One of the most common questions I am asked when working with families in transition is “Will my children be okay”? The simple answer to this question is that children will be as “okay” as their parents are. Given that recent statistics reflect 40 percent of marriages end in divorce, it is understandable that parents want to insulate their children from the pain associated.
Children look to their parents to figure out how to make sense of what is happening. They become reliant on their parents’ abilities to meet their needs and this does not change because of a divorce. These circumstances should be managed in the same way the loss of oxygen would be on a plane. Put on your oxygen mask before securing your child’s.
So how do parents provide peace, security and predictability to their children when they are in limbo? Developing a healthy support system and ensuring good self-care are primary ingredients. Schedule something every week for yourself. Even if you don’t have a plan for the time, take the time. Transition is a time of healing.
In suggesting healthy support, it is not only that of peers and family, it is also seeking the proper professional support. It is important for your family to receive guidance from trained professionals who specialize in divorce work. Each family has unique needs that should be delicately tended to by a professionals specifically trained to assist families in conflict.
It is quite common that one party has begun to emotionally withdraw from the marriage, while the other feels blindsided. This emotional discrepancy often leads couples right into the heat of conflict. All too often, children find themselves in the line of fire while attempting to take on the pain of their parents.
The biggest predictor of maladjustment in children is exposure to parental conflict. Parents should make a concentrated effort to protect their children from the adult discord. During this difficult time, parents have an opportunity to model for their children how to move through adversity.
The other, and perhaps most important element to allowing children thrive through divorce, is presenting a united front as parents. Parents must work together and reshape their primary relationship from that of spouses to that of parents. Sending “we” messages to children relays a sense of security and value. Unified parenting is essential in allowing children to remain children through the transition.
So what does unified parenting look like? It looks like parents coming together to meet their children’s needs regardless of adult matters. Coming together during difficulties for them, celebrating their accomplishments and not letting it take a crisis for them to see you join forces.
Unified parenting means recognizing that children are in a parent-child relationship, which has very different needs than a spousal relationship. It is setting aside the desire to express your adult perspective to your children, as this only adds anxiety to an already saddening experience. Lastly, it means reflecting upon and working at your contribution to the parenting relationship.
One final note, do not be fooled into thinking that because your children are “adults” that they can tolerate the pain of being injected into adult matters any better than younger children. Maintain healthy boundaries in the parent child relationship. After all, we are all children to our parents and we intrinsically want to feel emotionally safe about where we come from.
Proper support allows parents to focus on redesigning their family. In Family Mediation and Coparent Coaching, parents begin to understand how conflict impacts their children and they gain tools to navigate the road ahead. Having a map can be very helpful and should encompass everything from how to talk with your children about the divorce to the development of a customized shared parenting plan.
Melissa Sulkowski is a trained Family Mediator and Divorce Coach specializing in conflict work. She has worked in private practice for nearly 17 years and holds licenses as a Professional Counselor and Registered Nurse.