Divorce and Childrearing: How Parents Can Nurture and Protect Their Kids
Most parents who are in the process of considering or pursuing divorce are deeply worried about the effects the divorce will have on their children. And the concern is justified. Divorce is one of the most difficult life events that you and your children will ever experience, according to the well validated Holmes and Rahe Stressful Life Events Scale created by the two psychiatric researchers in 1967. Perhaps the two most critical tasks in protecting your kids' mental health going forward involve not criticizing and belittling your former partner and not asking your kids to take sides with you against your partner. Ever. For the rest of your life. Take a deep breath as you consider what this commitment to your children will entail.
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Your divorce rocks your childrens' world. You are their world. You hopefully are their role model. They need you to act certain and sane, loving, personally strong and responsible (even when you don't actually feel that way.) Here are some tips for helping keep yourself on track in creating a post-divorce environment in which your children will feel safe and nurtured as children, happy in their gender, and optimistic about trust and love going forward.
1. Get yourself as emotionally grounded and well resourced as possible. If you are just considering divorce, do this task ahead of time. Remember how the airline personnel tell you, "in case of turbulence, put your oxygen mask on yourself, before you put masks on your children"? Well, the same principle applies here. On the Holmes and Rahe scale, which contains 43 different life events scored and ordered according to how stressful they are, divorce is number two for adults, preceded only by "death of a spouse". You can't go it alone, and you don't have to. One of the most powerful resources at your disposal is a "moving on" group. Make a Google news alert for post-divorce groups in your area. One of the most difficult aspects of divorce is the feeling of being stigmatized, of having failed at marriage. Another tough issues is loneliness for adult company. A moving on group solves both of these problems. It's also wise to tap into relationships you have with friends, family, and a faith community. Don't get in the habit of leaning on your kids for companionship that should be provided by another adult.
2. Honestly monitor your mental health. Ask the people who know you best how they think you're doing, overall. Are you terribly depressed or anxious? Be honest with yourself about whether you are coping with the stress by exploding, or overdoing drinking, drugs, gambling, or sex. One of the dangers for kids in divorce is that they fear for the safety of one or both parents, and they become what we call "parentified" children. They feel that you are already at your breaking point, are weak, or are "losing it" so they spend a lot of time being especially good and not making extra trouble for you. Use the people you identified in Step 1 to check in. Lean on them. Take responsibility for getting the help you need during this terrible time. If you are a stoic person, distrust your stoicism and be curious about what lies beneath. No adult goes through divorce unscathed. But in this era of the internet, no one has to go through it alone.
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