What is a child centered divorce?
Everyone knows that kids should be protected from their parents' conflicts. In fact, that is one of the central premises around a child centered divorce. Unfortunately many couples find this hard to achieve this with emotions running high. When there is so much hurt and anger it can feel natural to turn to your children for comfort or support. It may be tempting to tell them the "truth" about the other parent but why is this kind of dialogue a bad idea? Kids who are caught in the middle of their parents' conflict and divorce have worse behavior and emotional outcomes that last into adulthood. In a child centered divorce the well-being and the interests of the children are top priority of the separating or divorced couple. These kids are able to move beyond the conflict and have a good chance at success in life, school, relationships and a better mental outlook. Why keep your kids out of the middle? For their own mental health, they need to love both parents, and if they feel caught in the middle, they may feel they have to choose between parents. This is damaging to kids. Your children know that they have a part of each of you in them. If they turn against a parent, it is as if they are turning against a part of themselves. What happens when kids are caught in the middle? Kids feel like they are caught in a terrible tug-of-war. They may feel they need to determine who is at fault, or what is "fair." They may feel burdened by their parents' emotions and not able to express their own. They may begin to regress, shut down, or act out. Teens and young adult children of divorcing parents may try to get involved in the divorce process itself, in unhealthy ways, by trying to mediate, or judge, or advocate for particular outcomes. And this distracts them from focusing on their own lives in healthy ways.
Ways to Achieve a Child Centered Divorce Approach:
- Don't speak badly of the other parent. Don't blame them, criticize or complain about them to the children. This kind of action hurts your kids. Need to vent or complain? Seek out your friends or a therapist.
- Don't ask your kids to take sides. Ask yourself if you are doing so, even in subtle ways, and remind yourself that it is healthier for your kids to love both parents.
- Don't send messages or paperwork with the kids when they go to their other parent. Keep the divorce business well away from them.
- Don't talk about the divorce business, about the meetings, the financial settlement details or division of property. Legal talk is painful for kids to hear and distracts them from being able to focus on their job--to be kids.
- Don't have difficult conversations with your spouse when the kids are being transferred from one of you to the other parent. Keep these out of earshot and private. You would be surprised about how much your kids actually already hear and know.
- Don't ask your kids to keep secrets from their other parent.
- Don't use your kids as your confidantes. You need adults to turn to for support. Connect with friends, family, a divorce support group or a therapist.
- Don't ask your kids about your spouse's personal life, like if s/he is dating.
- Don't restrict your kids' time with their other parent because you are mad at your spouse.
How can I help my kids stay out of the middle of the conflict?
- Minimize the disruptions to the kids' routines as much as possible.
- Make sure both parents stay involved. Make sure the children have frequent and ongoing contact with both of you.
- Provide frequent reassurance. The divorce isn't their fault--they didn't cause it, and they can't change it.
- Focus on their growth and healthy change as they adapt and adjust to the new family structure. It can help some kids to say "We are still one family, under two roofs."
- Model respect for their other parent.
- Let the children continue to be kids. Maintain their play dates and other activities as much as possible.
- Imagine the story you want your children to tell about their parents' divorce, and know that every day you are helping them to construct that story.
- Create a parenting plan that minimizes the potential for conflict. By creating and committing to a set of default decisions, together with your spouse, the potential conflict will be minimized.
- Seek professional help if necessary, with or without your ex.
Remember that the divorce is a problem to be solved by you and your spouse, the adults. Kids will benefit from knowing that their parents will continue to parent them together, even if they are living under two roofs. Take time to work with a professional, if necessary, to resolve your grievances with your spouse so that your children don't carry the burden of bitterness and grief into their future. Thousands of kids go through divorce with their families, but you can help them to overcome the challenges, become more stress-resistant, resilient, and flexible, by keeping them out of the middle of the divorce. One to two years after a "child-centered" divorce, most kids are on track and healthy.