1. Talk to your children about your separation.
Studies show that only five percent of parents actually sit down with their kids when they are separating or divorcing, to explain what’s happening and encourage the kids to ask questions. Nearly one quarter of parents say nothing at all, leaving their kids in total confusion. Talk to your kids, and tell them in very simple terms, what it all means to them and their lives. When parents do not explain what’s happening, the kids feel anxious, upset and lonely and find it much harder to cope with the separation.
2. Be discreet.
Recognize that your children love you both, and think of how to reorganize things in a way that respects their relationship with both parents. Don’t leave adversarial papers, filings and affidavits out where the children can read them. Don’t talk on the phone about legal matters or your ex when the kids are in the next room.
3. Act like grown-ups.
Keep your conflict away from your kids. Even parents with high levels of anger can “encapsulate” their conflict, creating a protective buffer for the children by saving arguments or fights for times when the kids are not present. Don’t put your children in the middle by using them messengers, sounding boards, or spies.
4. Keep Dad in the picture.
The more involved fathers are after separation and divorce, the better. Develop a child-centered parenting plan that allows a continuing and meaningful relationship with both parents. When a good father-child relationship exists, kids grow into adolescence and young adulthood as well-adjusted as married-family children. High levels of appropriate father involvement are linked to better academic functioning in kids, as well as better adjustment overall. That’s true at every age level, but particularly in adolescents. Fathers, be more than just “fun dad”. Help with homework and projects, use appropriate discipline, and be emotionally available to talk about problems.
5. Deal with anger appropriately.
In their anger and pain, many parents may actively try to keep the other parent out of the children’s lives–even when they are good parents whom the children love. When you’re hurting, it’s easy to think you never want to see your ex again, and to convince yourself it’s best for the kids too. But children need both parents, especially during and after a divorce.
6. Be a good parent.
You can be forgiven for momentarily “losing it” in anger or grief, but not for long. Going through a separation is not a vacation from parenting. Continue providing appropriate discipline, monitoring your children, maintaining your expectations about school, and being emotionally available. Competent parenting is one of the most important protective factors in terms of children’s positive adjustment to separation.
7. Manage your own mental health.
If feelings of depression, anxiety, or anger continue to overwhelm you, seek help. Even a few sessions of therapy can be enormously useful. Remember, your own mental health has a big impact on your children.
8. Keep people your children care about in their lives.
Encourage your children to stay connected to your ex’s family and important friends. If possible, use the same babysitters or childcare. This stable network strengthens a child’s feeling that they are not alone in the world, but have a deep and powerful support system. This is an important factor in becoming a psychologically healthy adult.
9. Be thoughtful about your future love life.
Ask yourself: must your children meet everyone you date? Take time before you remarry or cohabit again. Young children in particular form attachments to your potential life partners, and if new relationships break up, loss after loss may lead to depression and lack of trust in children. And don’t expect your older children to instantly love someone you’ve chosen–this person will have to earn their respect and affection.
10. Pay your child support.
Even if you are angry, or access to your children is withheld, pay child support regularly. Children whose parents separate or divorce face much more economic instability than their married counterparts. Don’t make the situation worse. As in all things, let your message to your kids be that you care so much about them that you will keep them separate, and safe, from any conflict. They will appreciate it as they get older.
*adapted from Dr. Joan B. Kelly