Parenting through Divorce
There are thousands of books written about the impact of divorce on kids, both from a positive and a negative perspective, equally, there are tons of statistics about how divorce hurts kids, and how life is much harder for a kid without a dad — particularly the boys.
For many though, divorce is the best thing!
The facts out of this rather depressing research are that all children, no matter what their age or developmental stage will experience some impacts of the divorce. In the case of very young infants, who are too young to express themselves verbally; they may be changes in behaviour during the divorce and maybe other issues highlighted later as the child matures. Older kids may indicate they accept the divorce, but there may feel torn or hurt about the breakup of the family.
The parents going through divorce are aware of the added stress, anxiety and worry about how each of their actions can negatively affect their children if things are not handled sensitively. The research is very clear. It is not so much the divorce itself that causes the stress on the children; rather it is disengagement or neglect of one or both of the parents that are damaging to children. Both parents have to work together with each other and the child to ensure that the relationship between both parents and the child remains strong throughout the divorce as well as in the years to follow.
Since there are such a large number of families experiencing divorce, there has been and continues to be a huge amount of research completed on the topic every year. Professionals that work with families in divorce (including Child Development Specialists, Consultants, Family Therapists, Play Therapists, Psychologist and Psychiatrists) all conduct routine evaluations of how different types of parenting styles or models impact on children. This research indicates that there are three models used by parents in most areas, although they may be known by different names in different countries. For purposes of this discussion these parenting models will be known as:
The models are discussed from the most distant type of relationship model to the highest level of communication, collaboration and dual-parent interaction with regards to the children. Parents find that in the initial phases of the divorce process when the emotional levels are high, the first two models -Independent / Parallel parenting are more practical and manageable, overall most parents aim to be working towards the third model, the collaborative co-parenting model as the ultimate parenting through achieving their desired and expected divorce goals.
Independent parenting is exactly what you may expect the term to mean. In this parenting arrangement, each parent manages their own rules, expectations and day-to-day routines to meet the needs of their children while in their care. Let’s call it – parenting time. Thus, in independent parenting models, when it is Mom’s parenting time she makes the rules, sets discipline and handles all issues without consultation with Dad. Dad likewise sets rules, develops discipline policies and handles the decisions when the kids are with him, again without consultation with Mom.
Most parents, especially those with older children, can quickly see that this can be a potential disaster in the making. The problems with this parenting models usually include:
- Kids quickly learn Mom and Dad are not talking or collaborating and may take advantage of the situation by playing both parents off each other.
- In the worst-case scenario, these kids will be living two lives detached from each other without the ability to talk about or comment on what is happening in their other homes.
This model appears not to provide any structure or stability, especially if Mom and Dad have very different views of parenting. Hence the kids become confused because rules, expectations and discipline are greatly different between each home.
These kids may then miss the opportunity to continue to see and appreciate both parents efforts to meet their needs as a unit working together; rather they see that Mom and Dad are ambivalence and not co-operating- therefore, not teaching the kids the key skills needed to be effective communicators and problem solvers in their own lives.
Parallel parenting is yet a limited interaction model between the two parents and is assumed to be the one most often used by parents in the period directly after the divorce. In parallel parenting, both parents work together to achieve the same goals for their children.
Parallel parenting requires that parents have a common understanding of what each other are doing in their respective household with regards to the kids, and they ensure that what they are doing is alike. There is limited interaction or communication between parents, but children have predictability, structure and routine through their parenting time with both Mom and Dad.
Often some parents using a parallel parenting model may have a written parenting plan, which is an agreed document that outlines the various aspects of raising their children. Communication between these parents may also be through attorneys, therapists or counsellors, mediators or even via email if personal contact is still stressful. The Parenting plans may include details of the children’s lives such as parenting time schedules (access and visitation in legal terms), routines, discipline, medical issues, supervision, and extra financial considerations for special events and even issues of daily routines and extracurricular activities for the children as the issue arises.
In most cases, parallel parenting is beneficial to the children since they have security, routine and the understanding that Mom and Dad are working together in their upbringing and taking their parenting responsibilities seriously to the benefits of the children.
This is believed to be the most child-friendly model of parenting through a divorce. Since the model is seen as mature secure and civil relationship where Mom and Dad continue to discuss issues as they relate to the kids, they cooperate routinely with regards to information sharing that are specific to the children and often talk and/or phone each other with questions or matters about the kids. While the parents may not specifically spend time together with the kids, many co-parents attend birthday parties, school events and other special activities together to allow the child to feel very much a part of both parent’s lives.
Others argue that co-parenting is an illogical expectation for the divorced parents, however, research indicates that this is the best possible model for the children, provided both parents can remain civil, respectful and child-centred during discussions and interactions. Meaning, whatever caused the break up of the marriage has to be put aside or in the past, with all communication between the two parents only relating to the best outcomes for the children. Anger and frustration may occur, but effective co-parents use anger management and communication techniques to minimize or eliminate any anger towards each other in the presence of the children.
Co-parenting is almost like operating a business with the other parent as a partner with the end goal of raising the happiest, healthiest kids.
Co-parenting does not mean that you have to have extended conversations about how life is fair or unfair to you other than the kids’ health needs, happiness, general well being and development.
This model requires a lot of efforts and sacrifices on the parent’s part.
A lady confided in me during one of my home visits, “my ex had been cheating on me since the marriage, she declared calmly. I loved him full stop. I am a high earner. 2kids. I naively believed he will change. I was ashamed to let go. My family said ‘what is the big deal?. After all, you are the woman in the house! He never apologised for cheating or that I found out. I almost lost myself in confusion.
“If I hadn’t left him and settled for what we had, my kids would have learned that marriage is nothing but either ignoring each other or screaming at each other. These were our norm. He is hardly around. When he is, either we weren’t speaking at all, or we were screaming. There was nothing between us. Except when we were around others, we fake it, of course. We never touched, never laughed together, never had a productive conversation”.
I listened deeply, knowing that parents struggle to help their children cope with the emotional pain of divorce but, kids aren’t stupid, and they soon know.. She concluded ‘I am happier because we communicate better and with respect after the divorce because of the children”. What a joy!
My lady told me assuredly with self-respect that, if she had kept her marriage, her ex would have been the original example to the kids of what a man is for his family- A cheater, liar, and abuser. A man who ignored his family when he wasn’t working, that is the last thing I want for my kids! I couldn’t agree more…
No one is saying that the divorce process itself is easy, in fact it can be heartbreaking all around but perhaps one of the most damaging side effects of divorce is the lack of parental involvement by one or both parents. If the parents are not able to put their children’s needs and emotional security before their own, they run the risk of destroying the relationship with their kids, thereby increasing the emotional and behavioural problems which can be directly linked to the damaged relationship between the parents.
However, if children accept the fact that the divorce is happening or has happened, with continued work and some compromises between the parents, the kids will see that Mom and Dad are still Mom and Dad, still active in their lives in a loving, encouraging way, most children will adapt to the divorce situation and grow up as happy and secure as possible.