A client had a common question for me this morning, and it made me think about sharing our exchange with readers at YourTango. Here's the truth: you can’t be too smart while going through divorce. The more you know about children and divorce, the better. You can avoid doing unintentional damage by learning as much as you can now. It's easier to avoid mistakes in the first place than have to undo them.
A client of mine, a school teacher, asked whether it was better to have elementary school-age children in one home during the school week for continuity, or have them split the school week for equal and quality time with both parents. This is a very good question for which there is no direct answer. There are pros and cons to each option and so much depends on how skilled the parents are in managing their kids' lives and their own emotional havoc related to their divorce.
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My answer to her was that thirty years of research has shown that having quality time with both parents is a major protective factor for kids. When one parent becomes sidelined to a weekly dinner and a day on the weekends, or disappears for long stretches, there is a heavy negative impact on children that trumps the inconvenience of having their belongings stretched between two homes.
Not having homework or projects done, missing permission slips, not having their sports or activity gear in the right place at the right time, however, is a day-to-day problem for kids and parents. When children are unprepared for school, it causes upset and embarrassment.
When parents ask for advice about protecting their kids during and after divorce, I begin by saying the children do not choose divorce. They are entirely innocent of the failure of the marriage, so the parents have to make it work for them, despite their own panoply of feelings and the inconvenience.
Here are a few proven suggestions or reminders for parents of school-age children who are divorced or going through divorce:
- Children are emotionally stressed as they switch between homes and parents. They are always missing one and happy to see the other. It’s complicated for them, so make the transfer between you as easy as you can. This means:
- Don't argue with or snipe at your (ex)spouse at that time.
- Keep the exchange clean. If you are getting along, stepping inside to help a child with a backpack, etc. is a nice thing to do. Be pleasant and cordial while doing it. Let your former spouse know that you’d like to do this in advance and don't linger once inside.
- If a pleasant and cordial attitude isn’t possible, stay out of the other's home and allow the child to enter by him- or herself, and stay to be sure the child is inside the door. Do not stress the child by saying anything like "I would come in but your mom (or dad) won't let me."
- Mail checks or other correspondence, or drop it off at another time. Don't ask the child to deliver things for you. The child will feel responsible for any negative or sad reaction from the receiver but have no idea how to handle it or help.
- Show the child or children you are happy to see them. Avoid interrogation about their time with the other parent. Keep that minimal, unless they want to tell you. If you get news you don’t want, avoid reacting in front of the child. Call a friend if you need to talk about it. If you react negatively, the child may not confide in you in the future.
- Do your best to live close to each other. It will save time and trouble as you have to pick up a book for homework, a forgotten hockey stick or ballet shoes.
- Have a supply of the basics in each home: underwear, socks, PJs, play clothes, toiletries. It will make the child feel more at home and cared for.
- Have school supplies and a homework station in each home.
All sane parents have the common goal of protecting their children from harm. You know your kids better than anyone, but you may not know enough about divorce and kids. Divorce is a circumstance that puts kids at risk. Thirty years of research has taught us how to reduce the degree of risk. Google Judith Wallerstein, Joan B. Kelly, E. Mavis Hetherington and Robert Emery, to name a few, have all done years of research on children and divorce. Mark Banschick, child psychiatrist, has written The Intelligent Divorce—an excellent book for parents.
Get parent coaching from a divorce coach. Read material from the authors above and others. The more you know, the better your children will be. Healthy kids are what we all want.
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