Best Practices for Divorce When Kids Are Involved

An Interview with Christina McGhee

By Evangelia Biddy

Even in divorce children deserve nothing less than the very best we have to offer them. Divorce is equally hard on parents and their children. But family separation does not have to doom children to negative outcomes, poor self self-esteem, academic decline, or a lifetime of social and marital dysfunction. Divorce coach, parent educator and the author of Parenting Apart: How Separated and Divorced Parents Can Raise Happy and Secure Kids, Christina McGhee, shares best practices for navigating some very complex waters and helping young people continue to thrive when mom and dad are no longer living together.

EB: You speak highly of a concise co-parenting plan. What are some components of a successful co-parenting plan? Why is such a plan important?

CM: The first step in creating a successful co-parenting plan actually involves shaping your perspective about your post-divorce parenting relationship. While you are no longer a couple you will always be mom and dad. In Parenting Apart, I encourage parents to begin this process by creating a guiding principle. In short, a guiding principle is a simple one-sentence statement that reflects your highest values as parents. It involves developing a vision that places the focus of your parenting relationship on the needs of children and expresses how you will successfully parent your children together while living apart.

Unfortunately, too many parents get caught in the trap of taking a cookie cutter approach when designing a co-parenting plan. Instead of customizing a plan that meets the needs of their children, parents try to mold their children’s lives to fit someone else’s preconceived idea of post divorce life. Some parents focus on trying to keep things ”fair” and use time-sharing arrangements that are based on a 50/50 model. Others make the mistake of relying on court-based guidelines, which rarely support both parents as an active presence in children’s lives.

It’s important for parents to remember that every situation is different. What works for one family may not work for your family. Children benefit most when parents are able to set their personal agendas aside, work collaboratively, identify common ground and be creative in redesigning life.

Components of a successful parenting plan include successfully promoting a two home concept. This means children are able to be a connected and active part of each household regardless of how time is spent between mom and dad’s homes. A successful plan should involve focusing on children’s needs instead of what feels fair to each parent and developing arrangements and schedules that support parenting as a shared responsibility. This plan should be designed based on the realities of the child’s day-to-day needs instead of some court’s pre-scripted guidelines. Finally, the plan should be well-structured and stable, while offering an appropriate degree of flexibility as the needs of children change over time.

A good co-parenting plan is critical because it optimizes opportunities for children and paves the way for a more successful transition to their new life. When divorce occurs, children naturally feel very vulnerable and insecure. Post divorce life is a drastic change, leaving children feeling uncertain about the future. Establishing a good parenting plan sends a clear message to children that life will go on. By developing a positive co-parenting relationship in the beginning stages, parents are better able to shield children from unnecessary tension and create an environment that helps children feel secure and safe.

EB: What are some of the biggest mistakes divorcing parents make during the separation process? How can these pitfalls be avoided?

CM: The biggest and most common mistakes parents can make during the separation process are to ignore or mismanage their feelings, allow divorce to take over their lives, divert energy into trying to change or control the other parent, and badmouthing one another and exposing young children to adult conflicts.

The best strategies for side stepping these pitfalls is to engage in good self-care early on.  While it may seem counterintuitive, when parents are paying attention to their own needs they are actually better able to support their children. This is especially important when it comes to the emotional aspects of divorce. Parents who are managing their feelings in healthy ways are less likely to expose their children to conflict, better able to shield them from adult issues and able to keep their comments about the other parent in check.

Self-care also helps parents keep life balanced for themselves and their children.  Instead of trying to go it alone and allowing divorce drama to take over their lives, parents with a higher degree of self awareness realize the value of creating a healthy supportive network for their family.

Additionally, I encourage parents to stay focused on what they can control instead of expending energy into trying to fix, change or control the other parent. To gain some perspective when issues come up between households I suggest parents ask themselves, “What difference will this issue make one year from now?” If a parent is having trouble redirecting their focus, it may help to think about how you would handle the situation if your ex wasn’t part of the equation. What could you do differently to make things better for your kids?”

EB:  Are teens affected by divorce in a way that younger children are not?

CM: There are a number of ways that a teen’s divorce experience differs from how younger children are impacted by divorce. Older children tend to be at greater risk for getting placed in adult roles and drawn into the middle of adult conflicts. It’s not uncommon for parents to think because teens are older that they should hear “their side of the story” or that “they should know the truth about why things didn’t work out.” This puts teens in the position of either becoming a confidante or feeling responsible for an emotionally vulnerable parent. Due to the strong feelings parents have towards one another, teens can easily become burdened with unhealthy roles such as negotiating conflicts, becoming decision makers about parenting issues, having to judge who is right and who is wrong or communicating important information between households.

EB: Please share some best practices for communicating with the other parent.

CM: When emotions are strong it can be hugely challenging to maintain a civil and focused conversation with someone you no longer want to be married to. Some best practices for communicating with the other parent involve planning for success. When possible, avoid having impulsive conversations with your ex. If you know an issue has potential to develop into a full blown screaming match, plan ahead and think about how you can take another “less confrontational” approach. If you are caught off guard by your ex ask to table a discussion or issue. Give yourself some time to think it through or sort it out with a trusted friend before you revisit the issue.

Next, try conducting yourself like a professional. Treat it like a business. Almost everyone has had to work with someone they don’t like very much. Think about how you make those situations work. Most parents can apply the same skills to developing a working relationship with their ex. Stick to the task at hand, don’t make it personal, define common ground, stay respectful, keep your eye on the bigger picture and be prepared to compromise.

Adjusting your expectations or perspective is always helpful. While it may not seem like a big deal, sometimes just changing your attitude can make a huge difference in how you communicate with your ex. Next time you see your ex’s number on your caller id, instead of saying to yourself “Now what?” take a deep breath and say to yourself “I can handle this.” Then approach the call as if you were talking to some other neutral person such as a teacher, grandparent or coach.

My best advice is to be careful how you use transitional periods to address complex issues. Never use pickup and drop off times to discuss parenting issues or concerns. As a general rule of thumb I recommend that parents not use exchanges or handovers as a time to share information or discuss parenting issues. Usually these transitions are very emotional for both parents and kids, especially in the beginning stages.  It also always opens the door to exposing children to adult information and possible disagreements. Make sure to set aside time away from listening ears to address child/divorce related issues. If a face to face meeting is a must, then consider meeting in a neutral location like a local coffee shop or restaurant to help keep things amiable.

 

EB: You say don’t lose sight of the fact that children are still children. What do you mean by that?

CM: There are lots of different ways divorced or separated parents can easily end up placing the burden of adult decisions or responsibilities on their children. Even well intentioned parents can lose sight of how their actions are impacting their kids. When parents are not managing divorce well, for example, not taking care of their emotional needs, children may feel a strong sense of responsibility to be a parent’s protector or caretaker. Especially if they view that parent as emotionally vulnerable.  Another example is when parents hand adult decisions over to children such as asking children to choose who they want to live with or how much time they should spend at each home.  While taking children’s feelings and opinions into consideration is important, parents should still be decision makers.

EB: You address some not-so-obvious ways parents can devalue each other. Can you share what you commonly see in your work?

CM: One of the most frequent issues I see involves parents digging in their heels and not sharing information with the other household. Usually I hear “If my child wants them to know about their soccer game then they’ll tell them” or “It’s not my responsibly to keep my ex in the loop, we’re not married anymore.” When a parent neglects to include the other parent in important events they are sending a subtle yet strong message to kids that the other parent isn’t valued or wanted. To help parents gain perspective on this issue I usually ask them… “If you were still married how would you handle sharing information about Sally’s recital?” or “If it were someone else in the family, like Grandma,  what would you do?  Chances are most parents would handle it very differently.

The other huge issue I see is not including the other parent in important decisions.  Many of the parents I work with are parents who feel frustrated about getting cut out of the picture.  They typically feel very helpless and are put in a position of having to rely on second hand information from their children.
EB: Can you offer some tips for supporting your child’s relationship with your ex?

CM: My advice here is the most basic and sometimes the hardest to follow. First, both parents must support a two-home living concept. No matter how the marriage ended or who was to blame, both parents must commit to speaking positively about the other parent. It is important to include the other parent in important events and decisions as they impact the children. Respect must to given for other parent’s household rules and authority even if it’s not the same as yours. It goes without saying that children should be helped to honor their other parent on special occasions such as holidays, birthdays, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Finally, and this is the one that I see most newly divorced parents struggling with: Both parents should genuinely show interest when the child talks about their other home, activities in their other home and the pleasure they have spending time with the other parent.


EB: Please share some best practices for helping children adjust to life in two different homes.

CM: First, ditch the suitcase. It sends all the wrong messages to young children. To avoid some of this transitional stress, consider having two sets of everyday items in both homes. Pajamas, extra clothes, toiletry items, assorted toys and games, even car seats and strollers should be available in both homes so that young children have what they need no matter whose home they find themselves in for the night. If it is too expensive to purchase two of something, do your best to plan ahead and make sure those items are ready for pickups and drop-offs.

Children should have space in each home. Even though children may not live with you full time, make sure they have a special space where they can keep their things and find them when they are with you. This is especially important if there are additional children from a new relationship present.

Maintaining clear rules and expectations is important during this transitional period. If you and your ex have different rules, remember that your children will most likely need ongoing reminders about the rules in their different homes. Stay consistent and consider using charts or posted reminders to help kids remember what you expect of them.

Finally, it is imperative to help young children manage their schedules. It is equally important for parents to honor the established routines of their children. Sports, civic commitments, and friends may be valuable, stable resources to young people when their parents are divorcing. You can help ease transitional stress for your children by providing them with tangible ways to track time between homes. Consider using color coded calendars for younger children or maintaining an online app for older children.

Evangelia Biddy, Editor-in-Chief of Junior, The Magazine about Bringing up Successful Boys, is also a contributor to Raising Boys World, an expert for Bizymoms.com,  and an educational consultant. She can be reached at ebiddy@juniorthemagazine.com

 

 

 

International divorce coach and parent educator Christina McGhee has dedicated her career to speaking on behalf of children of divorce by training both parents and professionals around the world. Determined to make information more accessible to separating families, she has also created practical and relevant resources including the award winning children’s DVD program Lemons 2 Lemonade: How to handle life when things go sour between Mom and Dad and the parenting booklet Separate Yet Successful: Restructuring family life when parents part. Parents can also find timely tips and information on her website and blog at www.divorceandchildren.com.

Enhanced by Zemanta

One Response to “Best Practices for Divorce When Kids Are Involved”

Renee says:

Interesting article, and many good points. My parents divorced after 35 years of marriage whe. I was 34 years old and I was amazed by how difficult it was for me to deal with. I found myself feeling so many things that young children feel but had no idea what to do or who to talk to because I was just expected to handle it because I was an adult. Divorce rocks the world of children no matter what their age.

Leave a Reply