The Good Parent Divorce

Your children have come into this world because of the two of you. Perhaps you two made lousy choices as to whom you decided to be the other parent. If so, that is your problem and your fault. No matter what you think of the other party-or what your family thinks of the other party-these children are one half of each of you.”

When I read this quote by a Family Court Judge I was struck by how strongly I reacted: not only should this be mandatory reading for every divorcing parent, I thought, but there should be steps in place to enforce it somehow! Of course I know that’s not possible, but I feel it should be! Here’s the rest of the quote:

“Remember that, because every time you tell your child what an ‘idiot’ his father is or what a ‘fool’ his mother is, or how bad the absent parent is, or what terrible things that person has done, you are telling the child half of him is bad. That is an unforgivable thing to do to a child. That is not love. That is possession. If you do that to your children, you will destroy them as surely as if you had cut them into pieces, because that is what you are doing to their emotions.
I sincerely hope that you do not do that to your children. Think more about your children and less about yourselves, and make yours a selfless kind of love, not foolish or selfish, or your children will suffer.”
Judge Michael Haas – Family Court Judge, Minnesota, USA

I myself am a product of divorced parents, and also what you would call a ‘multiple divorcee’ while raising a child. I know first-hand how painful it is – to be in either position. The loneliness, confusion and anxiety of being a child feeling torn between your parents, and the anguish and stress of dealing with all the complexities of divorce that parents experience cannot be described as anything but awful. It is easy to see why parents can sometimes fail to notice how deeply the children are affected by the changes going on in their world and the adjustments they have to make.

My own experiences played a significant role in my choice to become a counsellor and advocate for children of divorce. For the last two decades, a large part of my practice time has been spent helping divorcing parents create more conscious and mindful transitions for their children, and in many cases helping them develop collaborative, shared parenting that has resulted in their children becoming well-adjusted adults who have a good relationship with both parents. This is, as you may imagine, not easy but is nonetheless doable and with the right support can even be relatively stress-free!

In the beginning of a family break-up it can be difficult to know what exactly will cause the least amount of damage to the children. Certainly there are many differing beliefs and schools of thought about this, and ultimately in most cases, the parents are the people best equipped to know their child’s needs – as long as they are not so caught up in their own emotions and agendas that their judgment becomes clouded. Unfortunately, this is all too often the case.

The good news is that there are a few basic considerations and some self-questioning that can greatly help parents gain clarity and increase their ability to ‘do the right thing’ by their children.

As parents we want to protect our children, and we may believe we are covering up our own pain and distress and that our children are not aware of how we feel. We may also assume that because a child is not acting out any angst or upset they are handling the situation well. But neither of these assumptions are reliable. For a variety of reasons – depending on their age, stage, temperament, and family dynamics – children will hold their distressed feelings inside. One young six-year old I worked with had convinced him parents that he wasn’t bothered by their divorce for over two years. Finally he developed nightmares so frequently that his mother sought help. The young lad told me with a proud smile; “I have lots of bad feelings but nobody knows, ‘cos I keep them all inside me! You see I don’t want my mamma to feel more bad.” Needless to say the focus of my sessions with him became helping him to find and accept ways to express his emotions. Like many children in the same situation, he had adopted an emotional care-taking role for the parent he felt was suffering, and so he kept his own feelings under wraps to protect that parent from further distress. Interestingly, his mother believed she had successfully hidden her distress from her son. Younger children also often feel responsible for the family break-up even though nothing has been said or done to make them believe such a thing. One seven-year-old girl with parents divorcing told me she knew that if she “a really good girl,” her mother would “let daddy to come back.” A four-year-old brother threw temper tantrums every other night, because he knew that when he screamed for long enough his mother would phone his father and ask him to come over to calm him down. Both children were acutely aware of their father’s sadness (even though dad assured me he had kept it well hidden and they couldn’t possibly know), and both children believed they could bring their parents back together. All children feel their parents’ emotional state; whether the parent shows it or not, and will act according to what they feel rather than what they are told (or not, as the case may be).

This last fact I know not only because both research and counselling experience has informed me, but because I remember vividly what it felt like to ‘know’ my mother’s distress when she told me she was fine; to ‘know’ my parents’ marriage was a charade when they pretended otherwise; and to be told my feelings were wrong when I felt them so clearly. The result was that I began to doubt my own internal ‘knowing’ or intuition, and when I later discovered that these feelings had been right, I became a very angry young person indeed. Years of therapy later, I have since worked with hundreds of people who have similar stories about their childhoods, and children in the midst of comparable situations.

One of the most important ways parents can help their children to feel safe and be resilient in the midst of family break up is to be congruent; i.e. that what you say and do is congruent with what you feel and what is going on around your children. For example: if you are upset, at the very least do not deny it. If you can tell them you are not feeling very happy right now, this may be followed by something like; “I don’t really want to feel upset right now so I’m going to try to make myself feel better.” Then do whatever is appropriate in the moment – whether it’s going for a run or making a cup of tea – so that your child can witness how you may effectively deal with your emotions and that you can take charge of the way you feel. If he or she also feels upset, you might suggest that you sit down together and talk about the feelings, and then figure out what you could do to make yourselves feel better. Most adverse situations can also be great opportunities for learning and building resilience.

I am of course not advocating for parents to share inappropriate and ‘adult’ information with their children. Nor am I suggesting parents confide in or otherwise share their sorrows with children. What I am suggesting is that when you feel upset, and especially when children’s questions indicate that they feel something is not right, you do not deny those feelings. Let them know their feelings are valid, and that there are ways to express and even shift negative emotions, appropriately.

if you are in open conflict with your children’s other parent, any resulting damage to your children can be mitigated when you are able to manage your emotions and the degree to which your discord escalates, particularly when the children are nearby. Regardless of the level of your disagreement, it is vital that children are reassured that they are not to blame, and if they do witness conflict, that they also witness their parents settling the arguments, even if you merely agree to disagree.

Children are not equipped to deal with their parents being in conflict, and certainly not to witness or handle when parents are abusive towards each other. Whatever their age, children are frightened by conflict, as much after divorce as before, and the fear they feel when witnessing fighting, arguing, hostility, withdrawal or disharmony between parents is very real and can be very harmful. One of the ways this can manifest is that children learn to be aggressive and manipulative by watching their parents’ hostility. They can easily develop poor problem-solving skills and negative or disruptive behaviours, all of which may be avoided if the parents are mindful of their influence on their children and learn to manage their own emotion-driven actions.