FAQs for parenting during divorce
1/15/2018 by Hannah Mulholland, LICSW
A divorce is never something you plan for, especially if you are a parent. It’s hard on all parties involved, but especially on children. During this difficult period, as parents, you may be preoccupied with your own struggles; however your parenting responsibilities have not changed. You also may be balancing difficult emotions like guilt and grief, which often gets in the way of effective parenting. Here are some frequently asked questions about parenting through a divorce.
Q: When should I tell my kids?
A: It’s likely that your children have picked up that something is not right, so if they come to you with questions, be as honest and age-appropriate as possible. However, it’s best not to share about a separation and/or divorce until the decision is final. It’s developmentally appropriate for children to be very concrete in their thinking, so understanding ambiguity or “gray” areas in a relationship is often very difficult for younger children.
Q: How should I tell my kids?
A: Ideally, parents should have this conversation together and plan in advance to make sure they are on the same page. Obviously, this isn’t always possible, but presenting a united front can be reassuring for kids. It sends the message that although their family is changing, both parents are still working together to take care of them.
Keep the conversation simple and straightforward. Reassure your child that you love them, that you will always be their parents, and that the divorce is not their fault. Do not comment on anything related to extramarital affairs, finances or any other age-inappropriate details. Also, be careful to avoid the temptation to criticize or insult the other parent. It’s important to tell your children that this will not be easy for anyone, and that it’s okay to be sad or upset.
Q: How do children of divorced parents feel?
A: In a major life change such as divorce, children experience a variety of emotions. There’s no right way to feel or go through it. Some children experience grief and sadness. Some express anger and resentment. Others are relieved. You might be surprised at how quickly your child adapts to the “new normal”. Remember, your child’s emotional response may be different toward each parent. What’s key is letting your child know that all feelings are okay.
Q: How do we decide custody time?
A: The most important part of deciding on parenting/custody time is taking your child’s development into account. Ask yourself how you can make the schedule most conducive to school and extracurricular activities. Keep in mind that it will be hard to give up your child to the other parent for any amount of time, but that in most situations (assuming there are no concerns about safety), it’s vital to their growth and development to have a relationship with both of you. The more consistent you make the schedule, the better. That way your child always knows when they will be where. A good idea is to create a calendar that your child can refer to.
Q: How do we co-parent living in two different houses?
A: Communication is essential. Find the communication method that works best for you, perhaps through text messages or email if verbal conversations are hard. Make sure the communication is direct between the parents and not sent back and forth through your child. When your child is struggling with something, make sure to share that information with the other parent. Try to have both of you attend all medical appointments and school conferences so that everyone has the same information.
When talking with your child, don't act jealous or upset about the time your child spends with the other parent or what they do together. This isn’t a competition. Don’t discuss finances or negative attributes of the other parent with your child. As you co-parent during a divorce, remember to take care of yourself and get support if you need it. The better you deal with your feelings, the better your child will be able to deal with theirs.
Q: How do I start dating again?
A: This is a very important conversation to have with your child. Discuss why you would date and what you are looking for in a partner. Try to introduce significant others only when the relationship is more than casual, so you’re not bringing many new people in and out of your child’s life.
Remember that children typically are fairly concrete, so the gray areas that characterize many adult dating relationships can be very hard for children to understand. Once you’ve met someone who likely will be a steady presence in your and your child’s life, help your child become part of the relationship through family dates and quality time together. However, make sure your child knows they are still important to you and deserve one-on-one time with you.
Q: How will I know if my child isn’t coping well with the divorce?
A: If you see changes in school work, friendships, behavior or mood, your child may be struggling to manage the change. If your child shows a consistent increase in irritability, sleeping difficulties, toileting or eating problems, then try talking with them about how they feel about the divorce. Your care team can be an excellent resource when you have concerns about your how your child is coping with the divorce.
Hannah Mulholland, LICSW, is a clinical social worker serving children and adolescents in Employee and Community Health's Division of Integrated Behavioral Health (IBH).