I once heard a judge in the Worcester County court deliver a wise piece of advice to a couple during a pre-trial session. “You two decided to take the sleigh ride of divorce,” he said. “Please keep in mind that your children are tied to the back of this thing. The rougher the ride, the more they’re going to be tossed around back there.”
I thought of the day I told my own children their father and I were divorcing. My son, who was 13 at the time, kept saying, “If you loved me, you wouldn’t do this to me.” It broke my heart. His world as he knew it was coming to an end, and the people he trusted the most were the cause.
It’s been said that divorce can be harder for children to deal with than a parent’s death. While death is rarely a parent’s decision, divorce is often viewed as a choice – some times a selfish choice, in a child’s eyes.
Of course, staying happily married is the biggest gift you can give your child. But the next best thing you can do is remain respectful and caring toward each other throughout your divorce. If you are a child of divorce, you know first-hand how painful it is to watch one parent purposely try to tear down the other. My own parents divorced when I was in my late twenties, and now, 25 years later, whenever I hear a sentence that begins with “Your father…” or “Did you know your mother…?” the old wounds still ache. Even now, I still wonder to myself, “Why are you telling me this? What am I supposed to do with this information?”
Now that the shoe is on the other foot, I realize that co-parenting through divorce is far from easy. I get frustrated, mad, hurt… and so does he. Each time this happens, I catch myself, own up to my mistakes and apologize. It all pays off for the kids.
Communication is Key
Early on in my divorce, I was so angry with my ex that I refused to speak with or see him. All communication was through email. I thought this was best: I was defining my boundaries, standing up for myself. Eventually, I realized that our inability to communicate as cool-headed adults was having a toxic effect on our children. They were fighting, crying more often, sleeping poorly. It was ugly.
The only thing to do was let the anger go.
I know it’s hard, especially if you feel hurt and betrayed by your partner. But remember: you are in control of your own behavior and how you choose to respond to others.
Here are five ways to make your children’s sleigh ride through divorce a little less bumpy.
- Keep your kids out of the story. They have enough on their own plates. Letting them witness the agony you’re going through is confusing and it forces them to pick a side. As one teenager told me: “It was so hard to find the words to explain how I felt, and when I finally shared it with my mom, she responded, ‘You need to understand where I’m coming from.’ That only left me feeling worse.” I asked the young woman what reaction would have made her feel better. “Just a hug,” she said, “and for her to say, ‘I’m sorry this is happening.’ ”
- Avoid fighting, name-calling, and ugliness. This goes without saying, but common sense is easily forgotten in the heat of the moment. Your kids are suffering already; watching one or both parents intentionally try to hurt the other only compounds their misery.
- Encourage your children’s relationship with your ex. If you have more than one child, then you know perfectly well that you can love them equally. In that same way, children have the capacity to love both parents, too. Remember, it is not a competition. Have the courage to take the high road.
- Be consistent. Transitions are a way of life in shared-custody situations, and children are not always great with transitions. Figure out how to achieve a stress-free handoff, and it will go a long way toward reducing their anxiety. Ask yourself: Where are my kids struggling? What could we add to our parenting plan to increase consistency and predictability in our children’s lives?
- Take responsibility for your own behavior. Some things will always be out of your control, but how you conduct yourself is entirely up to you. In a perfect world, you wouldn’t be divorcing at all, but since that is all up in smoke, what is the next level of perfect? Your challenge is to do everything in your ability to ease the way for your children. When the dust settles, they’ll appreciate your effort. Some positive results will show up immediately, while some will take weeks, months, years – but that’s all a part of parenting!
I know all of this is difficult to do alone. A good divorce coach can be a godsend. If you’re having trouble managing the upheaval of divorce, contact me and let’s talk about how I can help.