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Parenting and Divorce - Meeting the Needs of Our Children

Children are a huge source of love in our lives; they can say one sentence, bring a huge smile to our face, and remind us of the innocence of childhood. Children all deserve that time of play, laughter, and fun as they grow up. This article addresses what parents and other loved ones can do to support children before, during and after a divorce.

Children are resilient and they will make it through this event. However, I also want you to know that as a parent, your behavior and the actions you take will have a major impact on your children and their lives. It is very positive that you are reading this article. It says that you are curious and that you want to understand how your divorce may impact or has impacted your children.

I have had the opportunity to know many divorcing parents. From conversations with them and research I have done, I identified some questions you may be asking yourself: "What is my role as a parent as I go through this process?" "Why is thinking about the impact of divorce on my children important?" "What might my children be going through during this time?" and "What should I be doing for my children during this time?" I will attempt to answer these questions.

Why Is Thinking About the Impact of Divorce on My Children Important?

It is very important to put children first during the divorce process. Research suggests that divorce can negatively impact children. We do know for sure that no matter what, divorce creates stress and disruption in children’s lives, which can be minimized if parents take time to understand the impact of divorce on children and what they can do to minimize that impact. In taking time to think about this impact, you are putting your children first.

Parents may not want to think that divorce impacts their children or read articles such as this one that may invoke feelings of guilt. If this topic does bring up some feelings of guilt, take a minute to realize that taking a step to positively impact your child’s future should never entail any amount of guilt. The long-term benefits to your child will outweigh the feelings of guilt you may have ten-fold. I can tell you with great certainty that if you apply some of the advice put forth in this article, you will be going a long way in assisting your children through this process.

Divorce is a decision that will impact your family for the rest of your lives. Take a few minutes to understand how you can play a role in ensuring that your children are well taken care of during this process. That is all that they can ask from you or that you can ask from yourself during this time. You have a lot going on in your life, but taking time to think about your children’s needs is probably more important than you could ever imagine.

Role of Parents During Divorce

At the end of this article is a tool entitled, The Parent’s Promise and no matter what stage of divorce you are in, some or all of these items will apply to you. This document was written by children of divorce for children of divorce. Please ensure that you are adhering to these promises should you move forward towards the divorce decision. Prior to, during, and after your divorce, when interacting with your children always ask yourself, "Is this behavior helping or hurting my child?". Take a moment now to skip to the end of this article and read the Parent’s Promise.

Your role as a parent is to think of your children first. No matter whose choice the divorce was or whose fault it was, one thing is for sure -- it was not the choice of the children. We must look out for their best interests during this time.

I want to stress that putting your children first entails taking care of yourself emotionally and physically during and after this event. Divorce actually follows the same grieving process as a death. It is normal to feel denial, anger, depression/shame/guilt and finally acceptance. You will also feel hope during this process, it will come in many forms. A very important aspect of this process is to find those activities that will allow you to take care of yourself: take walks, find a stress-relieving activity, exercise and do what it takes to be kind to yourself. Contacting a counselor/coach can also help you to look at where you have been and where you now want to go in your life. You may also want to find a closure ritual that signifies the ending of this part of your life and honors the beginning of your new family, the family you will create with your child. The healthier we are emotionally and physically, the better able we are to take care of our children’s emotional and physical needs.

Communication

Communication is another important responsibility of the parent. Depending upon the stage of divorce that you are in, it is very important for you to communicate with your children about this event. In the initial communication to the children, it is optimal if both parents can communicate about the divorce together; however this may not always be possible.

Children are very perceptive and it is best for you to be open and honest with them. It is very important that your children know you are not leaving them and that both of you still love them very much. For further information on communicating with your children about your divorce, please refer to the book, Good Parenting Through Your Divorce by Mary Ellen Hannibal (2002).

At this point, I would like to talk about the value of positive communication. Consider the fact that when you say something negative about your child’s other parent, in the child’s view, you are actually saying something negative about your child. Children are physically made up of both parents. Children internalize these negative comments and take them with them in life. In a class I teach for parents of divorce, one parent said a positive of his divorce was that he committed to not speak negatively to anyone about his child’s other parent. This is sometimes not an easy thing to do, however, it is a gift to yourself and your child to not put negative words and energy into the world.

Conflict Management

Another role of the parent revolves around conflict. It is very important that you do whatever is necessary to minimize the conflict with your child’s other parent. Studies continuously show that the number one determinant of divorce negatively impacting children is the amount of conflict between the parents before, during, and after the divorce.

Please ask yourself on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high) "What is the current level of conflict/fighting in our family?" Also ask yourself, "What do I need to do to lower that number?" Not what should someone else do, but what can I do. Please think of one step you can take to lower that number. Please refer to the section at the end of this document, Things to Consider if Your Co-Parent is Not Cooperating for other ideas on lowering the conflict in your family.

Try to think of your spouse or ex-spouse as a business partner with whom you are working together for the greater good of your business (your children). You want your children to succeed and thrive in the world. They are your future.

Parent’s Role in Creating a New Environment That Meets Children’s Needs

Children have different needs depending upon their age at the time of divorce/separation. Regardless of age, there are a few common things that we can do to assist children through this event. First, if possible, making sure that they maintain frequent and consistent contact with their other parent is very important. There are many ways, depending on age, that children can stay in contact with the other parent including emails, phone calls, video-conferencing and faxing. Second, encourage your child to discuss their feelings. You can be open and honest about your feelings as well with your children, just be cautious to not treat your child as a friend, always remember that you are the parent and they are the child. Depending on the age of your child, there are many good books including Dinosaurs Divorce by Laurene and Mark Brown and It’s Not Your Fault Koko Bear by Vicky Lansky that talk to children about divorce and it’s many facets. This can be an easy way to open up conversation with your child about the divorce. Third, establish and adhere to a normal consistent schedule for the child each day. Children thrive on structure and knowing what is coming next in their day. This makes them feel secure and safe, a very important gift to them during this time. Fourth, create new family traditions such as movie night on Friday nights or game night on Saturday night. Kids report that these traditions are some of their most memorable memories once they are older. Fifth, talk to adults in your child’s life about the divorce and find out how your child is coping in different environments. Let the adults know that you would like to be aware of any changes in behavior. Sixth, spend quality time with your child. Find enjoyable activities you can do together such as camping, canoeing, visiting museums, attending ball games, or going to the zoo. This is has been a very brief overview of what we can do to support our children. There are many books and resources available that break these down even further by age.

Providing Support is Crucial

Divorce is a disruption to your life and it is also a disruption to your child’s life. You may be strong enough to reason and rationalize yourself through this event but children, especially at certain ages, need assistance in processing this event.

As a family and children’s counselor/coach, I provide a safe space for children to process and work through this event and maintain their emotional and physical health. My goal is to provide the child with whatever support they may need to allow them to grow and learn, so they may move on from this event and take the skills and knowledge they learned to help them better work through future events in their lives. Children consistently report that having someone outside of the family to talk with during this time was one of the most beneficial things for them. Other potential resources for children can be aunts, uncles and grandparents.

Together, we all must support children and provide them with the tools and environment they need to work effectively through this event they did not choose. This approach allows children to develop coping skills they will use their entire lives. In doing this, we will allow our children to develop hope, trust, and self-confidence in others that they will be able to carry with them during their lifetime.

Summary

First of all, I would like to thank you for reading this article. My approach is a pro-active approach to children and divorce. It is only with your help that more families will take a pro-active stand. Divorce will have an impact on our families for many generations to come and we must work together to minimize the impact on our children, our grandchildren, and their children.

Second, I would like you to commit to two actions before you move on to the next task that is awaiting you. Think of two actions that you will take in the next week that will allow you to act in your child’s best interest. Write them down. Examples may be: share this article with my child’s other parent, contact a family/children’s divorce counselor/coach, buy a book on parenting/divorce, commit to an action from the Parent’s Promise (specify the action), etc.

Now, take a minute and envision what you want for your children in the future. Think of the relationships you want them to build, the self-confidence you want them to have, the love you want them to share, and the trust you want them to be able to build. Envision your child living out their dreams. Our children are too special for us not to take the actions we know will assist them to achieve their goals in life. Again, I thank you for taking the time to read this article and so do your children.

Shannon Bonkrude, M.S. is a Children/Family Life Coach/Counselor and Professional Life Coach. Her primary focus is working with children and families of divorce/separation in a proactive model called DivorceWorkds’. She trains co-parenting skills to parents of divorce for the state of Minnesota. She educates parents and assists children prior to, during and after divorce/separation using the unique model she has developed for working with children.


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