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Children of Divorce; Some Common Sense Rules of the Road

Divorce is stressful for the entire family, especially for children. Children often lack the life experience and perspective that adults are able to marshal in a life crisis.

Judges in the Family Court recommend: "Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce" by M. Gary Neuman, as a valuable resource in this area. Many families have found this book helpful and worth purchasing. The book identifies how children of different ages react to separation and divorce. Many parents experience primitive feelings of losing their children at the onset of divorce. This can generate a destructive reaction, causing a breach of parental trust- making it difficult to establish a co-parenting arrangement. Keeping the focus on your children is an antidote to the harm caused by destructive litigation.

Lawyers like to utilize "disclaimers". In this instance, please recognize that the thoughts expressed relative to your children are from an attorney, not a psychologist or counselor. A few sessions with a skillful Psychologist (Ph.D.), Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) or Licensed Social Worker (LSW) can be of invaluable assistance in creating a path forward for your entire family.

Reducing Stress within the Family: Your child may feel devastated- as though their world has collapsed. How best to protect your children? Are you and your spouse able to put marital differences aside and collaboratively co-parent your children? The path forward is informed by the answer to this seemingly simple question.

Do you and your spouse love your children more than you dislike each other? If so, you will be able to co-parent your children. It is always a good idea to jointly meet with a child psychologist or counselor to determine how to best approach the specific concerns affecting your children.

How do we tell our children about the decision to separate/ divorce: The ages of the children clearly matter. However no matter what age, there is a right way and a wrong way to tell your children about the separation.

(a) The wrong way: Getting a head start on your spouse by giving your VERSION of the facts (i.e "Daddy doesn't love us anymore", "Your mother is having an affair. I love you so much but I'm leaving".)

(b) The right way: Plan with your spouse how you will tell the children. Be loving and give your child the opportunity to express how they feel without fear of anger from you and your spouse.

Important messages to convey clearly:

1. "Separation": Often it is better to describe what is happening in terms of "separation" rather than "divorce". The divorce itself is often months away. Divorce can be a scary word, especially for younger children. Some children will do better absorbing the news in stages. Let your children know that you both will continue to love your children as much as you did before, and that it is your joint intent to co-parent closely so that they grow up secure in the knowledge that their parents were able to put aside differences and co-parent. Contrary to worst case scenarios, divorce is between marital partners, not between parents and their children.

2. Straight Talk: If you don't have answers, say so. No one has a crystal ball to predict all future contingencies. "You have lots of questions about what's ahead for us. Mom and I will tell you what the next steps will be when they arise." Assure the children that they will continue to be with the parent who is relocating. You should come to this discussion with a realistic idea of how the parenting schedule will shape up. However, never promise your child something you are not certain you can deliver.

It is preferable if you tell your children with your spouse. You do not want your child to judge which spouse is at fault. It will only hurt your child. You do not want it to appear that one parent is the injured party because all that does is set up your child to choose sides. Your child needs love, encouragement and strength from the both of you. Severing their emotional connection to one parent will damage their self-esteem and adversely effect their emotional development for their entire lives.

Your children should hear about this separation from both of you, or you. Not anyone else. If you tell other people before your children, make sure your child will not accidentally hear about the divorce from someone else.

If you have more than one child, you should tell the children together. Having them together gives them the opportunity to offer and receive emotional support. They will derive comfort that "we are all in this together". However, children of different ages will hear the message differently and afterward each of them will probably will want and need to spend time each of you alone.

Make sure you attempt to answer your child's questions:

Most children want to know:

-Who's going to take care of me?

-What is going to happen to (whichever parent is leaving)?

-Where will they live?

-When will I see them again?

-Does the parent who is leaving still love me?

-Will my parents be okay?

Tip: You can discuss things that will change with your child and things that will not change. Your child will have anxiety at trying to determine what will change and what will remain the same in their daily lives.

Your child should not be burdened with too much information as to why you are separating and the only reason needed is that you two have been unable to work out your adult problems. It is crucial for your child to understand that it is impossible for a child to cause parents to separate. You should say the words out loud that your child did nothing to cause the separation. Never assume your child already understands this. It is natural that your child will look for reasons why you are divorcing. Many children feel at least somewhat responsible for the break up of the family.

Even if your child clearly heard everything you said, expect to answer questions for days, weeks, even months to come. It takes time to process and work through their feelings.

When should I tell my children?

Be sensitive to when and where you break the news to your children. It is better to tell them at a time where they will have time to adjust. As example, do not tell your child right before a holiday or some type of event. Make sure you are not in the car, etc. Be sure to allow for the time to not have interruptions and time for your child to ask questions. You may want to "get it over with" but consider your child first. Your child needs the respect of being told in the right way and not feel rushed through it.

Ways Parents Can Help Children at Every Age:

1. Never assume your child knows how much they mean to you. Say it out loud. Let them know.

2. Children often irrationality believe the divorce is their fault. They need to know that it is not their fault.

3. Spend quality and quantity time. Children need time with you. You do not have to come up with elaborate, exciting things to do. Just being gives them security and comfort.

4. Always speak of the other parent in positive terms no matter how difficult. Remember, your child's self-image is largely derived from the image he or she has of each parent. When they are confronted with negative judgments about the other parent, they suffer inside.

5. Mediate your differences with your ex. Do whatever you can not to fight it out in court. Try mediation if possible. If it is not possible, protect your child as much as possible from the emotional trauma of the divorce.

6. Maintain structure. Children crave structure, routine and limits. A predictable, structured home makes your child feel safe, secure and loved.

7. Maintain family traditions. Traditions go from holidays to pizza and movie family night. Traditions give children a sense of continuity. Respect the other parents traditions as well.

The gift you can give your children: Permission to love both parents. Send very clear, explicit messages to your child to encourage contact with the other parent. The nonresidential parent can reinforce this message by expressing how happy he or she is to talk with their child. To send the right messages, you have to watch not only your words but your tone of voice, your manner and your body language whenever you speak to your child about your ex-spouse or the divorce. This includes when your child is around when you speak to other adults. Kids will pick up what they overhear. Even though it might take great self control to bite your tongue, it is a small sacrifice to make considering what is at stake for your child and their relationship with your ex.

When the other parent puts your child in the middle: Divorce often brings out the worst in people and unfortunately, some parents do not resist the urge to provoke. They may try to draw their child into their cause by saying negative things about their ex or behave in ways to upset. What should you do?

First, remember your child is observing. They notice and don't forget which parent made life difficult. They also see who rose above the conflict, made the extra effort and helped them move on. Your child does not overlook who slammed the phone down and who answered cordially; who bad mouths the other parent and who behaves maturely. Also, not everything your ex says or does necessities a response. Pick and choose your battles wisely. Try to make decisions that help your child, not add more fuel to the fire in order to keep the battle going.

How you can avoid the divorce mistakes:

1. Keep your business between you and your ex private. Nothing your ex has done justifies exposing those secrets to your child (not paying child support, cheating,etc.). Do not trash his or her family. Their family is also your child's family. Do not burden your child with adult issues. Your child does not "need to know the truth" or "the real reason for the divorce". This unnecessarily burdens them. This creates inner turmoil within the child. What also qualifies as "truths" and "real reasons" are: "we could no longer live together", "we could not make it work" and "we believe we will be better apart".

2. Don't make your child the messenger. Communicate with your ex directly. If you are unable to do this in person, do it by email, fax or letter.

3. Choose your issues carefully. Overlook disagreements on less significant matters and focus only on large, important issues which directly effect the health and safety of your child. If you do feel strongly about a major issue, ask yourself why. Are you really taking into account your child's best interests or are you just trying to send a message to the other parent because you are angry? Consider discussing the issue in a safe place, such as in counseling or with a friend or relative.

4. Consider discussions with your child about your ex's parenting skills and rules essentially off limits. Unless you feel your child's safety is at risk, drop it. If your child is trying to enlist you for help because they feel the other parent is being unfair, you might try responding in this way: "It sounds like you are upset, did you discuss this with your dad?" Or find creative ways to deal with it and get a better perspective. Why should you help your ex? For your child. Your child will only grow by gaining coping skills and their lives will benefit greatly by having positive relationships with your ex-spouse.

5. If you must talk about your ex with your friends and family, do it out of earshot from your child.

6. When you or your child talk about the other parent, be neutral and supportive of that relationship. An example would be to help your young child pick out a gift for the other parent's birthday. Remember one parental responsibility is to show good behavior towards everyone, including your ex. You also want to keep the lines of communication open so you can help your child if they have problems in the custody of the other parent. If you show no interest in the good things that happen with your ex, than your child may feel reluctant to share any problems that may come up. If you send the message that either parent is off limits, than you have also sent the message that a big important part of their lives is not important to you. However, you do not want to "pump" your child for information about the other parent, but you do want to have a good idea of what goes on at the other home, who the child is around and where the child goes.

7. Do not compete with your ex. When you do, everyone, including your child, loses.

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