The Pain of Post-Divorce Parenting

Easing the Pain

Medically Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD
7 min read

Feb. 26, 2001 -- It's 9:30 on a Saturday morning, and it's painfully obvious that most of the 20 people sitting in the bright orange chairs of the cavernous jury room at the Multnomah County Courthouse in Portland, Ore., would rather be anywhere but here. The crossed arms and hostile body language of many of the seven men and 13 women says it all -- I'm only here because I have to be.

This morning, they are sitting in a three-hour parenting class that the state of Oregon requires every divorcing couple with children to attend before their divorce can become final. Three couples attend together; the rest are solo. Some of those here are leaving their marriages. Some have been left. Still others have mutually agreed to the split. The common thread: They all have children under age 18.

Leading the class are Judith Swinney, an attorney who specializes in parenting issues, and Mark Harwood, a divorced dad who works with juvenile offenders. Swinney begins: "Did you know that 50% of all first marriages end in divorce?" A few heads nod at the oft-heard statistic. "And that 60% to 75% of second marriages do as well? Or that over one million children are affected by divorce each year, and as many as half of them will suffer long-term emotional problems?" A few arms unfold; some people lean forward to listen. Then Harwood adds how more often than not, the juvenile offenders he sees are kids of divorce. These are some pretty grim statistics to hear on a Saturday morning. Then, offering a glimmer of hope, Harwood says, "But it doesn't have to be that way.

Recent research has directed much attention to the effects of divorce on children. Some researchers, like California psychologist and author Judith S. Wallerstein, PhD, say children of divorce will be negatively affected for life, more likely to get in trouble, use alcohol or drugs, and to have troubled relationships as adults. Others, like divorce researcher and psychologist Judith Primavera, PhD, of Fairfield University in Connecticut, say divorce isn't a life sentence for kids.

What makes the difference? Surprisingly, it may be how the parents act after the divorce, Primavera tells WebMD, that determines whether a child succeeds or fails.

While there is no way to completely shield a child from the impact of divorce, there are things parents can do to help them get through it successfully. Swinney, Harwood, and others offer the following advice.

"If you don't heal, your kids can't either," says Swinney. Whether you talk about your pain, anger, and disappointment with a friend, family member, clergy, or counselor, working through your own grief in a positive way shows your children that they can, too.

It's not divorce that hurts the children as much as the ongoing conflict, says Primavera. "The conflict needs to end with the divorce," she says. If there is a chance you and your spouse will argue when you talk, make sure it happens out of the kids' earshot. If fights often occur when making a visitation handover, arrange for just one parent to pick up the kids at a neutral place like at school or at daycare instead.

"You don't have to like your ex-spouse, but you do have to find a way to work with them when it comes to the children," says Swinney. She suggests trying to view the relationship on a business level rather than as a love or hate relationship, with the business being to raise secure, emotionally stable, and happy children.

This is one of the most common slips parents and extended family make, says Swinney. But when you say, "Your dad is a loser," the message your kids may get is, "that makes you half loser, too." It's emotionally important for children to believe their parents are both good people, even if they aren't perfect. They'll see the flaws for themselves when they are mature enough to handle that information.

Another common mistake parents make is trying to find out about the other parent through the child. When you ask, "How was the weekend at mom's/dad's?" make sure your motivation is to hear about the child's visit, not to find out about your ex's love life. "Children are very perceptive and they know the difference," says Swinney. The unintended message the child gets is, "I don't care about what is happening in your life as much as I care about what your mother/father is doing."

Talking to your kids about some details of the divorce is necessary, but avoid leaning on them for emotional support - even if they don't seem to mind. "Kids just don't know what to do with that information," says Harwood. Instead, focus on being there to listen to their feelings, but find another adult to talk to about your own.

"Your child is your best resource," says Jennifer Lewis, MD, co-author of the book Don't Divorce Your Children. Instead of telling children they are not responsible for divorce, ask them if they feel responsible, and then listen to what they say, she tells WebMD. The same goes for requesting their input on visitation schedules and other decisions. Just because you ask doesn't mean you have to agree to every request, but at least the children feel included, and you know what's important to them.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.