Keeping Children Safe Through Divorce
To be brutally honest, I wasn’t heartbroken when my parents got divorced. I was ten at the time and, among other sour-tasting truths that emerged from that event, I was living proof that the age of your children and the circumstances of their lives create very personal reactions to the parents splitting up. In my case, my father was negligent, absent and brutal. I came very close to asking him if he would like any help packing his bags.
My own divorce – that was a different story. I was desperate to ensure that everyone involved, including my ex-wife, got the best deal they could from the debacle of my crumbling marriage. While some of that guilt was badly misplaced, we can still consider this a starting point on salient lessons learned. The ultimate goal: How do you create a divorce that help your children survive, even thrive during those oh, so conflicted times?
First, keep your eyes and ears open. Life lessons come from many sources, including family, friends and the modern, digital Yoda we call Google. In my case, I was a practicing clinical psychologist for 14 years, but I’m willing to bet my expensive credentials that I learned a lot more from my divorced sister than from any textbook or manufactured aha! moments listening to patients unravel their knotted-up grievances over the years.
Yes, it’s a grab-bag of hit or miss wisdom out there. Here’s one I learned from my parent’s divorce: If you live in another state and you see that child for three months of the summer and for two weeks each winter, the child will interpret that as, “I saw my father (or mother) twice last year.”
Knowing this, when I left my adult home, I returned every morning and put my children on the school bus, then returned every afternoon to greet them when the bus got home. For a few months, I even I cooked dinner, tucked them into bed, then drove to my apartment after they fell asleep.
And, yes, I am trying to make a point. If you can’t see your children every day, call them once or even twice a day – again, depending on their age. Checking in and hanging up if there is nothing on their minds is better than not calling at all. The truth is, circumstances aside, a child’s heart does not give you a day off ever. So, pick up a phone. Then, when visitations are discussed, hit hard on the need for frequency rather than duration of visits. Too often, in my book, parents opt for convenience (duration of visits) at the expense of consistency (seeing a child as often as possible).
Anyway, let’s start with a laundry list, which won’t cover every square inch of the territory, but it will give us a reasonable start:
- Living in two households
What’s wrong with living in two households? Why isn’t it fun?Depending on the age of your children, a second home can be a treat. With my three and five-year-old children, it was suggested that I make a game out of exploring my new place. Try creating a treasure hunt or find a way to hide a surprise in a closet. Yes, these tricks are temporary, but it’s better to start on a good note than a bad one.Secondly, don’t force the loaded word “home” on your children. Let children decide for themselves whether your place, the ex’s place or both are what they consider “home.” They don’t have to agree with you on the vocabulary of their new
- Going back and forth between places
Children until the end of time will routinely forget to bring their gloves, schoolbook, tee-shirt, study notes or stuffed animal when they go from home to home. While adjusting to that constant, you will also have to drive them from home to home to school to lessons to doctors to friends much more often than you like.In that case, change your mindset right now. Driving is far from the waste of time it is cut out to be. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.Someday you will yearn for private, alone-time with each of your children. Guess what? You had all that quality time available learning about what excites them, what their goals were, what values they were learning if you just accepted your car time as exactly what the relationship doctor was calling for.
My kids and I must have invented 100 car games – enough to write a book or two – and in the middle years, I couldn’t get enough of the interesting things I learned about each of them while chugging along in the rusty, old Subaru.
Never, ever, ever say this: “Grumble, grumble, I hate driving you places all the time.” Why would you make your kid feel guilty about growing up? I went the other way, telling them so many times they need not apologize for asking me to drive them places, they probably think I’m a reincarnated rickshaw driver of some kind.
From a child’s point of view, a parent dating is an anomaly that opens up vistas of mischief and trouble. But the solution is very, very accessible. Simply don’t mix the business of raising a child and the unpredictable rollercoaster of your dating life. Simply don’t do it.Solution: Certainly, dating is important, but it’s time to figure out where your priorities fall. If you see your children Monday, Wednesday and every other weekend, do your dating on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and every other weekend. And when your children come around, keep your mouth shut. They don’t need to learn ever emotional highs and lows of your capricious dating life.What do you risk? In one form or another, you risk facing the question: “Don’t you love me, anymore?” That’s the Grand Canyon of childhood questions. Why would you risk standing close to that edge?
Remarrying and Step-Parenting
At some point – the longer the secret is kept the better for younger children – the secret will emerge: Mom or Dad is dating. Then, eventually, at some nondescript barbecue this mysterious age-appropriate partner will show up and spend much of their time laughing along with their parent’s idiotic jokes. That’s a sure sign that the possibility of another marriage is brewing.
While you should keep your dating secret as long as possible, eventually you will find that all secrets in family life come out and there you are at a barbecue introducing your new love interest your children. Certainly, you don’t want to surprise them with “We’re getting married next weekend,” unless your children are well into their twenties or older. Give younger children the time to adjust, but don’t test the waters. They don’t need to like your new partner or even get to know them that well. They just need to not despise them.
The next step, of course, is the role of a stepparent and this is among the easiest – and surprising – answers on the divorcee’s to-do list.
The answer is there is no such thing as step-parenting. It is a complete myth.
In fact, if Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel or Show White taught us anything, it’s that stepparents are simply intruders automatically overstepping their boundaries. My two stepparents arrived when I was a teenager and neither one of them interfered with my life in the slightest except my stepfather, who had a kind of Diamond Jim Brady personality – outlandishly generous. Still, emotionally, he knew enough to stay out of the way. Then, surprise, surprise, both of my stepparents outlived my actual parents and soon after each parent died, my stepparents became terrific friends. My stepmother and I now speak twice a week on the phone, and I didn’t even know she had a voice of any kind while my father was alive.
Stepparenting gets awkward if the children are toddlers or still in diapers, at which point bonding becomes inevitable. But prepare for a cold slap in the face, because reality will always catch up; the stepparent is the intruder, not the parent.
- Stepsiblings and Half-Siblings
Stepsiblings and half-siblings, on the other hand, are not intruders, because they are, essentially, non-voting members of the family the same as your children are.Although an entire universe of confusion is possible here, the best outcomes are only available if both parents love kids so much they know when to interfere and when to stay out of the way. Regardless, the worst that can happen is that the kids don’t get along. If so, try these ideas:One: If you need one rule that outranks all others, it’s that physical fighting is not allowed. Do whatever you need to to enforce this rule without fail.
The idea is that this will prevent people from getting hurt and that’s not a bad outcome. But more important, if a child can’t physically fight, they begin to realize that their shouting at the top of their lungs is a useless weapon, because it doesn’t provoke the fight they want. So, the yelling simmers down. More adult arguments are a kind of trickle-down result of no fighting. If you can’t fight, what’s the point of yelling? If you can’t yell (because you can’t fight) what’s the point of name calling? If you can’t name-call, what’s the point of interrupting?
Secondly, be emotionally honest with your children, but if the anger-demons emerge, don’t scare anyone and teach them how to recover. Tell them you are angry, have your angry words, then return in five to ten minutes and ask them if they want some popcorn or if they want to watch a movie later on.
What you are teaching them is not to fight, but to calm down. You are teaching them that people lose it sometimes, but it does not change the love you feel. You teach them there is not much value (most of the time) in things said while angry.
- A Therapist
Finally, even young children benefit from a neutral party – often a therapist – who simply provides them with a safe place to be and some objectivity. If a child learns to trust a therapist, you have a chance that they will learn to trust you, as well – call this the trickle-up method of growth.When you get divorced you have already broken a fundamental trust. This makes it an uphill battle for you to step in and ask that they trust you again. It will be much quicker if they learn to trust someone from scratch, then decide they can risk trusting you again. Don’t call it “therapy” call it “trust building” or “making a new friend.” What’s wrong with finding a new friend in the time of trouble? Everyone could use one of those.
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Law firm that handles child custody, child support, legal separation, and divorce matters. Board ce
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Law firm that handles child custody, child support, legal separation, and divorce matters. Board certified family law specialist Janet Gemmell.
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