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Ask Dr. Mike: Co-Parenting Through Divorce and Toward Two Happy Homes

Dr. Oberschneider is the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services in Ashburn. Send questions to moberschneider@hotmail.com.
Dr. Oberschneider is the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services in Ashburn. Send questions to moberschneider@hotmail.com.

By Dr. Michael Oberschneider

For many, divorce is an unavoidable reality.  Put plain and simple, some marriages – short or long lived – just don’t work.  Research on divorce has shown infidelity, lack of communication and financial problems to be the top reasons for marriages ending.  Marrying too young, abuse, changing individual needs, sexual problems, psychological/alcohol/drug problems, and differences (e.g., religious and cultural) are some of the other reasons cited in the divorce literature.

Sometimes one spouse wants to call it quits, while other times, both are in agreement that the marriage is over.  But keep in mind that as the divorcing adults, you have many internal resources to wrestle through the emotional loss, adjustment and redefinition that occur during your separation and divorce.  Children and teens, even resilient ones, on the other hand, have fewer emotional resources to call upon during the process.

There is a large body of research to show that children of divorce have higher rates of emotional, behavioral and physical health struggles compared to children of intact families.  Academic and relationship problems also appear to occur at higher rates for divorced children and teens.  But divorce isn’t all bad, and there is even some research to show that children of divorce have greater independence and emotional maturity; the idea being that two happy homes with love, respect and security is better for children socially and emotionally than one home where there is little to no love, respect or security.  

As a psychologist in private practice, I am often perforce in the role of helping children, teens and the involved adults navigate their way through the changes and adjustments associated with separation and divorce.  In my experience, spouses and parents who manage themselves well, both individually and together, end up having fewer problems with their children during separation and after divorce.  My involvement typically becomes more intense and protracted when there is a longstanding and troubled family dynamic and history and/or when divorcing spouses have difficulty working together to positively co-parent their children/teens.  

While each family is unique, and while there isn’t a one size fits all to managing divorce well for one’s children and teens, I’ve provided a few helpful points below for consideration. 

Address the topic of separation and divorce (age appropriately) with your children and teens.  Once you and your spouse decide to separate and divorce, prepare your children.  Be honest and try to answer any questions your children might have for you as best you can.  The initial conversation is best dealt with together as a family, but be prepared for your children to have questions for you later and as the process unfolds.  The tone of the conversation should be supportive, and you should demonstrate and reassure your children of your love for them and for each other (as parents).   Also as parents, you should reassure your children/teens that they did nothing to contribute toward your decision to divorce. 

All children respond differently to the divorce talk; some will deny and minimize the moment and reality, while others will become sad or angry.  Some children and teens will not be surprised by the news and may even welcome it if things have been bad for a while, while others will be shocked and devastated.  Your children’s age and personality style are also factors that will impact how the news is heard and taken, so be sensitive to each child’s individual needs.  Generally, younger children handle emotionally laden information in a more concrete manner, so you should keep the message brief and loving.  Older children and teens may want, and even expect, a more detailed explanation with additional information.  Be careful to keep your message loving and respectful of each other as parents.          

Support your child or teen’s relationship with your spouse.  Except in rare exceptions where your spouse would not be afforded an active relationship with his or her child (e.g, significant abuse or mental illness, etc.), your children/teens have a right to a loving and healthy relationship with both of their parents.  So, remember to separate your feelings from your behaviors for your spouse when it comes to your children.  Regardless of how you might feel about your spouse or the wrongdoing that occurred in your marriage, encouraging and supporting a loving relationship for your children/teens with your spouse is the best thing you can do for them.  Children/teens learn from and identify with their same and opposite sex parents in very important ways that then contributes to who they become, how they feel about themselves and how they have relationships.   

Co-parent with kindness and respect.  Again, regardless of how you feel about your spouse, he or she will likely be a part of your child or teen’s life forever – during his or her life and after in memory.  Fast-forward beyond your divorce, your spouse will be at the same graduations, weddings and family gatherings.  By practicing kindness and respect with your spouse in the presence of your children/teens, you are making the active point that their needs come first and that they do not belong in the middle of your issues.  So, don’t speak badly about your spouse in the presence of your children or teens.      

Avoid blaming, show restraint and present a united front.  Again, keep your children out of the middle.  Even if you feel justified in remaining hurt and/or angry at your spouse, speaking or behaving negatively to him or her will likely only worsen things for your children/teens.  Sometimes children or teens will ally themselves more with one parent over the other during a divorce, but encouraging that to occur will most likely create later problems for all involved.  So, don’t treat your child as a messenger for adult issues, don’t keep secrets with your child that positions you and your child in opposition to your spouse, and don’t have adult conversations or fights in earshot of your child.  Instead, try to be aware of your thoughts and feelings when you are with your spouse and your children/teens inasmuch being united in the service of good co-parenting may not be easy to do initially and for some time.

Cover your co-parenting strategies and assess your bandwidth in advance.  Co-parenting as a concept isn’t static, and its success will determine on how willing and/or able you and your spouse are to work together.  If negative feelings such as distrust, sadness or anger remain, you may only be able to co-parent in very basic ways with your spouse when it comes to visitation, financial issues, medical needs, education and communication.  So, don’t expect too much from yourself or your spouse as you learn to co-parent your children and/or teens as divorced parents.  To facilitate positive change, apologize to your spouse if warranted, ask your spouse for his or her input and opinion and keep a level head.  Over time, the hope would be that you and your spouse are able to put aside your emotions and your issues in the service of parenting your children and/teens where respect, communication, compromise, requests and consistency can be managed together positively.

Get your children help if they need it.  Your child or teen may experience situational anxiety/stress or depression due to the divorce (or other problems), or if he or she may just need someone to discuss things with to deal with the many changes.  You as parents may also benefit from meeting with a therapist who is trained and credentialed in co-parenting work.  This work can be extremely helpful when the marital history or ongoing problems as parents are significant.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself.  They say that divorce is one of the most stressful events to experience, so be good to yourself.  Lean on your family and friends, exercise, eat healthily, set short and long-term goals, don’t drink to excess, and see a therapist if needed.  Adjusting to life after a bad marriage as a family will take time, and there very well will be other changes to come for you and/or your ex (e.g., dating, moving and later blending your family with new partners, remarriage and perhaps stepsiblings).  The sooner you and your spouse can create a framework for yourselves that supports the most important thing in your life – your children and their wellbeing – the better off all will be.

Dr. Oberschneider is the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services in Ashburn. Send questions to moberschneider@hotmail.com.

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