You’ve tried everything and your marriage isn’t working – You and your spouse have made the difficult decision to separate.
Where does this leave your children? How will they adjust as you and your partner separate or divorce? You want to take every step to ensure they cope well, but how do you know where to begin? As long as parents are aware of the risk factors that could lead to negative outcomes for their children, they can take steps to minimize or avoid them altogether.
Telling the Children
Nearly 10 years ago, Murfreesboro mom Lee Ann Carmack separated from her husband. At the time, her daughter was 4. “Her father and I sat down together and told her that her dad was not going to be living here any longer,” she recalls. They felt it was important to tell her together to avoid making one of them out to be the “bad parent.” “Both adults have to take responsibility for the divorce,” she says.
Karla Crocker separated from her husband last December. Her divorce became final in July, and she remembers talking to her 5-year-old son about the separation. “He never brought it up,” she says, “but I would ask how things made him feel.” Based on his answers, she would ask more detailed questions to help him understand his feelings and alleviate anxieties. “Then I would reinforce how much we both love him,” she says.
Children need reassurance about their future, their relationships within the family and that you will be there to listen, explains Elizabeth Seddon, author of Creative Parenting After Separation (Allen and Unwin). Talk to your children about your separation in simple terms and encourage questions. If they seem reluctant to talk to you about it, explain that they can talk to other family members or friends.
Dealing with Reactions
In the early stages of separation, many children exhibit emotional and disciplinary behaviors that stem from their confusion, fear, sadness, anxiety and anger, says Seddon. She says it’s important to minimalize conflict with your partner by immediately sorting out living arrangements and formalizing a plan whereby children will have a continued relationship with both parents.
“It’s important to keep things as normal as possible,” recommends Crocker, who admits that this can be difficult. During her separation, she became her son’s primary caregiver and moved from Murfreesboro to Nashville. “Although it would have been much easier for me to enroll him in a preschool down the road, I continued to drive back to Rutherford County every day for eight months to let him go to the same school.”
Crocker also suggests letting your children see that you have emotions, too. Many times parents feel they must shelter their children from any problems. “If you are feeling upset, I don’t think it’s best to hide it,” she says. “It’s all part of trying to help them understand that Mommy gets sad, too, and this is how Mommy handles it.”
In Children in Changing Families: Life After Parental Separation (Blackwell Publishers), authors Bryan Rodgers and Jan Pryor look at more than 1,000 studies worldwide on the effects of parental separation. They found that most children make successful transitions after parental separation.
Issues that can harm children, explains Seddon, include not feeling able to engage in an open relationship with either parent and the presence of continued conflict between parents. “While we can’t change past events,” she says, “we can, to some extent, change the way we think about them.”
Parents should never blame or attack their spouse in front of the children, she stresses. Making a conscious decision to “play nice” is most difficult when the decision to separate is not mutual. “When you separate,” says Carmack, “it’s the hardest thing in the world to put your child first. You are dealing with personal things that have no place in a child’s life.” But, she adds, you have to commit to trying. During her separation, she and her husband agreed that they would not speak ill about each other in front of their daughter. Their marriage was ending, but not their relationship with their child.
The best way for parents to support their child’s emotional stability is by continuing to provide a loving environment in which to nurture development. This can be done with one or two parents, cohabitating or living separately, as long as the child receives consistent guidance.
Of course separated parents cannot control how their partner parents in a different household. However, urges Seddon, parents must move toward a cooperative style of parenting, in which “involved parents continue to work together to nurture and care for their children.” Regardless of parents’ feelings for one another, preserving the relationship with their children must take priority.
It’s like a business partnership, explains Seddon. She states that parents must:
- Understand that the relationship with the other parent is a crucial part of their relationship with their children.
- Focus on the wellbeing of the children.
- Be creative about contact and residence arrangements.
- Be able to set aside anger and bitterness.
- Solve one problem at a time.
If parents can adhere to the above suggestions, she explains, they can move from parallel parenting – in which parents maintain contact with the children but not one another and engage in outright or covert conflict – to cooperative parenting.
Lynn Hopkins of Franklin went through a separation last year. Although she and her husband did not part on amicable terms, through mediation they discussed ways to parent cooperatively. “When our daughter went to visit him this summer across the country, we discussed words to use in discipline so we could be on the same page,” she says. For instance, they decided to continue to use “That’s not a good idea,” as a warning and a firm “No” when serious.
Even while most parents realize how a separation filled with conflict can negatively affect children, it can be hard to disengage your feelings. If this sounds familiar, it may be time to seek outside help. Mediation is a process of conflict resolution in which both parents work together with a trained mediator to discuss problems and reach agreements fitting their circumstances. Besides helping parents facing divorce with legal issues such as dividing assets, mediators can help parents develop a parenting plan to determine a child’s primary residence, parental access and other child-centered issues.
Jan Walden, a mediator in Nashville, sees her role as a problem solver. She explains that mediation helps parents separate personal issues from parenting issues and protects the children from unnecessary stress and anxiety. She suggests marriage counseling “if both parties are willing to commit to making the changes necessary to repair the relationship.” While there may be a physical separation at this time, “the mediator can assist the parties in the logistics of such a separation including access to children and the payment of household expenses,” she says.
If resolution cannot be found and both parties decide to pursue divorce, parents can still use a mediator. Benjamin Papa is an attorney-mediator who owns Family Law Mediation Services in Brentwood. Working in two-hour sessions, he helps the parents prepare a “Marital Dissolution Agreement” with all the decisions made by the couple during mediation. “I remain neutral and do not give legal advice to either party,” he explains. “Couples who have children and participate in mediation come through the divorce process more ready and willing to work together for the good of their children, rather than bitter and exhausted from a lengthy courtroom battle.”
A failed marriage doesn’t make you a bad parent, as long as the issues between you and your partner don’t become your children’s issues. “You can have a clean separation and divorce if you decide to commit to doing what is right,” says Carmack. “It’s hard, but not impossible.”
Brenna Hansen is managing editor for this publication.
DIVORCECARE FOR KIDS
The national program DivorceCare offers support groups and seminars for adults going through a separation or divorce. Recently, DivorceCare for Kids began providing help for children struggling with this family change. Taught by certified instructors, children in grades 5 through 12 attend a church-based, 13-week program that helps kids develop a sense of security, establish new routines, deal with anger and more. The following churches offer DivorceCare for Kids:
Bellevue Community Church
8001 Hwy 70 S., Nashville
Grace Baptist Church
1510 Old Hickory Blvd., Nashville
Woodmont Baptist Church
2100 Woodmont Blvd., Nashville