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Most Recent Paper:

After Separation: Reflections on the Plight of the Alienated Child

Separation and Divorce: How to Sustain the Children

Our society is changing rapidly. A change that has certainly captured a great deal of public attention is the statistic that about half of all current California marriages will eventually end up with their husbands or wives seeking a divorce. If you have children and have reluctantly come to the conclusion that a separation from your spouse may be imminent - or if you are already engaged in the process - here are some recommendations about steps you might take to lower the stress for your children. Some of them, of course, may need to be tailored to unusual individual circumstance. First, be aware of some orienting principles that may help you understand what your children may be experiencing. For most families, the principles include:

  • Your children may attempt to “take care” of you. That is, they will most often act as if they were loyal to you and if you were the “best” parent, regardless of what may be heartfelt for them. They will also suffer if they see you in distress.
  • Your children may try to “figure out” how to stop any tension between the two households and try to find something that might be done to make things better. Sometimes children will get sick, misbehave, or sabotage in school to bring their separated parents closer together out of the parents’ shared concern for the child or children.
  • The most painful parts of being the child of separated parents are the loyalty conflicts that may be felt whenever there is a great deal of tension between the parents. This traps a child into wanting to give contradictory signals of loyalty to both parents, for children are rarely eager or even willing to “take sides.”
  • Children may be guilt ridden and frightened that they have caused the separation and that they are the source of post separation turbulence. They often need much reassurance that such is not the case.
  • Times of transition, moving back and forth between mom’s and dad’s residences, are often stressful and can produce some conflict laden behavior in children.

In cases where there is a great deal of post divorce turbulence and an inability to form reliable and respectful working alliances between separated/divorced parents, co-parenting is not always a useful goal. Sometimes separated and separate parenting is much more achievable and much more stabilizing for the children.

Given these almost universal childhood reactions, then, the following suggestions may be useful for thinking about how to calm, soothe, and make more productive the lives of your offspring:

  • It’s best if children are not asked to deliver messages back and forth between the two households.
  • Although it may be tempting to do so, don’t give in to discussing any pending court actions or the merits or demerits of them with your children.
  • For matters of residence and visitation and until they are into adolescence, let children express their feelings and even their wishes, but make it clear that their opinions are not decisions. It’s comforting to children to be told that the parents are “working it out” and will be the ones to decide where the children will spend time.
  • Avoid discussing the reasons for any bad feelings that might exist between the adults. And resist what feels like a natural inclination to “explain” yourself and your position to the children and to seek their understanding or their loyalty.
  • Steer clear of asking your children about the behavior of the other parent. Refrain from educating your children about why you don’t approve of the conduct of the other parent.
  • It’s best for separated parents not to ask a child or children to keep an experience “in confidence,” that is, asking that what the child has seen, heard, or witnessed not be revealed to the other parent. It also can be particularly upsetting to give secrets to a child or children with requests that they not be shared with the other parent.
  • Don’t give in to your own frustration at trying times and use corporal punishment. Take your own “time out” if you need to gain control of yourself.
  • When a child describes what is taking place in the home of the other parent, keep silent about your criticisms of the child’s behavior in his or her other home and avoid expressing your dislike of of the life, activities of the child, or parenting actions of the other parent.
  • Resist engaging in discussions of your children’s or your “loneliness” or of “missing each other” caused by the times when the children are with the other parent.
  • When the child is visiting the other parent, the parent who is now alone should make no more than one 10’ phone call per day to the child who is temporarily in the other home. It’s best if the time of such call is specified in advance. Don’t give in to your desires to make the call longer than 10’ in duration.
  • Permit your child to call any parent at any time. Unless it is an emergency, however, the parent receiving a phone call about a problem should encourage the child to work out the problem with the parent who is physically present. It’s best to avoid attempting to engage directly with the child who is calling but instead try to say, “I think I’ve heard what you have to say, and I understand you. I think you should talk to Dad/Mom about this. And I’m going to be seeing you on such-and-such a day. Of course we’ll talk more about what you’re tellling me when I see you. I think it can wait until then, though.”
  • If a child complains about something that has happened in the “other” house, he or she should be told that there is nothing the present parent can do about that. Instead, the child might be helped to find the courage to take the matter up with the grownups in the house where the event has happened.
  • Children should be listened to whenever they want to speak about anything troubling them, but no adults should “pump” children about what may or may not be going on in the other house.
  • Children need to find their own coping style and to have it respected. Some children want lots of opportunities to express their feelings about separation, divorce, and loss and to receive kind attention for them. Others want to “go about their business,” acting as much as possible as if nothing distressing is happening and avoiding discussion of the disruptions taking place in the life of the family. There is no correct way for children to get themselves through the time of transformation; let each child do it in his or her own unique style.

Email Dr. Arthur Kovacs at askdrkovacs@aol.com

Email Hermine Kovacs at askdrkovacs@aol.com

Email Dr. Karen Kovacs North at knorth@usc.edu