Divorce is a fact of our society, but how do we put our children first in divorce? When divorce happens there are no winners and if we’re not careful, the losers are the children of divorce.
Most would agree that we should put children first in divorce, but this is not how it usually plays out. Divorce is often ugly, angry and hostile and even at the best of times can be full of sadness and longing for what might have been. These emotions and the actions that accompany them cannot help but filter into the children who are in close proximity. While divorce is not their fault, they often end up wearing the baggage from this ended relationship and carrying it into the future.
We know that 43% of Australian marriages fail. In 2013, the nation recorded about 47,600 divorces. A little less than half those divorces involved children – and a quarter of those occurred when the youngest child was aged between four and six. Those figures don’t take into account the countless separations between parents who never married. Less than half of today’s children will celebrate their 16th birthday with their parents still together – this is our hard reality.
While parenting is still a challenge even when we’re not in the midst of a divorce, it’s often easier to put our children first in divorce when we don’t have the overwhelming and volatile emotions that accompany a divorce. “There’s a lot of research that shows diminished parental awareness in the months and even years after separation,” says child psychologist and researcher Dr Jennifer McIntosh. “Many parents are very preoccupied and stressed. They’ve just lost their own attachment figure and there’s a lot of sadness and anger and, for a certain percentage, there’s fear.”
While their parents’ separation will always be an enormous loss for children, McIntosh says the idea that it’s inevitably harmful is not one she agrees with. “There are a minority, but an important minority, of children who do better after their parents separate,” she says. “They are free from toxic levels of difficulty between their parents and they can begin to thrive in a better environment.” What it boils down to is the amount of acrimony and conflict that accompanies the split.
“Conflict for me is the behavioural manifestation of parents’ contempt, mistrust or disregard for one another,” McIntosh says. Children know when their surroundings are charged with rancour. Even babies pick up on a mood, and soak up contempt in the atmosphere the way a passive smoker inhales toxins. “I think the parents who do well, who create an environment for children to thrive after separation, are those who move on through the emotions and let the toxic ones go,” McIntosh says.
Putting Children First In Divorce: Choosing to Be the Best
There is always some level of resentment in a divorce, but the adults need to learn how to deal with their issues in a constructive way so that children are being put first in the process. Although it’s not always the case, it’s best for a parent to assume the best of their ex – even when they might bring the children home late or change a schedule at the last minute. Squabbling for the sake of it is not beneficial to anyone.
So – parents who choose to dissolve their marriage rather than battle it out until the bitter end are creating a much smoother path for their children who will find the changing circumstances hard enough. Mediation is much more conducive to parents being able to put their children’s needs first which is where Australia is leading the way on the world stage when it comes to promoting a divorce style that is more likely to benefit children. Although it’s the compulsory first course of action for those wanting to divorce under Australian law, there is still a good attitude required to make it work, otherwise litigation is likely.
Business Partners, Not Enemies
Dr Robert Emery is an American divorce researcher, therapist and mediator. He says, “I don’t expect anyone to be friends in the middle of a breakup. Parents parting ways don’t have a relationship to resolve – they have a job to do. If you treat your ex more like a business partner, you can avoid a lot of conflict and give both of you some time to heal. After time, maybe you’ll become friendlier, maybe not. That’s not the goal, really. The goal is raising children who are happy and secure in both their parents’ love.”
A parenting arrangement really should be thought of as a children’s plan. When we put children first in divorce, we plan how to look after them separately, together. Virginia Satir, a well-known psychologist in the family and divorce field, once said, “Parents are teachers of human beings, not owners of human beings.” We don’t want the attitude of ‘winning’ custody, as though our children were the grand prize on a pedestal. They are small people with big feelings.
Here are some tips for peace from Dr Robert Emery:
Love means more than money
Your time, attention and emotional presence are more important to your children than gifts.
It’s not about winning
A divorce is not a competition with your ex or for your children. Encourage your kids to have fun with their other parent.
Get into the spirit of a new start
It’s time for giving, forgiving, and fresh starts. Try to let go of anger and treasure all you have – despite what you may have lost.
Communicate and coordinate with your children’s other parent
A brief email, telephone message, or conversation can reduce the risk of confusion for everyone, including the kids.
Do the details
Work out exactly where your children will be during what times, and when, where, and how exchanges will take place.
Set up a plan for the next holiday season now
If you went through the agony of 11th-hour negotiations previously, be better prepared for holidays next time. Get extended family involved in the planning too.
Maintain family traditions with your children
Rituals may change with circumstances, but preserve the familiar where and when you can.
Putting children first in divorce is not only beneficial to them, but also to those who are divorcing. Being able to focus outwardly can sometimes help us to take a better stock of what’s going on inwardly. We not only help our children to grow and move on, it can help us as well.
If you would like to speak to one of our experienced family lawyers, please contact us today. They are skilled at mediation and helping divorcing couples to develop parenting arrangements with children as the focus. We offer a free, 10-minute phone consultation.