By Victor M. Parachin
Illustration by Joel Snyder
Recently a divorced mother wrote to the advice column "Dear Abby," declaring: "I have something to say to the millions of families whose lives are affected by divorce. An unforgiving and bitter person who has not let go of animosities can poison an entire family and ruin the holidays for everyone. I know. I was that person!"
Signing herself as "Free In Vermont," the woman went on to say that she initially could not forgive her husband and his new wife. "My children suffered for it. One day after a particularly harsh outburst, I understood the pained reaction on my children's faces. I prayed for the strength to change my ways so I could stop hurting those I love most in the world," she wrote.
Admitting it has been a long struggle to remove the toxic bitterness from her life, Free In Vermont said: "I have not remarried, but I have peace in my heart and my children are happy. They are free to enjoy both homes and the holidays with each family. It is a priceless gift to give your children and yourself."
There are two important lessons in that letter for families in which there is a divorce. First, parents are the ones most instrumental in establishing a healthy or unhealthy atmosphere in the home. Harboring anger, hostility, and bitterness over a divorce hurts children. Secondly, it is never too late to take corrective action and improve family life in spite of separation and divorce.
Every year, more than one million American couples get divorced. For many of those women and men, divorce impacts their lives emotionally, mentally, and physically. For their children, the impact can be even more devastating.
According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, children whose parents are divorcing often suffer from depression, sleep disturbance, loss of self-esteem, poor academic performance, behavioral regression, and a host of other physical and emotional problems. Here are 10 ways parents can help kids deal with divorce:
While not all children of divorcing parents are seriously traumatized by the separation, do not underestimate the toll that divorce exacts from some children. Children of divorcing parents do not bounce back as if nothing happened.
Almost 50 percent of children whose parents divorce show signs of psychological trauma during the first year after the event, according to a 1994 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Boys become aggressive. Girls get depressed. Both sexes are more likely to develop drug and alcohol problems. One effective way to ease the impact of divorce on children is accomplished by giving them permission to express feelings.
Expressing feelings is an important aspect of the healing process. Allow them to freely share their feelings about the divorce, even if you are uncomfortable hearing those expressions. Children will feel a wide range of confusing and conflicting emotions: guilt, anger, embarrassment, frustration, sadness, depression.
If the child wants to talk about the absent parent, let him or her do so, even if you may not want to hear it. If you feel your child is having trouble expressing feelings, one technique that works is to encourage a child to draw pictures or write about the divorce. That way you may be able to pinpoint a problem and help the child develop coping strategies. Keep in mind that children realize they do have control over their lives when they are allowed to express and explore their feelings connected to the divorce.
Be diligent in frequently reminding children that they are loved and did nothing to cause the breakup. Do your best to convey this single important message: "We're divorcing each other, but we're not divorcing you!"
"Ninety-five percent of the children I work with are convinced they are responsible for their parents' divorce," says Suzy Yehl Marta, co-founder and national executive director of Rainbows for All God's Children, Inc., a nonprofit, international support group for children and adolescents in single-parent homes. "Tell your kids often they didn't cause this problem and cannot fix it, either," she adds.
During the course of a marriage, the spouses are husband and wife as well as mother and father. After a divorce they remain only a mother or father. It is vital that parents who divorce make the transition from being marital partners to becoming partners in parenting. Doing this successfully means placing the needs of your children ahead of your own wishes and desires.
Do your best to focus upon the present situation and the child's present needs. Avoid focusing on the past and any lingering regret and resentment.
"In order to be a better noncustodial parent, I had to stop blaming my ex-husband for the collapse of the marriage and concentrate on ways to keep family life stable and healthy for my children," recalls Dawn, who was divorced after nine years of marriage.
"For the good of the children, I realized that my ex-husband and I had to be effective and mature partners in parenting. I was gratified to see that the man I had been married to was also willing to put the children first. At every step, we consciously reminded ourselves that our children's interests, not ours, were paramount, and we have tried to act accordingly."
While there will be differences of opinion and some arguments between divorcing adults, these conflicts do not need to be harmful to the children. "Keep parents' disagreements between the two of you" is the advice offered by Constance R. Ahrons, Ph.D., associate director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the university of Southern California and author of The Good Divorce: Keeping Your Family Together When Your Marriage Comes Apart (HarperCollins Pubs., Inc., 1995).
"It's when parents put children in the middle, or cause them to take sides, or threaten children with the loss by departure or disgrace of one parent, that children get hurt," she writes. Treat the other parent with respect and dignity.
Always be prompt and on time with child support payments. Follow through on your responsibility to provide important financial support for your family. Prompt payment will keep your child's life running smoothly and will prevent arguments with your ex-spouse.
Be guided by this advice from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers: "If you are the noncustodial parent, pay your child support. The loss of income facing many children after divorce puts them at a disadvantage that has a pervasive effect on the rest of their lives."
Do not be seduced by the temptation to withhold visitation rights when disagreements with your ex-spouse emerge. Regardless of what transpires between you and your spouse after a divorce, always operate on the understanding that your child has a to both parents. Apply this principle even if child support payments are late or unpaid.
"As important as child support payments are, children should not be kept from seeing a parent because the payment has not been made," declares Florence Bienenfeld, Ph.D., a Los Angeles marriage and family counselor and author of Helping Your Child Succeed After Divorce (Borgo Press, 1987).
"Money issues and parent-child relationship issues are separate and should be kept separate," she writes. "If they are not, children not only lose financial support but also valuable and needed time with a parent. This is a double punishment for your child."
Dr. Bienenfeld recalls a small boy telling her: "I can't see my daddy because he doesn't pay child support. If he loved me, he would pay."
Commenting on that boy's sad lament, Dr. Bienenfeld says: "If this child is not helped to feel loved and he grows up with low self-esteem, he will have little chance of being happy and successful. His father will be partly responsible because he did not send child support payments in on time and his mother will be partly responsible for his misfortune by mixing money issues with visitation issues. Unfortunately, their son will be the one who will pay the price for their uncooperative behavior."
There is much wisdom in this proverb: "It is better to lose the saddle than the horse." Divorced couples need to settle disagreements through compromise rather than confrontation and retaliation.
Consider the example of James, who asked his ex-wife, Marcia, if he could keep the children one extra day so they could attend their grandparents' wedding anniversary party. Marcia abruptly shouted, "No, it's not in our agreement," and hung up the telephone. James returned the children on time but vowed to find a way of getting revenge.
A few months later when Marcia asked James to change the schedule so she could take the children on her company-sponsored event at an amusement park, James refused. The result: Their immaturity and lack of compromise caused their children to miss out on two pleasant events and resulted in hardened feelings between the parents. Practice the fine art of compromise. Settle disagreements through flexibility. Utilize a give-and-take approach.
The most direct way to gain the other parent's trust in yourself as a parent is by keeping all agreements and promises you make. Show your ex-partner that you are a person of integrity and principle by faithfully adhering to agreements and promises.
If you promised to return the children by 8 p.m. on Sunday, don't return them unexpectedly later or earlier. Or, if you agreed to be home at 6 p.m. to receive the children, don't be late, forcing your ex-spouse and children to sit around in their car waiting for you to arrive.
When agreements and promises are kept, you create a conflict-free zone in which children can thrive. However, when promises are broken, disappointment, anger, frustration, hostility, resentment, and retaliation emerge.
Some divorcing parents do their children a great injustice by placing them in the middle of conflicts and disagreements. Avoid these scenarios: pumping children for information about the other parent, using children to carry messages back and forth, making children deliver child support payments, arguing in front of children, and putting children in the position of having to take sides.
"Even if your children spend only four or five days a month with you, you should strive to provide them with more than a couch to sleep on, if at all possible," writes Doreen Virtue in her book, My Kids Don't Live With Me Anymore: Coping With the Custody Crisis (CompCare Publishers, 1988).
She cites the positive example of "Gretchen" and her second husband, "Frank," who maintain a spare bedroom in their house solely for Gretchen's son to use during his visits. Although they could use the extra room for other purposes, they both feel it is very important that Gretchen's son, Jason, know the room is exclusively his.
"We don't want him to feel like an afterthought when he comes over," Gretchen says. "Jason needs to know that he's as much a member of this household as Frank and myself."
Finally, be patient with yourself and your children. The wound created by divorce will heal, but it takes time and effort. With love and patience, your child will adjust, adapt, and continue to grow in knowledge, skills, and healthy independence.
Victor Parachin writes from Tulsa, Okla.
Helpful Books for Children of Divorce
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