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Children Centered Divorce
© 2001 James N. Kraut, Psy.D.
Going through divorce and its aftermath is one of the most difficult experiences a child can encounter. Unfortunately, it is also a fairly common one: the divorce rate in the United States has reportedly risen to as high as 50% for first marriages - even higher for second marriages. While there is no way to protect children from the painful process of adjustment to divorce, my years in clinical practice have shown me that there is certainly a great deal we can do to safeguard our children's ultimate well-being when we choose to end our marriages. I will present some of the basics for you to consider.
Many parents agonize over whether or not to divorce, knowing how tough it is for kids to go through the ending of their parents' marriage. Some still bear the scars of their own parents' divorce. While it is a given that children will have problems when their parents split up, it may also be true in some situations that not getting divorced will cause even greater ones.
The most obvious example is the marriage in which spousal abuse is going on. But even in less blatantly dysfunctional households, the ongoing tension that emanates from the troubled marriage can affect all family members profoundly over time. Furthermore, children who grow up in families where the parents are obviously miserable with each other usually carry their own scars of the troubled marriage. They often find themselves cynical and reluctant to trust others in intimate relationships. In any event, whether or not to divorce is such an important and complex question that it is generally best to seek professional help before making the final decision.
The expression of anger to your ex-spouse may be an inevitable part of your healing; it is generally a normal, understandable human response to the dissolution of a marriage. It is also, unfortunately, the most frequent way in which divorced parents unnecessarily wound their children. (Those of you who read my last column will also recognize it as a boundary problem.) While some are quite blatant about it, telling their kids in no uncertain terms how terrible their other parent is, often this kind of negativity is much more subtle.
I have worked with many divorced people who believe strongly in shielding their children from their angry, bitter feelings, but unwittingly pass them along with regularity. They may refrain from telling the kids what an awful person the other parent is, but they will say things like, "You know how your father is" or "It wasn't your fault; your mother should have been responsible enough to tell you in advance."
These little digs may get by the parents who utter them, but the kids definitely hear them loud and clear. Children of divorce are particularly sensitive when it comes to their parents' relationship. For one thing, they are constantly looking, particularly in the first few years after the divorce, for signs of reconciliation. They are easily encouraged by friendly exchanges and confused by the ups and downs that frequently accompany their parents' transition to a post-marital relationship. So, whenever a divorced parent says something to the child that contains negativity toward the other parent, even when it isn't even conscious, the child's "radar" invariably picks it up.
When a child hears one parent say something critical about the other, it creates a conflict. Let's say Dad says something negative about Mom. The child can either go along with Dad's statement and collude with him against Mom, or ignore what Dad says in favor of Mom, thus invalidating Dad. Either way, one parent needs to be in some way devalued. And the last thing a child needs is to feel stuck in the middle, being pressured, however subtly, to choose sides. And don't look for the expression of this turmoil; most children will be afraid to confront this sort of behavior on their own.
In trying to eliminate, or at least significantly reduce the degree to which we let our hostility reach our kids, it may be useful to keep remembering two key things: first, it's vitally important for kids to be allowed to feel positively toward both of their parents whenever possible and second, it's more important to love your children than it is to hate your ex-spouse. Keeping those two things in mind may help you keep your priorities straight and your motivation level high. In fact, if this issue is handled well, the emotional prognosis of the children immediately improves significantly.
All Florida divorcing spouses who have children must complete a Parent Education and Family Stabilization class before a divorce will be granted by the court. This parenting class is mandatory because it helps to minimize the emotional trauma of the divorce on the children. Each parent must independently complete the course before the divorce enters the court. They must provide the court with a certificate of completion to prove the obligation has been met.
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