Top 10 Divorce Don’ts
By Esther Neuman and M. Gary Neuman
In recent years the rates of divorce have been increasing rapidly. Studies estimate between 40%-50% of all first marriages end in divorce and that number only increases with multiple marriages. Going through divorce is hard on any individual but the stress rises when there are children involved. Divorce can cause significant pain to any child and unfortunately research shows that as adults, children of divorce have double the risk of divorcing in their own marriages.
As parents, we want what’s best for our children, and we want to shield them from pain, but the simple act of divorce can take a tremendous toll on our child’s well-being. Fortunately, there are certain things you can do, and be aware of as a parent to minimize these negative experiences and help your child move through this time in both your lives in a healthy and positive way.
In Gary’s recent book, “The Long Way Home” he surveyed adults who were themselves children of divorce. In it, they shared their deepest concerns and reflected on their own experiences with divorce — both positive and negative. Additionally, we asked parents what they would suggest is a definite “Don’t” for a parent of divorce. Both this research and our experience helping children of divorce through my program The Sandcastles Program for Children of Divorce, influenced a list of “Top Ten Don’ts” for any parent going through a divorce:
1.) Don’t bad mouth or say anything negative about your ex to or in front of your child.
As a parent going through a divorce, you may (understandably) feel your spouse has betrayed, hurt or lied to you. You are also in the midst of separating emotionally as well as physically from what was once a thriving relationship with someone you loved. Expressing these feelings is natural. However, when you do it in a way that insults and belittles your ex, the children may actually take it personally. To insult their parent is to insult their own DNA. Imagine the strong feelings an adult in the midst of divorce feels and magnify it when we talk about children. We also tend to overestimate our kids’ emotional capabilities. Children (and even many teens) simply lack the psychological defenses adults have developed. They take things in and they don’t have the maturity to process these feelings in a healthy way.
2.) Don’t lean on your kids for emotional support.
Of course going through a divorce is difficult and emotionally draining but kids need to feel someone is holding it together. A parent’s primary job is to protect their child. We wouldn’t hesitate to marshal every resource if our child were being bullied or attacked in some way. Taking care of them at this time means truly putting their best interests ahead of our own when it comes to emotional care. This means taking care of yourself so that you can be there for them. Exercise, eat right, vent to a friend about your ex, and seek therapy if possible. Your child can know and respect that you’re feeling sad or angry but details don’t need to be shared as it puts the child in the position of confidante and makes them the adult. They need their parent to be the adult. If you just can’t hide your feelings, you can say, “Mom/dad is just a little sad/frustrated/unhappy right now.” Then, identify with your child so they can understand that it’s okay, “just like it’s okay for you to feel sad, or your feelings hurt, it’s okay for mom/dad too.”
3.) Don’t use your child against your ex.
In divorce you are adjusting your family to this new reality and a new way of life. You’re dealing with overcoming your relationship with your ex and developing a new one. As custody issues come up and other changes to your lifestyle take affect, avoid the pitfalls of using the children as a bargaining chip or way to hurt your ex. Often times, children used in this way grow into adults who want nothing to do with the parent who put them into those situations.
4.) Don’t give too much information.
Yes you want your child to know what’s going on in the divorce and how things like scheduling will affect them. But keep things on a need to know basis. Details that don’t apply, division of assets and other adult topics should be avoided when they are around.
5.) Don’t rescue your child.
When you speak to your children allow them to express how they’re feeling. Too often as parents we want to rescue our child as soon as we feel they are hurting. However, you won’t necessarily be able to fix things your spouse is doing or the way your child is feeling. What you can do is validate your child’s feelings and let them know you’re here and understand what they’re going through. Spend time with them and respond using the following, “It sounds like it kinda/sorta/maybe ___(add here whatever emotion you think your child is feeling) when mom/dad did ___.” This will let your child know “Hey, mom/dad understand how I’m feeling and I don’t feel so alone in this.”
6.) Always try to be the adult and take the high road.
Many couples feel that if “I just get a divorce” everything will be easy. The fact is that you will still have to work on your relationship with your spouse in a different capacity. However, now you only have a relationship with this individual because they are your child’s parent. Therefore, when new conflict arises, try your best to take the high road and put the needs of your child first. You might need to swallow hard at times but your child will appreciate it and it will make a tremendous difference in his/her life.
7.) Don’t ignore your child’s messages whether verbal or physical.
Children deal with divorce in numerous ways. Just because they might be doing fine in school and don’t cry doesn’t mean they’re okay inside. Be aware of changes in sleep and eating. Meet with teachers and ask how the child is doing. Arrange for the quiet moments when sharing can take place. Spend a few minutes before they go to sleep, without television or other electronics. Ask them what they’re thinking. Take a drive or a walk, do a project that allows for time to open up and let you really know what’s going on inside. Then respond as indicated above.
8.) Don’t think a new spouse will replace your child’s parent.
Sometimes people feel this new relationship will be another parent to their child. However, your child may not see it this way. No one can replace your child’s biological parent and they may see this new love interest as a “replacement” of mom and dad. Be gentle when introducing a new love interest and spend more alone time with your child so they don’t feel this new individual is replacing the parent they still love.
9.) Don’t add radical changes to the family at this time.
Some parents, having finally been liberated from a bad marriage, are anxious to pursue a whole new life and explore different interests. Whether it be a radically different lifestyle or a complete overhaul of diet in the home, now is not the time to implement drastic changes. These can be researched and discussed and then gradually taken on when things have settled. Children thrive on predictability. Whether they are relieved, happy, sad, or have other feelings about the divorce, it is, in fact an adjustment. The other things in their lives should stay predictable. This gives them some sense of control at a time when they need that sense of order.
10.) Don’t rush the step-parent connection.
Blended families can provide a lot of good support. But many kids rebel against being forced into a pseudo parent relationship before they’re ready. The same can be said of step-siblings. Don’t bring new partners into your child’s life too quickly. Although every situation is different, introducing a new love interest before a year has passed since the initial separation is often too difficult for the kids and they begin acting out. Tell your children how great they are, how much you love them and allow them to express themselves in a healthy way. This will set the stage for a positive move into the next phase.
 Popenoe, D., & Whitehead, B.D. (2007). The state of our unions 2007: The social health of marriage in America. Piscataway, NY: The National Marriage Project.
 Bramlett, M.D., & Mosher, W. D. (2002). Cohabitations, marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the United States. Vital and Health statistics, 23(22). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.
 White, L. K. (1990). Determinants of divorce: A review of research in the eighties. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52, 906-908; Wolfinger, N. H. (2005). Understanding the divorce cycle: The children of divorce in their own marriages. New York: Cambridge University.
Esther A. Neuman holds a master’s degree in social work, is the co-creator of the Neuman Method and speaks publicly on relationships and divorce issues. She is available for in-person and private online Skype therapy as well as life coaching. For further questions Esther can be reached at [email protected] or (305) 401-9391.
M. Gary Neuman is a New York Times bestselling author and licensed psychotherapist. His work has been featured on Oprah over 10 times, Today over 20 times, multiple appearances on Dateline, the View and NPR. He has also been featured in Time Magazine, Redbook, Parents, Wash. Post, and LA Times. Gary is the creator of The Sandcastles Program for Children of Divorce, and Neuman Method, a marriage self-help DVD series. Gary can be reached by email for private counseling or further questions at [email protected]
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