Divorce is never painless and is rarely a simple process. The practical and emotional difficulties faced, however, are compounded when there are children involved. Parenting after a divorce can be described as trying to share what you treasure most with someone you no longer want to share anything with at all. Having worked with countless parents during and after divorce, I have great respect for the courage it takes to make decisions taking into account their children’s needs as well as their own.

Getting caught in the crossfire hurts

While many divorcing parents wrestle with a sense of guilt over how their choices affect their children, it’s important to note that divorce does not necessarily harm children. It’s getting caught in the crossfire that hurts. Even more hurtful is becoming enlisted onto the battlefield. But my experience working with families has shown me that this recruitment usually occurs in ways more subtle than overt. Most parents understand that using derrogatory terms for their ex-partner or speaking with the kids about certain details of the divorce are to be avoided. It is not outright rejection of the other parent as much as tainting a child’s perception that is likely to undermine their affection toward the other parent. This can happen even when intentions are good.

Children choose loyalties based on safety

Consider the complex issue of loyalty from a child’s perspective. Children of divorced parents can feel that simply having fun with one parent means being disloyal to the other. If I accept Mom’s subtle criticism of Dad, I’m being disloyal to Dad. If I defend him, I’m being disloyal to Mom. Even if I do nothing in response to subtle criticism, I feel disloyal to the other parent. Maintaining loyalty to parents at odds with one another can, indeed, be a tenuous tight rope for children to walk. It’s also important to note that, just like adults, children often choose and maintain their loyalties based on a need for safety.

It’s important for parents to evaluate their own motives

This doesn’t mean that problems in adjustment after divorce are inevitable for children. It does suggest, however, that it’s important for parents to carefully and transparently evaluate their own motives and behaviors in order to increase the likelihood of their child’s successful adjustment and well being. Perhaps the biggest red flag at this point is an – “I’m not the one who needs to change” – attitude. While it may be true that your ex-partner has some glaring issues to address, it’s also true that we can all benefit from periodic soul searching and self-inventory.

5 basic principles to remember

    1. Children are not confidantes
      They should not be expected to keep secrets from either parent. Nor should they be used as messengers. I’m convinced that the only way to ensure children are not used as confidantes is to actively seek out and maintain a network of other adults you can reach out to for support. If you don’t have that support network you can bet that your children are feeling the weight of that burden.
    2. Don’t assume they know how you feel
      Remind your children often of the following:

      • You love them, and their other parent loves them
      • They are not the ones who are getting divorced
      • You are not expecting them to take sides, or deliver messages
      • They have the right to love their other parent, and don’t need to hide it from you
    3. Talking about your ex-partner
      Before presenting your ex-partner to your children in any kind of negative light, ask yourself:

      • What is my real reason for revealing this information?
      • Exactly how will it help them to hear what I’m about to say?
      • If I were still married to my spouse, and I wanted to protect our child’s relationship with him or her, how would I handle this situation?

    4. Wrestling with loyalty is probably inevitable
      Some amount of shifting affections and shifting loyalty from one parent to the other can be expected as your children adjust to new roles after the divorce. Having the time to let down their guard and experience their relationship with each parent as positive will help stabilize this. Avoid being the ‘Disneyland parent’ who buys affection from their kids in emotionally cheap, inauthentic ways. Remaining loving and consistent, as well as respectful of their other parent will also help.

    5. Former in-laws are still your child’s flesh and blood
      When you criticize your ex-partner’s extended family in front of your children they feel hurt, guilty, and dejected. While those individuals may deserve your criticism, it’s worth asking: Is being right more important than my kids being well?

While this is, by no means, a complete account of the issues that need to be examined to ensure a child’s well being post-divorce, I hope this offers some confirmation, guidance, and encouragement.

Andy Young, LCPC, CADC
Andy Young, LCPC, CADC

Andy Young has been helping individuals and families around the Chicagoland area for over 25 years. He specializes in couples counseling, parenting, substance abuse, anger management, and domestic violence.