time is a wonderful thing for them to hold onto as they experience this major life transition.
Quickly moving ahead with another relationship
Whether this is because of having an affair or simply because loneliness scares you, you can far too quickly introduce your children to another person. If that person has kids themselves, then it can be quite complex. There are then lots of chaotic things your children can feel. Confusion. Resentment. Feeling unimportant. Looking happy because that’s what’s expected of them. This last one can be denied easily if you say, “The kids are great with the divorce. And Joe (or Josette) fits right in.”
Please don’t do that. It’s such a mistake.
Using a child as a pawn or trophy
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.
I’ve seen this happen most often when a parent has narcissistic traits, and “needs” the kids – and still wants to hurtfully manipulate the other parent.
Loyalty or a sense of guilt toward the parent who’s perceived as alone
Many children are very sympathetic and in some cases they can worry about the parent who is now living separately. Sometimes joint custody isn’t worked out because of work schedules or other factors. So this loyalty isn’t manipulated; it’s truly an awareness. It’s usually the oldest or the youngest child who feels this loyalty, and will voice worry or concern, or even wanting more time with you. Yet if you struggle with substance abuse or some other significant problem that you haven’t take responsibility for, you may try to elicit that sympathy. And that’s manipulation.
Being used as a messenger
This dynamic causes extreme stress on the children. 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’m aware he’s still seeing that woman that broke up our marriage and that he should stop lying to me. I’ve seen her Instagram photos of them together.” Using your children to fight your adult battles puts them in a highly unfair position.
A non-custodial parent dealing with depression/disenfranchisement
Maybe you didn’t fight about custody at all. Some agree on primary or joint. If you did fight, someone lost the battle. The parent who “lost” can feel a sense of disenfranchisement or a sense of being cut off from the basic rights of parenting. And that can lead to depression. More women are having to cope with these same feelings as judges aren’t awarding automatic custody to moms.
So how does that disenfranchisement affect kids? Obviously if you get depressed, then their lives will be affected. But you also may give them the message that you’re not okay. And then it becomes their “job” to make you happy.
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 make your child want to defend that parent, or if constant enough, can give them permission to also show disrespect.
Legal divorce can happen way before emotional divorce does. And that’s not fair for your kids. Your anger or disappointment or sense of failure needs to be worked out with a therapist or a friend – not your child.
How many times have I seen the hurt still present in an adult’s eyes, created when they’re remembering their long waits for Mom or Dad to show up for “their weekend,” and it never happened?
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 May 3, 2020.