When parents go through a divorce, children’s psychological needs greatly increase as they live in the middle of an emotional (and perhaps economic) roller coaster filled with guilt, fear and confusion. In Family First: Your Step-by-Step Plan for Creating a Phenomenal Family, Dr. Phil explains the most profound needs of children during this challenging time:
This will be a child’s greatest need because their self-concept is very likely in a fragile and formative stage, especially if they are at a young age. They will try to gain approval because their sense of belonging to the family has been shattered. Children also tend to personalize things and blame themselves, which is another reason they need acceptance. Let them know that they are important, that they are a priority.
Assurance of safety
Parents need to go beyond normal efforts to assure their children that although the family has fragmented, their protection is solid. The key is to maintain a normal pace, boundaries and routines. They need to know that their world is predictable and that it’s not going to change on them.
Children often shoulder the blame for the dissolution of a marriage. They personalize their part in the divorce, so they might think: “If only I didn’t make so much noise. If only I didn’t ask for new shoes …” They may think it’s their fault or that somehow they are being punished for their parents’ breakup. Be conscious of this and assure your children they’re blameless.
With the loss of a family leader from the home, children will check and test for structure, so be sure to give it to them. They need structure more than any other time in their lives, because this is when things seem to be falling apart for them. Enforce discipline consistently and with the right currency for good behavior. They need to see that the world keeps going, and they’re still an integral part of what’s going on.
A stable parent who has the strength to conduct business
Whether or not you feel brave and strong, you have to appear to be the best for your children. They’re worried about you and about your partner, especially if there’s an apparent crisis. Do everything possible to assure them of your strength, and in doing so, you make it possible for them to relax. Show yourself to be a person of strength and resilience.
Let kids be kids
Children should not be given the job of healing your pain. Too often, children serve either as armor or as saviors for their parents in crisis. They don’t need to be dealing with adult issues, and should not know too much about what’s going on between you and your ex-spouse.
There are two primary rules to follow, especially during times of crisis and instability in your family:
1. Do not burden your children with situations they cannot control. Children should not bear such a responsibility. It will promote feelings of helplessness and insecurity, causing them to question their own strengths and abilities.
2. Do not ask your children to deal with adult issues. Children are not equipped to understand adult problems. Their focus should be on navigating the various child development stages they go through.
Making the decision to divorce your partner is not something that should be done lightly, especially when there are children involved. On the other hand, unhappy couples should not stay together solely for the sake of the children. If you and your spouse have exhausted all efforts to rehabilitate your relationship and decided that divorce is the right choice for you, Dr. Phil has this advice:
Put your children’s needs first.
You have a responsibility to your children to do everything you can to ensure that the divorce doesn’t leave permanent scars. Children don’t have the voice and ability to tell you what they think, so it is important to make their best interest your best interest. Take an honest look at yourself and what you’re doing to impact your children. Tell them that they are priority number one: “You’re the most important. You are first in everything we think and do, and we’re going to take care of you.”
Create a new relationship with your ex-spouse.
Don’t think of the divorce as ending the relationship with your ex-husband or ex-wife. Instead, think of it as starting a new one. Your new relationship as divorced parents involves being co-allies, nurturers and protectors of your children. Consider going to post-marital counseling, where you can create a parenting plan and resolve your differences, so you can clearly see what is in the best interest of your children. Find a way to make your children feel that everywhere they turn they see love, support and appreciation.
Communicate clearly with your children.
If communication is vague, children fill in the blanks to the detriment of themselves. They will blame themselves and think that it’s their fault that things have happened. Children can take anything and personalize it. For example, they’ll hear Mom and Dad fighting about money, and they’ll go in their room and say, “Oh, my gosh, I needed $20 yesterday for the school lunches. And if I didn’t eat all the time, maybe they wouldn’t be fighting.”
Don’t put your kids in the middle.
Resolve that there is not going to be a tug- of-war. Don’t put the children in between you and your ex and start pulling on them for their allegiance. Don’t use your children as pawns to find out about the other person or get back at your ex.
Fight in private.
Parents must stop the right-fighting and make a plan to help their children make it through the transition with as little trauma as possible. The kids don’t care who’s right; They want you to shut up! If parents are filled with bitterness and angst and resentment, then their children are going to get pulled back and forth, and that’s not right or fair to them.
Never undermine the other parent.
Don’t attack or criticize your ex in front of the children. Take the high ground and put the children above all of your personal wants and needs. If you behave in such a way as to alienate your child’s mother or father from them, they will resent you for it. The day will come when they will say, “You ran your own agenda and it cost us our mother/father.” You may feel like you might win at the time, but in the long term, they will resent you.
Communicate with your ex regarding child rearing decisions.
Make joint decisions about your children’s wellbeing. Don’t let the children divide you even further by manipulating the parent who is more lenient, etc.
Decide that your children will not come from a broken home; they are just going to have two homes.
Each parent should set up a home in which the children have a bedroom, toys to play with and space to be kids. Make sure the children feel at home in both places.
No matter how much you hate your ex, if you’ve got kids together then you need to find a way to get along as co-parents.
“You have a lot of divorces that get acrimony and finger-pointing back and forth, but at some point you hope that the parents become fiduciaries and put the child’s best interest above their own agenda,” Dr. Phil tells his guests, Shawn and Kayla, who are in the middle of a heated custody battle.
Dr. Phil shares these co-parenting dos and don’ts:
• Remember that the only person you control is you. Take the high road; there’s a lot less traffic up there.
• Think about the effects your actions have on your children.
• Set boundaries with your ex.
• Sit down with your ex and make an affirmative plan that sets aside any differences you may have so you can focus instead on meeting the needs of your children.
• Agree with your ex that you absolutely won’t disparage each other to your children. Further, forbid your children from speaking disrespectfully about the other parent, even though it may be music to your ears.
• Negotiate how you can best handle sharing the children for visitation, holidays, or events.
• Compare notes with your ex before jumping to conclusions or condemning one another about what may have happened.
• Although it may be emotionally painful, make sure that you and your ex keep each other informed about changes in your life circumstances so that the children are never, ever the primary source of information.
• Never sabotage your children’s relationship with the other parent.
• Never use your children as pawns to get back at or hurt your ex, or as tools to gain information and manipulate your ex.
• Never transfer hurt feelings and frustrations toward your ex onto your child.
• Never force your children to choose a side when there’s a conflict in scheduling or another planning challenge.
• Never convert guilt into overindulgence when it comes to satisfying your children’s material desires.