How Parents’ Behavior Affects Children During a Divorce

Co-authored by Sara Au

If you’re divorcing, it’s very likely that your world is being rocked like no other time in your life. You may feel shell-shocked, unmoored, enraged or depressed. All of those feelings–and more–are completely normal, and you need to deal with them or find help if you cannot. It’s natural for you to want to lash out at the world, or withdraw from it, or otherwise act on your feelings, but when you’re a parent you need to consider how your actions will affect your children and their behavior.

It’s so hard to hold it all together, but here are some do’s and don’ts that will go very far in helping your child adjust to this change in their lives, and protect their positive development during a difficult time:

It’s important not to share with your children how distressed, frustrated, or depressed you are about the situation. This does not mean you can’t show emotion. Showing and managing emotions help kids learn to do the same. But intense feelings that you struggle to manage should be dealt with using your own support system. You can’t expect your children to handle the burden of being your primary emotional support.
Keep your promises. If you say you’ll be somewhere with the kids, then make sure you are there. If your children are due to spend time with your ex, make sure you’re respectful of that time. Children need both parents in their lives whenever possible. It’s important that your kids have regular contact with you both.
Give your children privacy and space to freely interact with their other parent without feeling like you’re monitoring them. Of course, you need to know they are safe, but when they are with your ex, let them be with them, and let your ex shoulder the responsibility for them. (This might be a good time to get your children a cell phone, if they don’t already have one. Even if it’s a bit earlier than planned, that gives them the freedom to contact you both, and you the opportunity to contact them if needed. Just don’t be in constant contact when they’re away from you.)

Don’t take actions that undermine the other parent. If the other parent is actively undermining you, and you don’t have a civil relationship where you can compromise, then just focus on your own home’s stability and rules. Resist the urge to retaliate or complain to your children about the situation. Don’t grill your children about your ex-spouse and his or her activities, either. You can be a good role model for behavior regardless of whether your ex-spouse is doing so.
Don’t be a victim of divorce. Strive to be a model resilience and self-reliance. This is a horribly emotional thing to go through, but it’s just as powerful of a message when your kids see you bounce back. They do need to know that terrible things can happen in life, some of which are outside of our control, but we do not let such events ruin our lives forever.

If your family life has already become acrimonious, it’s not too late to take steps to turn that around. It will take time, but it can be accomplished. An amicable relationship between divorced parties is best for all involved, but if that cannot be managed, civility and avoidance of conflict between the adults will foster the best outcomes for the children.
Your choices and behavior have far-reaching consequences when you’re parenting through a divorce. Being able to partition your feelings and your reactions to problems between you and your ex is essential, so that you can be a role model for your children. (Finding an adult outlet to vent your feelings with is also essential–for your own well-being.)

Even though divorce can be difficult, children can make it through resiliently and can even thrive in homes where each parent is happier and potentially more fulfilled in their own personal life.