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The Pain of Post-Divorce Parenting

Easing the Pain

Avoid prolonged legal battles

"Lawyers are paid by the hour," says Robert Billingham, PhD, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Indiana University and a divorce researcher. "It's not in their best interest to settle things quickly." Courts often offer free or low-cost mediation, a process in which one lawyer or paralegal works with both parents to settle the details of a divorce. This process allows the couple to peacefully agree on most decisions, such as custody, visitation, and support, rather than leaving these issues up to courts or lawyers. "A lawyer can always look over the agreement to make sure it is fair before you sign," says Harwood.

Keep discussions age-appropriate

What a 3-year-old needs to know about a divorce may be very concrete details, like who is going where, and when he or she will see each parent. A 9-year-old may focus more on why this is happening. Learning about child development and understanding what the child needs to know at each age will help you keep discussions on track, says Swinney.

Watch their behavior

Sometimes your kids will tell you that everything is fine when their behavior tells you it's not, says Harwood. Watch for problems at school, on the playground, and at home. Also beware the child that acts too perfect -- he or she may be thinking if they are "good enough," mom and dad will get back together. Harwood recommends you tell the child's teacher or caregiver that the child is going through a divorce so they don't label the child a "bad kid" when he or she is just acting out appropriately.

Keep your own score

It's so easy to focus on all the things your ex is doing wrong that you overlook what's happening in your own relationship with your child, says Primavera. Remember that you can only control your own actions.

Don't cut off contact

According to Swinney, in one-third of divorces the noncustodial parent either withdraws from his or her child's life or is pushed out by the other parent. In another third, contact with the noncustodial parent is infrequent. Almost never is either scenario better for the child. Children need both of their parents as well as their extended families in their lives, says Swinney. Unless there is physical abuse, mental illness, substance abuse, or severe power imbalances involved, both parents should have open and frequent access to the kids. "And even if there are these issues, in all but the most extreme cases, supervised visitation should still be considered," says Billingham.

Class dismissed

By 12:30, almost everyone in the class is participating in the discussion and looking a little more hopeful than they did when they entered. The focus of the talk has gradually shifted from what the ex-spouse has done to them to what they can do to help their children. As the attendees file out of the room and back to their lives, Swinney and Harwood hope the class -- which is highly rated in post-session evaluations -- has made an impact.

"Divorce is stressful -- it's second on the list [of stressful events], right under death of a spouse or child," says Swinney. "The most important thing to remember is that you don't have to go through it alone. Reach out to the resources, books, and programs available. Divorce doesn't have to destroy your life -- or your child's."

Michele Bloomquist is a freelance writer based in Brush Prairie, Wash. She writes frequently about many health topics including parenting, pregnancy, and emotional health.

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