By Sara Gabriella, Contributing Author
Effects of Divorce on Children
Numerous studies over the past decades that have evaluated the effect of divorce on children’s mental and emotional development have identified the level of conflict between parents, and how well they navigate co-parenting, as the primary factors in determining whether divorce will have long-term effects on kids.
Preschoolers tend to experience more fear and anxiety during the divorce, but in the long run tend to adjust more successfully. Their fear is of abandonment is most effectively countered by both parents focusing on providing a sense of security — through a continuation of family routines and consistency of rules across both households.
While older children understand events better, they often lack adequate coping skills, which can lead to long-term problems if the divorce is acrimonious and relations between their parents turn ugly.
The best strategy to help kids of all ages transition through divorce with as little damage as possible is to avoid stress and negativity when dealing with your ex-spouse. When you malign or demean their mother, your children are likely to internalize it as an attack against them, since they see themselves as part of both their parents.
The same goes for their mother’s treatment of you as their father. When both parents give in to resentment, anger and spite it can create a sense of unworthiness and low self-esteem in the children who are innocently caught in the middle. Children may begin to unconsciously fault and doubt themselves.
If you need to vent, unleash on a friend or your therapist. Going for a run to clear your head or shooting a few hoops can do wonders for releasing steam before it builds up and blows.
Whatever strategy works for you, never let loose within earshot of your children. Problems with your ex will arise, that is only natural, so establish the habit of dealing directly with your ex to solve them, leaving your kids out of it. Stay clear of any temptation to manipulate your children in an attempt to change your ex-wife’s behavior or get a reaction. That may work in the short-term, but it will backfire as your children grow older and can irreparably damage your future relationship with them.
If your ex is incapable of showing the same maturity and restraint as you, be assured that eventually your kids will be drawn toward your calmer, more mature way of interacting. They will come to respect and look up to you as the parent who refused to burden and damage them with your own stress, spite and pain.
The Good News
It’s never too late in the divorce process to start utilizing a child-centered divorce strategy. You may have had a rough start, but you can take a step back from the edge of the spiral into hurt and regret to realign your priorities and focus on what is most important — the continuing responsibility you share with your ex-wife in raising your children.
Divorce does not have to leave a negative imprint on your kids. In fact, if they see you navigate the tumultuous waters of divorce with maturity, self-respect and integrity they will learn positive and effective coping skills to life’s challenges. They will see it is possible to face adversity and pain with ethics and dignity. They will realize that going through difficult experiences doesn’t have to turn you bitter or reduce you to self-pity and paralysis. They will learn that tough times can be overcome and they will be more resilient as a result.
Divorce Options that Prioritize Children’s Best Interests
1. Co-Parenting Agreements
A co-parenting plan or agreement is a contract that sets forth guidelines and intentions that divorcing parents agree to follow. A co-parenting agreement is beneficial in laying out a consistent plan and in reducing future conflict that would arise from changing rules and situations.
When you sit down and focus on what is important to you regarding raising your children, everything from bedtimes to homework routines to religious upbringing, it forces you and your ex-wife to redefine your relationship as co-parents and centers your on-going communication and engagement where it needs to be — on your children. By addressing upfront many of the issues that could arise in parenting across two households, it can keep you out of court or conflict with the other parent.
You can fill the forms out on your own and then meet with your ex to discuss them, or sit down and fill out the forms together. Be sure to stand firm on the issues that you hold most dear, but also be open to compromise on the issues that your ex feels strongly about so that you both come to an agreement that you can commit to wholeheartedly.
Be aware, your parenting plan will only be legally binding if you file it with the courts. Whether you feel the need to file it or not will depend on your relationship with your ex.
While it may seem like a huge effort to lay out and negotiate a parenting plan, it can be empowering for parents to come to their own decisions about the upbringing of their children, rather than have these highly personal decisions imposed by the court system.
Most importantly, when you and your ex are focused on what you agree upon regarding your children and are working together to make their adjustment as healthy as possible, you will be more positive and less likely to devolve into conflict. Parenting agreement documents may vary by state, but here is a general template you can modify to your needs to get started.
2. Collaborative Practice
Collaborative practice is a growing trend in divorce that eschews litigation completely. The process provides you and your spouse with the legal guidance of your own lawyers without going to court.
Collaborative practice offers additional support from coaches, financial specialists and child therapists. Collaborative practice replaces an adversarial legal battle with teams of experts working in unison with both parties to come up with a settlement and custody agreement customized to a family’s needs and desires.
With child advocates involved in every step of the process, your kid’s best interests are front and center. The International Academy of Collaborative Professionals lists the core components of collaborative practice to be: “Negotiate a mutually acceptable resolution without having courts decide issues, maintain open communication and information sharing, and create shared solutions acknowledging the highest priorities of all.”
Mediation is a third option to handle your divorce that can help reduce conflict, avoid adversarial litigation and put the focus on moving through this life transition into the two household family you will become.
Mediation works by having both parties and their attorneys meet with a court appointed third-party mediator. The mediator stays neutral and carries out the sole responsibility of helping the parties negotiate an agreeable resolution to their divorce.
Mediation reduces conflict because the mediator is not invested in the outcome, so can be impartial. A mediator’s outsider status and objective perspective allows him or her to come up with solutions that the parties often can’t see themselves.
By avoiding litigation and honing in on how to make the situation work for both sides, instead of fighting over who is “right” or deserves what, mediation often saves time and money. After all, if you leave your ex-wife financially and emotionally destitute she will not have the financial and emotional resources to care for your children.
Likewise, you also need to be sure you can handle the outcome, both financially and emotionally, so you can be in a good position to be there for your kids. Your kids need both of their parents financially and emotionally fit to care for them during, and after, divorce.
Divorcing couples sometimes find the lack of a court reporter reassuring. Who wants to lay out the most intimate details of their lives “on the record”? With mediation, all the documents and notes are tossed out after an agreement is reached.
Divorce is one of the most stress-inducing life changes you will ever experience. It is important to make an informed decision about the process that best suits your family.
A child-centered alternative to conventional litigation may be a good way for you and your ex to take your children’s future into your own hands, and out of the purview of the courts. It’s important to note here that all the options mentioned above are not viable in every situation.
For instance, Collaborative Practice does not work well if there is a domestic or child abuse issue. Mediation may not work as well for those who do not go into the process prepared, having met with their attorney and done their research regarding areas such as: child support, spousal support, retirement accounts, division of marital property and debt.
The one place you can never go wrong no matter which route you choose, is making your kids your primary consideration.