Parenting During a Divorce

“Ask yourself,” I said to Doug, “these two questions: Can I genuinely say that I am working to be the best father I can be for my child? And, can I genuinely say that I am doing everything I can to encourage him to have the best relationship possible with his mother?” In my work with divorced parents, I have individuals such as Doug and his ex-wife Susan, ask themselves variations of these questions repeatedly.*

I am a child and family psychologist, with a special focus on children whose parents have separated or divorced. Over the years, I have run numerous groups for children of divorce and helped develop programs for the public schools to work with such children. In my private practice, many of the families I work with have been through at least one divorce and the series of events that follow from a divorce. In the following pages, various scenarios commonly encountered by divorced or divorcing families are outlined, frequent pitfalls are discussed, and recommendations for minimizing the negative impact of divorce on children are presented.

The hard question.

“Of course,” Doug replied promptly to the first question. In my experience, parents rarely struggle with the first of those two questions. Every parent wants to be a good parent; every parent wants to provide for his or her children in the manner that he or she thinks best

The second question is a far more challenging one and tends to lead to hemming-and-hawing. “Well, that’s tough to do when his mom is so inconsistent. She’ll say that she’s going to be there at 5:00 to pick him up and get there late, or she’ll say that he’s grounded for the weekend because of getting in trouble in school, and then let him go to a sleepover, or…” The litany of complaints about the ex-spouse will often go on for several minutes.

The complaints may be justified, the frustration very real, but the question for the parent remains the same: “Are you doing everything possible to facilitate a good relationship with your child’s other parent?” Encouraging such a relationship – letting your child know that you genuinely want him to love his mother and father and to be close to both parents – is the most loving, caring, and healthy thing you can do for your child. Research indicates that the strongest predictor of child health in the aftermath of a divorce is the ability to have close relationships with both parents. Encouraging your child to love his or her other parent is the best thing you can do to help him or her cope well with the divorce.

Which brings us back to the initial two questions: If the answer to Question #2 is “No,” then unfortunately, so is the answer to Question #1. If you as a parent are not doing everything you can to support your child’s relationship with his or her other parent, then you are not doing everything you can to be the best parent you can be for your child.

Taking the long view.

One of the first things I tell them is not to think of the divorce or the separation as an event, but rather to view the separation as just the first in a long series of life-changing events their children will experience. Following is a list of some of the major events that many children experience following their parents’ initial separation:

Living in 2 households

Going back & forth & dealing with possessions at each house

Parents Dating

Parents Remarrying

Step-parent & loyalty conflicts regarding same-sex parent

Step-siblings

Half-siblings

The better you, as parents, can cooperate on the various tasks and changes you and your children will face, the better off your children will be. If you can consistently think of your children’s needs – rather than, for example, anger and resentment you may experience toward your ex-spouse – then your children are likely to be able to navigate the numerous challenges fairly well. If a child must figure out how to handle the various changes and stressors while simultaneously attempting to make sure not to hurt mom’s feelings or make dad angry, he will probably be in for a very tough time. So many things that parents do in conflictual post-divorce relationships stem from their needs and their anger at the other parent rather than being about the child at all. I encourage parents to ask themselves the following questions:

Am I putting my child’s needs first?

Am I doing ___________ because this is what’s best for my child?

Or is this…

for vengeance against my ex-spouse?

to “win” against my ex-spouse?

to have rigid equality (i.e., a strict “50-50″ arrangement)

Will it help my child if I…

have an argument in front of her?

insist that she keep anything that I bought her at my house?

refuse to let her go to a special event because it’s during “our time.”

What Billy felt.

Stan and Joyce have, generally speaking, a fairly positive post-divorce relationship. They are able to communicate reasonably well regarding their nine year old son Billy’s wellbeing. In one regard, however, they constantly butt heads: Stan, in Joyce’s view, is impossibly strict and rigid; conversely, Stan sees Joyce as a good-time parent, able to have fun with Billy but incapable of providing adequate structure for him. Stan and Joyce live in different states, so an arrangement in which Billy goes back and forth frequently between households is not possible. One parent needs to be the primary custodial parent, with Billy spending time on vacations and holidays with the other parent. After the divorce, Stan expected that he, naturally, would be the primary custodial parent, seeing Joyce as far too much of a flake to handle the ongoing requirements of parenting. He was genuinely shocked when Billy expressed – with increasing adamancy – his preference for living with his mother. Stan’s assumption was that Billy’s wishes were based on the fact that he would have fewer chores, looser rules, and a later bedtime at his mother’s house.

In therapy, it quickly became clear that this was not the main reason for Billy’s preference. He was understandably sad and scared in the aftermath of his parents’ divorce. He talked about liking to curl up next to his mother while they watched TV together. It was at these times that he felt safest, most like he still had his old life. Sometimes at night, when he tended to feel most scared, his mother would come in and read to him and rub his back. He described his father as nice and said that there were no real problems between the two of them. Nor, however, were there any descriptions of physical affection or tenderness. His mother, Joyce, while somewhat inconsistent and lax in her provision of rules and structure, was the primary source of warmth and affection for Billy. From his father, he received clear structure and a solid, appropriate sense of expectations and responsibilities; from his mother, he received comfort, affection and nurturance. When the three lived together in the same household, Billy was provided with all the necessary components of good parenting. With the divorce, these components were split between the households, and each parent felt the other was inadequate in his or her parenting.

My main intervention with Stan and Joyce was to help them see that each of them was providing integral, necessary parenting to their son. Unfortunately, the components of complete parenting had become divided between the two parents. In my view, there are two essential components of parenting: providing warmth, comfort, nurturance and affection; and providing structure, rules, discipline, and a sense of responsibility and accountability. Neither is better than the other: both are absolutely critical to raising a healthy child.

Parts of a while.

Often, in post-divorce families, these two essential parts become separated and polarized, so that one parent becomes the fun or “good-time” or “Disneyland” parent, while the other takes on the role of disciplinarian and provider of rules and structure. Over time, the two parents move more and more to their respective poles. Stan resented the lack of routine and rules provided in Joyce’s home and attempted to correct it by becoming increasingly strict in his interactions with Billy; Joyce saw her ex-husband as ridiculously strict and loosened her own expectations of Billy in order to compensate. As might be expected, the relationship between the two parents was becoming increasingly strained. As I helped each recognize and value the role the other parent played with Billy, both Stan and Joyce felt able to accept and encourage the relationship Billy had with the other parent. Stan no longer saw Billy’s expressed preference for living with his mother as a rejection of him. Perhaps most importantly, Stan began to work on developing the fun, affectionate aspect of his relationship with his son, which had been too long neglected. Joyce simultaneously worked with me on establishing a clearer, more consistent set of rules and responsibilities for her household.

Through the eyes of a child.

Children are self-centered beings. I say this with no negative judgment about children, and with enormous affection. It is developmentally appropriate and normal that children, especially young children, think of themselves and their needs first and foremost. This fact can go a long way toward guiding parents in making good choices about how to help their children through this enormously stressful time.

Children need to be safe and to know that they will be safe. They need to know that their basic needs will be provided for, and to have adequate assurances that these needs will continue to be met. When a child’s parents separate, this challenges the child’s basic confidence in the permanence and inviolability of the family. Young children in particular never dream that this could happen to them. Because of their developmentally appropriate self-centeredness, the questions children ask essentially come down to this: what will this mean to me? Common concerns among children include the following: If mom could leave dad (or vice-versa), could she (or he) leave me? If they break up or stop loving each other, could that happen to me? Could they stop loving me? The basic needs and fundamental fears serve as a guide for the sorts of reassurances parents need to provide:

I will always be your mommy.

Daddy will always be your daddy.

We will always love you;

that will never change.These basic needs, and the fundamental fears that children whose parents divorce often go through, should serve as a guide for the sorts of reassurances parents need to provide to their children. These reassurances are presented in the box below. They are written from the perspective of a mother going through a divorce, but should be treated identically by a divorcing father. It is also important to bear in mind that any important message needs to be given repeatedly. Children are likely to take in only a small portion of the total information given to them, especially when they are in a state of emotional distress and over-stimulation. Therefore, information about divorce and about the changes to follow should be given in small doses and important facts repeated several times over a period of days and weeks.

Who’s the decision maker?

Teresa and Will, ex-spouses with a very amicable relationship, came in to see me after a change in their children’s living arrangements. From the outset, their older daughter Samantha had said that she wanted to live with mom, while their younger child, Adam, wanted to live with dad. Therefore, those were the arrangements following their separation. Things became somewhat more complicated when Teresa, along with Samantha, moved to the next state over. Shortly after that move, Adam said that he, too, wanted to live with mom and the parents agreed to adjust the living situation so that both children lived with mom and spent one weekend a month with their father, with longer chunks of time over school vacations and during the summer. The catalyst for them coming to me was Adam’s request to go back to live with his father. At the same time, Adam seemed increasingly anxious and distressed and he had become more and more withdrawn from his peers.

I told them that they were doing a great job of listening to their children’s feelings, but doing so to such an extent that they were turning the role of decision-maker over to their children, when that is and must be the parents’ job. Giving the choice of living situation to a child leads almost inevitably to feelings of guilt and anxiety. In talking with Adam, I learned that he felt enormously conflicted, believing that if he chose to live at dad’s, mom would be hurt and if he chose to live at mom’s (especially since Samantha had already made that choice) dad would feel rejected and abandoned. Either way, he would be responsible for hurting one of the people he loved most in the whole world. That is simply an unfair burden to place upon a child. Adam was suffering, wanting desperately to please both parents and to be with parents, when that was simply not possible. I believe that the appropriate stance for parents to take in such situations is to listen to their children; to work on understanding their feelings, desires, wishes, and frustrations; to let their children know that these feelings have been heard; and then to let the children know that the parents will together make an appropriate decision for their children’s well-being. In Adam’s case, after we discussed the situation, the parents reached the decision that Adam would remain with his mother rather than making a change in the middle of the school year. He would go, as planned, to stay with his father for the first month of summer vacation. At the end of that time, the mother and father would meet and arrive at a decision regarding the most appropriate setting for Adam for the following school year. Adam’s anxiety level and feelings of distress lessened almost immediately. He no longer felt that he needed to choose between parents, a choice which had been psychological torture for him.

Livable living arrangements

What is the optimal post-divorce living arrangement? What is the best plan for where a child lives and how much time he or she spends with each parent after a divorce? The answer, quite simply, is that there’s no such thing as an optimal plan. I have seen any number of arrangements work out splendidly including several that, quite frankly, I thought were rather silly or unwieldy. On the other hand, I have seen numerous arrangements that seemed elegant and practical on paper fail miserably. What, then, predicts failure and success in time-sharing arrangements? The strongest predictor, in my experience, is having both parents on board with the plan. If the parents come up with an arrangement that they both feel is reasonable and that they can live with, chances are that it will work pretty well. This is not because of any particular virtue or flaw in the plan, but because in that scenario, both parents will back the plan and – at least for the most part – desist in undermining the plan due to anger and resentment at the other parent. That sort of support goes a long way to making any plan, even the most seemingly unwieldy, work well.

That being said, there are certain guidelines that may help you arrive at an effective time-sharing arrangement. The best plans are those that have the backing of both parents and are at least roughly consistent with the temperaments and developmental stages of the children.

Think of it as time-sharing, not living with one parent and visiting the other. This is not so much an issue of language as one of how the parents view the arrangement. Often, the parent who does not have primary custody, sees him- or herself as a “visiting parent,” or is constantly on guard against anyone seeing him or her as such. It is essential for such parents to remind themselves that they play an integral role in their children’s lives, even if those children are spending a majority of nights at the other parent’s home.

Remember that children’s needs change as they get older. A plan that works great when a child is three years old may be totally ineffective when she is eight, and a still different plan may be needed when she is 16.

Generally speaking, preschoolers do best with shorter, more frequent contact, often not involving overnights.

Elementary-school age children respond well to somewhat less frequent contacts of longer duration, including weekends, overnights, and longer times during vacations. (It is among this age children that the “classic” post-divorce arrangement of living with one parent and spending every other weekend along with a mid-week visit with the other parent is probably best suited.)

Regularly scheduled, consistent contact may be impractical among adolescents, because of the tremendous importance of peer relationships at that age, their increased involvement in scheduled extra-curricular activities, and their ability to drive. Less frequent overnights, briefer contacts such as dinners or an outing, along with occasional longer get-togethers (such as a week or two during summer vacation) often suffice.

It is especially important for parents of teenagers to be flexible and able to adapt to their children’s schedules. Perhaps most critically, parents must be able to recognize that when their teen says that he or she does not want to come for the weekend because of peer or extra-curricular activities, this is developmentally appropriate, even healthy, and not a rejection of that parent.

It is tremendously important for a child’s wellbeing that the non-custodial parent remain active in his or her life. This can certainly be a challenge, especially when there is considerable geographical distance involved. It is not the frequency or duration of contact that is essential, however, but its predictability and consistency. A child needs to know that even though, for example, mom lives in a different state he will see her at Christmas and over summer, will talk by phone and/or e-mail regularly and – most importantly – that she will always love him and always be his mom.

The non-custodial parent needs to assure him- or herself that despite the fact that the children do not live with him or her most of the time he or she still has an enormous influence upon the children, and plays a central role in his or her children’s lives.

The worse the relationship between the parents, the simpler the time-sharing arrangement should be, since complex arrangements require more and better communication between parents.

Children often misbehave or display distress right after they return from time at the other parent’s home. This does not necessarily mean that there is a problem with the particular arrangement or that the other parent did something wrong or hurtful. Transitions are stressful. It takes time for children to adjust and reacclimatize to another home.

Whatever arrangement is in place, try not to think of your child’s time as “my time” vs. the “other parent’s time.” All of it is your child’s time: Do your best to make it a good, happy, healthy time, regardless of who your child is with.

Will boys always be boys?

Logan is one of several dozen 12 or 13 or 14-year old boys to come to see me in therapy over the past decade with remarkably similar presenting issues. In each case, the parents had divorced when the children were young. Following the divorce, the children lived with the mother and went to see their father with varying frequency. In Logan’s case, he and his younger sister Beth went to their father’s home every other weekend, and had dinner with him every Wednesday. By all accounts, this arrangement had worked marvelously for several years. Now, however, Logan had begun acting up at his mother’s home. He was increasingly oppositional to his mother, at times becoming quite rude and defiant. These behaviors were in stark contrast to his previous demeanor. He had begun to complain to his father about life at mom’s, something he had rarely if ever done before. Logan’s mother was quite distressed, expressing understandable concern that her relationship with her son, which had always been so positive, was going downhill. She was on the verge, she said, of just giving up and sending him to live with his father.

“Maybe,” I thought, and eventually suggested to Logan’s mother, “that’s exactly what’s needed.” Not because she was anything but an excellent mother, and not because of any major problems inherent in the relationship between her and Logan, but simply because Logan was a boy and entering adolescence. I have seen this dynamic time and time again: a boy who has lived primarily with his mother since his parents’ divorce begins to act out or misbehave as he enters puberty or early adolescence. While this may appear simply to reflect the impact of puberty and the consequent hormonal and psychological changes, in post-divorce families the dynamics are often somewhat different. It is important to note that in Logan’s case his oppositional and defiant behaviors occurred almost exclusively at his mother’s home. To fast forward a little, the decision was made to have Logan move to his father’s home and the situation improved almost immediately. Logan’s relationship with his mother reverted to its previous positive state.

Fathers and sons.

Logan’s issues, and that of many boys in similar circumstances, revolve around the developmental tasks of adolescence. If we think of adolescence as a period of learning to be an adult, and for a boy, as a period of learning to be a man, then during that period the most important role model for the boy is his father. It is from his father that he gets the most crucial messages of what it means to be a man. Now, as noted above, a boy need not live with his father in order for the father to play a critical role in his development. Nevertheless, many boys in post-divorce families seek out closer relationships with their fathers and, perhaps, increased contact with their fathers as they approach adolescence. Sometimes, this is done explicitly: a boy may speak with his parents about wanting to see dad more, or parents may discuss the possibility of shifting the primary residence from mom’s to dad’s home. More often, the scenario unfolds as in Logan’s case: a boy who has lived primarily with his mother since his parents divorce begins to act out in various ways as he approaches adolescence. Things escalate until the mother throws her hands in the air and says “you’re going to live at your father’s!” Once the move has taken place, everything calms down. (Of course, the situation can occur with the genders reversed: a girl who has lived primarily with her father may seek increased contact with her mother as she reaches puberty; in our society, however, situations like Logan’s are far more common, and I have seen that dynamic occur far more often with boys.)

With the benefit of hindsight, the parents can hopefully reflect on this process and come to the conclusion that their son’s behavior may have represented a developmental need for increased contact with his father. Unfortunately, all too often this process is used as evidence of unfitness on the mother’s part or as an indication that the father is a better parent than the mother (and should have had the kids all along). In actuality, this progression proves nothing of the sort, but simply provides further evidence for the fact that children’s needs change over time and parents need to be flexible and open to adapting to these changes. It is critical that parents recognize that these and other changes that occur with maturation are a natural part of their child’s development rather than viewing them as rejections or negative reflections on them as parents. Of course, in the midst of a child’s changing behavior, this is an exceptionally difficult task. Such changes are probably good indicators of appropriate times to seek counseling.

Patterns of complaint

Felicia, who had been divorced for three years, came in with concerns about her twin daughters’ adjustment to their post-divorce living arrangement. Both girls, she said, had become increasingly negative about circumstances at their father’s home. Over the years, they had complained more and more vociferously about his temper and about the amount of time he spent on the computer rather than with them, among several other complaints. Felicia wondered about the possibility of seeking a decrease or discontinuation in the children’s visitation to their father. I encouraged care and caution and set up meetings with the two girls and with their father, Jordan.

The girls, Danielle and Tanya, were well-mannered, high-spirited 12-year olds, who did well in school, were active in sports (in Danielle’s case) or music (in Tanya’s case), and were very well-liked by their peers. My sense of them was that they were thriving in most areas of their life. When I spoke with them about their father, I learned that they were actually relatively positive about him. Yes, they had some complaints: he could get snappy at them, especially at the end of the day if they were slow about beginning their homework; he did spend time on the computer when they wished he would play with them. But, balanced against those complaints were numerous comments about the positive and loving interactions they had with their father. “How are things when you’re with your mother?” I asked them. Here, too, I received a generally positive description, mixed in with some negative statements. They liked things better before their mom got a boyfriend. The boyfriend was pretty nice, they said, but they don’t get to spend enough time with just their mom.

When I spoke with Jordan, I heard a sort of mirror image of what I’d heard from the girls’ mother. His daughters complained more and more about their mother. Whereas they used to describe nice sit-down dinners together, now everything was rushed, and she spent all her free time talking on the phone with her boyfriend or dragging them off to see him rather than spending time with just them.

What had occurred in this family takes place in many post-divorce families, especially those in which one parent harbors resentment, anger, or suspicion about the other. It is an insidious pattern that develops without conscious intent on the part of parent of child. Essentially, children learn very quickly that a parent likes it when they complain about the other parent. The parent reinforces the child’s complaints by responding with far more interest than he or she does to positive comments about the other parent. The more the child complains, the more the parent responds – with interest, sympathy, or reward. Here is an imaginary scenario of how such a dynamic develops.

Week One:

Child: I had a great time this weekend at mom’s.

Dad: (Disinterestedly) Oh, that’s nice.

Week Two:

Child: I had a lousy time this weekend at mom’s.

Dad: Oh, why? Tell me about it. Did your mom do something that upset you? Here, let me do something special to make up for that…

While that example may be a caricature, I believe it reflects fairly accurately the dynamics that develop over time between a child and his or her warring parents. Such responses will inevitably lead to more negative comments from the child about a parent. The child is not intentionally being manipulative. Kids say what they think parents want to hear. Sometimes, this leads to a child making virtually identical or at least mirrored complaints about each parent, as happened with Danielle and Tanya. If this progresses for too long, both mother and father may reach the conclusion that the other parent is a terrible, unfit parent and that the child wants to and should spend all of his or her time with him or her, and discontinue contact with the other parent.

The lesson from this dynamic is fairly simple: Pay at least as much attention and provide at least as much inquiry when your child says something positive about the other parent as when he or says something negative. Most importantly, the message to your child needs to be that what makes you happy is for your child to be happy wherever he or she is.

Ask yourself: Can I genuinely say that what I want is for my child to be happy, both when he is with his dad (mom) and when he is with me?

*All names & identifying information have been changed to protect client confidentiality; most cases are composites of several families with whom I have worked.

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