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Parenting During Divorce: Self-Awareness is Key

By Mary Ellen Sofield, MA

The welfare of their children is of paramount importance to divorcing parents. They want to know what to do for the children to lessen the impact of the divorce on them. They want to know how to reduce the chances that their children will suffer negative consequences. The parents’ intentions are admirable, but the follow-through is often compromised.

The factors that compromise the parent’s best intentions to shield their children from harm are varied. Often, the parent is just unaware that decisions they are making, information they are sharing with their children, overheard conversations they are having on the telephone, and criticism about the other parent will negatively impact the children. Just being unaware that what the parent is saying to the children or what the children are overhearing the parent say to someone else is potent and harmful.

Children misunderstand. They incorrectly interpret. They can use bits and pieces of information that they hear and can’t completely process to blame themselves or blame one or both parents. They can become confused, resentful and fearful.

The best way to protect children during and after divorce is to have the parents not only become educated about what is harmful to children, but to raise their level of awareness of their own behavior. Listening to advice from professionals is important, but parents have to regularly put it into practice at home. At a time in the life of the parent that can be extremely stressful emotionally, financially, spiritually, mentally, and physically, the parent is still called upon to remain vigilant around the children. There will be times that this seems almost impossible. Even though parents will have weak moments and will not do this perfectly, it is surely the daily goal toward which parents should strive.

Parents letting down their guard can happen easily. A teenager may tell her mom, “I hate Dad. He told me he’d be at my game and he didn’t come again.” Mom might want to commiserate by saying, “Welcome to my world. He never does what he says he’s going to do.” Reinforcing the daughter’s feeling that her Dad doesn’t care is not helpful. Rather than fueling her angry feelings, Mom might say, “I know you feel hurt and angry. I think it’s really important that you tell your Dad how you feel.” With this response, Mom is acknowledging her daughter’s feelings without interjecting her own angry feelings, and she is offering a suggestion that could improve her daughter’s relationship with her father. With the latter answer Mom is aware that expressing her own angry feelings toward her ex-husband might be satisfying in the moment, but would only be divisive. Instead, she is able to remain focused on how to help her daughter.

It is much easier for parents to see that they should not confide in their young children, but when the children are teenagers, it can become more difficult. Teenagers are filled with opinions, opinions that are black and white, often taking sides. Maybe the teenager is opinionated about the divorce and is expressing negative opinions about Mom that Dad shares. In this case, the son may be bigger and taller than Dad, sounding so sure of his opinions, sounding so supportive of Dad, and seeming so mature. It could be tempting for the Dad to talk openly and honestly with his son, instead he should stop and be aware that it is inappropriate to confide in his son. Dad should confide his feelings to a peer, another adult, a friend, a pastor, or a counselor. Confiding more information to his son will only further divide mother and son. Dad must remember that what is best for his son is for his son to maintain a healthy and loving relationship with his mother. Dad might advise his son, “I know you have strong feelings about what’s happening and you think it’s your mother’s fault, but what’s happening is between your mother and me. I don’t want you to get in the middle of it. Your mother loves you and I do too. You don’t have to prove you love me by taking sides.” Dad might be very angry with his soon-to-be-ex, but he knows that his son will be harmed by taking sides.

Parents must keep their goals in mind even when they are exhausted, frustrated, angry, sad, depleted, and overburdened by work, finances, and a flat tire. Children need a leader, especially during divorce. A parent must speak well of the other parent and encourage a loving relationship between the children and their mother or father. Parents must encourage children to talk freely about their feelings, but stop them from getting into the middle of the divorce or the circumstances that brought it about. Parents must protect their children from overhearing phone calls in which they are blowing off steam to a friend or arguing with the other parent. Parents must be aware of their own behavior and what it is communicating to their children. Yes, it’s difficult. It will be even more difficult if one parent strives toward these goals and the other does not. Some days it will seem to be near impossible, yet that is what children need to be healthy. It is an honorable goal, and self-awareness is key.

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