“Will divorce damage my kids?”
As a therapist, this is a common concern I hear amongst people considering, in the midst of, or post-divorce. While divorce is no small thing to children, the short answer is no, it doesn’t need to irreparably damage them as long as you choose your language and actions carefully.
If you’re reading this, I know you care deeply about protecting your children. But no matter how pure the intentions, I see newly divorced parents making the same mistake over and over again, and I want to help you avoid making it, too.
The most damaging mistake divorced parents make
One of the most emotionally damaging things you could do to your children is talk badly about their other parent in front of them (or allow others to do so).
Disparaging the other parent could be subtle or it could be blatant. For example, let’s say one parent is upset with the other and decides to withhold the child entirely. This causes pain and confusion to the child and the attachment relationship. Or, the parent exchanging the child hangs on too long, has a pained expression, or speaks in a harsh or strained voice. All of these behaviors, while seemingly insignificant, are microaggressions toward the other parent that hurt the child. Even if you were deeply hurt in the breakup, your child doesn’t deserve you taking your pain and anger out on the other parent through them.
Regardless of personal feelings toward your ex, your child shares 50% of their DNA with them. They love and see themselves through both of you, no matter how badly you wish that weren’t true. Both parents help a child shape their identity, and many of you who are children of divorced parents will probably be able to relate. So when you talk down on the other parent or allow others to do so in front of your child, they take it personally. You are contributing to the one thing you feared the most: damaging your child and their sense of identity.
I spent my early years as a therapist working mostly with children, of whom roughly 80% had divorced parents. What I saw was fascinating: no matter how terrible one or both of their parents’ actions were, they still loved them and longed to be with them. They had a hard time understanding why one parent did what they did, and worried if because mommy or daddy was a “bad person” (or whatever the other parent or others said about the parent of concern), did that mean they were “bad” too?
In a typical divorce situation, both parents are capable and able to parent – even if their style looks different than yours. Children actually benefit from the healthy yet different styles of both parents. (Note: The exception to this is a situation in which one of the parents is abusive or unsafe. That must be dealt with differently, and I suggest establishing a relationship for your child with a therapist where the provider can guide you on how to manage such a situation).
In a “typical” situation, here are some tips you can use to protect your child from being damaged or traumatized by the divorce, and to maintain a healthy and happy relationship with both parents.
1. Understand that your child identifies with the other parent.
Keep from saying anything negative or degrading about the other parent, no matter what. Even if you don’t think your child will understand, set healthy habits early.
2. Accept that your relationship with your ex is not the same as your child’s.
Your child and their other parent still love each other and want to be together, no matter how you personally feel about your ex. It’s often difficult and uncomfortable, but commit to working on forgiveness and deep healing.
3. Aim to have positive communication with your ex.
How well you’re able to stay child-focused and co-parent with your ex will increase your chances of your child growing up emotionally healthy.
4. Be aware of your body language during child exchanges with your ex.
Give your child a hug and kiss, and don’t cling to them. Encourage them toward the other parent, just like you would when you were together as a couple. Say something encouraging, like: “Have a fun weekend with mommy” or “Enjoy your time with daddy”.
5. Let your child be when they’re with the other parent.
A brief good night call or text message is fine, however, trying to hold them hostage on the phone with you during off-parenting time only causes stress. Both parents should agree that the child is free to reach out to the other parent when the child desires.
6. Refrain from quizzing your child about their time with the other parent.
Bombarding your child with questions can cause a great deal of anxiety. When they feel safe with you, they will naturally share information. An example of a gentle, welcoming statement is: “It’s good to see you. How are you doing?” Another reasonable question, in a positive tone of voice, might be: “Was there anything interesting or exciting you’d like to share?” Then, accept whatever answer they give. You might be surprised when they share something about their time with the other parent several days later. If it’s positive, smile and make a positive comment. These moments are good for your child.
7. What do I do if my child shares something I find concerning?
Hear them out and ask if there’s anything else they’d like to share. Then have a direct conversation with the other parent about it when the child is not around.
8. When in doubt, abide by the Golden Rule.
Co-parenting can be difficult at times and you may make mistakes, but always try to do unto others as you would have done unto you. When you use this filter, your fears around damage to your children will be diminished. As a bonus, you’ll be teaching and fostering trust and healthy communication with your child, which will grow and benefit your relationship.
Remember: these tips only apply to unrestricted, healthy parents. If issues of safety arise, seek professional counsel.