For many people, the divorce process is a gut-wrenching one, filled with emotional turmoil and upheaval even in the most amicable of circumstances. When you add children into the mix, the process only gets more complicated; the little ones you swore you would protect from life’s hurricanes are now caught in the eye of the storm. What’s a parent to do? When your world is turned upside down, there is hope. By following a few basic steps, you can keep your sanity and bring your children through this difficult time.
Types of Divorcing Parents
Before we talk about healthy parenting, we need to take a quick look at what isn’t. Divorce is like a psychedelic drug – it can make otherwise competent and rational parents become strung-out messes, babbling incoherently and abandoning all pretense of maturity. Many parents fall into one of two categories during this time:
Good Time Charlie (or Charlotte)
These parents are concerned with winning some imaginary popularity contest with their kids. Every visitation consists of late nights, junk food, movies, and throwing rules out the window. Go to “Chuck E’ Cheese” every Saturday? Sure thing! Homework? No way – that’s your Dad’s problem! We’re gonna have fun! These kids return to the other parent with a ‘Disney World’ hangover and absolute disdain for boundaries. Mom ceases to be a Mom: she is a “buddy.”
Yes, folks, there is a 51st state in America – the State of Denial. Unfortunately, many parents, like the ostrich, choose to bury their heads in the sand and leave the kids to fend for themselves. These moms and dads, so wrapped up in their anger or sadness, fail to take care of all but the most basic needs of their children. The end result? Already vulnerable kids resort to any means necessary to get attention and validation. No parenting is just as damaging as weak parenting.
Effective Parenting Tips During Divorce
So what can you do during these trying times? When so many things are uncertain, what our children need can be broken down to three points:
Be Consistent & Be Clear
More than ever your kids need to know where they stand with you, and look to you for stability and security with so much change. Even if you are moving to a new home (or a new city!), there is an immense amount of comfort for kids in the familiar routines. Whether it is as simple as the same bedtime they had when you were married, or new habits that symbolize your new family unit, these patterns help children realize that all will eventually be well. Likewise, they need clear direction on the rules, whether it is about homework, hygiene, or between-meal snacks. This may not result in winning the aforementioned popularity contests, but remember parents, this isn’t American Idol! J
With so many electronic distractions today, our kids need to know that they are a priority, especially at this time. Make a point to turn off the computer & TV, put down the iPhone or BlackBerry, and “plug in” to your kids. Whether it is a game of “Go Fish,” reading a favorite story, or drawing pictures together, that investment of time is priceless. Let your children take the lead on planning the activity – it doesn’t have to be a fancy production, just the simple act of showing your kids that they are first place to all the other distractions speaks volumes to your relationship with them.
Create a “Safe Feelings” Zone
As adults, we take for granted how many options we have at our fingertips to cope with the pain of divorce. Between therapists, friends, support groups, and coworkers, we have many resources – often our kids aren’t so lucky. Many children have a hard time expressing how they feel and don’t know where to turn to get help in dealing with everything that is going on. That’s where you come in! Our children often fear being honest with us due to loss of love, or fear of reprisal. Your job is to create a safe place in which they can open up about their feelings and talk about them without judgment.
My kids and I have a routine in which they get 20 minutes a day of my undivided attention to talk about anything that’s on their mind, no holds barred. Sometimes we talk about problems at mom’s house. More often, we talk about school, band, homework, mean friends, or mean siblings! The point is that they know that they have my complete focus and can express what’s on their mind. It is amazing to me the difference it has made in how they are able to cope with trying situations. They don’t always use the 20 minutes, but they know it is there when they need it.
So there you have it – my two cents on parenting while navigating the turbulent waters of divorce. There are a number of great books out there on parenting through a divorce, but I hope that this post offers a few tips to guide you, regardless of where you are on your journey.