The biggest worry for many people getting divorced is - how will the kids be affected? Of course, divorce is a big shock and worry for children, but it is certainly possible to raise healthy, happy kids after a divorce. “Divorce can work incredibly well for children, particularly if the levels of conflict before the divorce were high,” says Heidi Reynolds, a social worker at Family Life Centre and in private practice, who specialises in pre- and post- divorce work in families. “It’s time to move away from the idea that the only family model that works is an intact couple with 2.3 children and a white picket fence. Divorced and single parenting is the new normal. We need to accept that, and make it work for the children.”
How the parents handle family relations after the divorce makes all the difference. Heidi offers some good parenting (and co-parenting) guidelines for practical ways to ensure your kids’ happiness.
Children need involved, committed parents - preferably both of them! “I always come with an agenda of getting to co-parenting,” says Heidi. “You are no longer married, but you are both parents. You need to be mature and self-reflective, and focus on the child’s needs, not your own feelings.”
Heidi says that the number one problem that will result in a bad parental relationship and unhappy kids, is if parents remain stuck in their hurt and conflict and continue to deal with each other in a highly emotional way. “Both parents need to shift from that intimate, emotional space, into a practical, businesslike space. If you can’t do that there will be conflict and that doesn’t help the child. If you need help to move on, go to therapy and do your own work.”
One of Heidi’s first tasks when managing a high conflict case is to put a communications structure in place. She explains how it might work. “In a week-on-week-off scenario, the parent who has had the child this week would email the other parent on the Friday, before changeover, and give them a rundown of the past week and what needs to happen the next week. It will deal with things like marks that have come back, extra murals, social activities coming up, projects that need doing. The tone should be practical and unemotional. This communication allows continuous parenting - the parent taking over knows what happened during the week when the child was with the other parent and can pick it up and communicate with the child around it. If Mom gets the email and sees the spelling test result wasn’t so great, she can suggest they practice over the weekend, or if she knows there was a good hockey game, she can congratulate the child.”
Bad-mouthing the ex really does not help children. They need to be able to love the other parent and not feel guilty about that. Neither should children have to pick a favourite and a villain. “We see this particularly in the case of infidelity,” Heidi says. “The ‘betrayed’ party feels they have an excuse not to deal with the issues and problems in the marriage, and to consider themself always in the right and the other parent in the wrong forever thereafter. Of course, the real situation is much more nuanced.”
If the parents are so estranged and angry that they can’t be in the same place, it causes problems for the child. Heidi gives the example of a school soccer match where Mom’s sitting on one side of the pitch, Dad’s sitting on the other. “When the child comes off the field, where does he go? Probably to neither. It’s too hard to choose, so he’ll sit with his friends or the coach. When children get to their teenage years, when they naturally pull away from parents to exercise their growing independence, this kind of dynamic is exaggerated. You might find that the child pulls away from both of you and becomes very hard to reach.”
For most children, a divorce means two homes, and a lot of moving between the two. Parents often underestimate the stress of the constant transitions that divorce entails for children. Heidi says, “Every time the child moves from Mom’s house to Dad’s house, there’s a sense of loss. They are losing Mom, the pets, the house, the routine, perhaps a sibling. They go to Dad’s for the weekend or the week, and just as they’ve adjusted, they have to move back to Mom’s and there’s the same sort of loss involved in that transition from Dad’s.”
Parents can help the child prepare emotionally for the move. Acknowledge that it’s difficult to move between two homes and try and smooth the way. Don’t burst into the kid’s room when he’s playing on his PlayStation after a long school week and say, “Pack up, Dad’s going to be here in 15 minutes!”
Because it’s so hard to move constantly, it wouldn’t be unusual for the child to say, “I don’t want to go to Dad’s.” Mom might read that as a problem with Dad, when in fact it’s about the fact that it’s just easier to be in one place (and not have to leave the PlayStation!). Instead of fueling this, recognise that it’s difficult, and try to find ways make the transition easier.
Different houses have different rules and routines. Often, kids get into trouble from exasperated parents because they’ve got the rules wrong - dumped their school bags at the front door (Mom’s routine) instead of taking them to the bedroom (Dad’s routine), for instance. “When you get the child home, remind them of the routine in your house. Tell them to put the bags in their room, and to have some downtime before it’s time to help with making supper, or whatever. Remind them each time, and you will minimise stress and conflict,” Heidi says.
One of the aspects of life that most stresses children with two homes is the management of “stuff” - the school clothes, the homework books, the sports gear, the favourite teddy. Work out a clear system. Where possible, have duplicates of the key items, so that there’s always a pair of takkies, or a pair of pajamas, at either home.
Help kids develop a sense of responsibility and independence in this area but give a lot of support. If there’s a mess up, don’t get into a state. “Just try to keep calm and say, ‘Come on, let’s go to Mom’s and fetch your project sweetheart,’” says Heidi. “Don’t use it as an opportunity to blame, and say, “‘Mom forgot as usual…’.”
What did you do? What did Mom give you for supper? Was that man there? Cross-questioning the child puts them in a very difficult position. “If there’s conflict and if the child feels interrogated, the response is to go into lock down. Remember, the child will want to protect the other parent, and avoid further conflict,” says Heidi.
This is another area where the weekly email is helpful. It shows the child that the parents can communicate well and act as a team, that everyone knows what’s happening and that the child doesn’t need to keep secrets.
It’s tempting to be secretly rather pleased that your child is irritated with or critical of your ex, but it’s a shallow victory. “When your child comes home cross because Dad hasn’t done this or that, don’t collude in his anger and make the drama bigger, and definitely don’t say, ‘Dad’s impossible, he was always like that…’” says Heidi. “Rather reflect on the child’s experience and try to help. So, you might say, ‘I can hear you’re frustrated, what can we do to make sure it works better next time?’”
If you are divorced, you will have a financial and legal agreement in place. Stick to it, and if you have problems, deal with them through the proper channels. It is your business, not your child’s, so don’t talk about it.
“The reality of a divorce is that whatever money there is now has to support two households. There is less money to go around, and the lifestyle has to take a drop. Maybe your child can’t have everything he was used to. It’s OK to say that you can’t afford that right now. But don’t make it the other parent’s fault or problem. And definitely don’t make it the child’s job, by saying, ‘Go and ask your mother to buy you that.”
It is sometimes the case that the other parent just won’t play along. Accept that you can’t control the other person, and just do what you can. “Of course, it is better if you can both be on the same page, but that’s not always going to happen. If there’s one person doing the right things - managing transitions well, for instance - that’s a start,” says Heidi.
“Divorce can work well for children,” says Heidi. “For example, I’ve often had children tell me that they’ve gained a dad, because the father who had been pretty emotionally absent before had really stepped up after divorce. A divorce can also mean the end of a lot of conflict and tension, which probably made the parents and the children very anxious and unhappy. It’s also true that a good blended family can give a child an enormous amount of love and support. You have more of everything - two homes, step-parents, more siblings, more extended family and of course two Christmases.”
The bottom line is that it’s up to the adults to be present and engaged and to make it work for the children.