Nobody ever wants to go through a divorce. It’s not something you plan on when you exchange vows at the alter. But nonetheless, divorce happens. And if you have kids, it can get messy.
But some divorces are much smoother and less chaotic than others. Thus, there’s hope in the midst of this challenge. And if you have children, you owe it to them to do everything within your power to shelter them from the harsh realities of marital separation. This starts with prioritizing their emotional well-being and needs.
Understanding the Impact of Divorce on Children
Each year, an estimated 1.5 million American children are exposed firsthand to a divorce. And, unfortunately, they often catch the raw end of what’s typically a troublesome process. The effects can include any or all of the following negative impacts:
· Children often struggle to understand why they must bounce between homes, while all of their friends live in one house.
· Young children may be fearful that their parents will stop loving them.
· Some grade school children and/or teenagers may feel guilty for the divorce – pinning some of the blame on themselves.
· The stress of moving homes, switching schools, and getting caught in the middle of arguments can create negative consequences and long-term anxiety issues
· Divorce often plays a role in increased behavioral problems and poor academic performance.
· A divorce can trigger an adjustment disorder in children, which may expose them to a greater risk for mental health problems (including depression and anxiety).
· According to one study, children whose parents divorced when they were 5 years of age or younger faced a higher risk of becoming sexually active prior to the age of 16. These children are also more likely to drink alcohol earlier and report drug and tobacco use (when compared to peers).
Every child is different, but these are a few of the common trends researchers and psychologists see in children with divorced parents. Understanding what’s at stake will help you make better decisions in your own divorce.
6 Ways You Can Prioritize Your Kids in a Divorce
Clearly, you love your children and want what’s best for them. But there’s a difference between understanding the need to prioritize their best interests and actually doing it. Here are some specific ways you can do so:
1. Put Aside Your Differences
No matter how angry or bitter you are with your spouse, you have to put aside your differences when working with your children. Feel free to yell and scream as much as you want about issues that don’t involve the kids (and only when the kids aren’t present), but you should be calm and collected when it comes to matters involving parenting.
Co-parenting is the gold standard of custody arrangements. If you can both spend time with your children – separately and together – this is ideal. It helps them feel better connected and strengthens feelings of oneness.
2. Maintain Routines
Children thrive on routines. They help keep order and structure in a family. And whether you realize it or not, you have daily habits and routines that your children rely on.
It’s highly recommended that you maintain routines during and after a divorce. This may look like waking up at the same time, keeping a similar bedtime routine, or maintaining the same after school activities.
3. Keep the House
A house is more than a physical structure, especially to a child. It represents stability, safety, comfort, and normalcy. Unfortunately, divorce often has a way of disbanding the home – both symbolically and practically.
If you and your spouse own a house together, you have some basic options in a divorce. You can sell the house and allocate the profits; buyout and refinance; stay on the mortgage, but move out; or try nesting (living as roommates and co-parenting).
If at all possible, you should choose an option that allows the children to remain in the house – either full-time or part-time. Much like maintaining certain routines, this helps establish some continuity for kids.
4. Eliminate Choices
Part of keeping children out of divorce conflict means not forcing them to make choices. In other words, children – particularly young children – should never be asked for their preference on which parent to live with (or even simple things like whose vehicle to ride in or where to spend the holidays).
Asking children to make decisions puts them in a bad position. It requires them to choose one parent and take sides. This is not something a child should ever be required to do. Let them have a voice, but don’t present them with specific questions and options.
5. Treat Your Child Like a Child
Your child isn’t a therapist. Whatever you do, do not use your child as a sounding board. It doesn’t matter if your kid is 6 or 16 – unnecessarily involving them in your emotional drama is a recipe for disaster. You can find someone else to shoulder this burden with you.
6. Be Cautious With Dating
You may eventually decide to date again – and that’s fine. But be very careful about how you date and what you expose your children to.
Your kids don’t need to meet every person you go on a date with. Parading them around the home only creates confusion (especially for young kids). Wait until you’ve been together for a few months before introducing your new partner. And even then, they should only be around for a couple of hours at a time.
This Isn’t About You
Sorry to put it so bluntly, but your divorce isn’t about you. You’re an adult with a fully developed brain and the capacity to care for yourself. No matter how raw and painful things are today, you’ll eventually recover. You might even find someone else to settle down with and hit the restart button. The same can’t be said of your kids.
Kids have underdeveloped brains and a limited capacity for embracing change. Furthermore, they’ll only ever have one biological mother and one biological father. A divorce is something that permanently impacts their lives – well into adulthood.
It’s important that you put your kids first. They deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, and care. Prioritizing their physical needs and emotional well-being is the best path forward for everyone.