5 Steps To Support & Protect Your Children During A High-Conflict Divorce

Photo: getty
daughter dealing with mom's divorce
Heartbreak

Going through a high-conflict divorce is no playground for kids. And while there are many reasons why some divorces end up as high conflict, they don’t have to leave children feeling stuck in the middle.

A "middle" requires two ends that apply pressure.

If you open the pressure valve from your end, the built-up anxiety, worry, and distraction flow out. The pressure is diminished, and kids go back to the business of being kids.

RELATED: 9 Things Kids With Divorced Parents Desperately Want You To Know

Going through a divorce with kids is not easy.

While this pressure-valve model may sound simple, difficult breakups can be quite complicated from a human development perspective, especially when it comes to divorce with kids.

It takes time and attention to rework the narratives that create challenging relationship dynamics. The mistakes parents make are understandable, given the pain, stress, and uncertainty of divorce.

Shielding children from conflict must come first in any divorce.

Even so, supporting the children simply has to come first by shielding them from the conflict. They didn’t ask for their parents to split up.

Children also consistently report they absolutely hate it when their parents fight.

Parents who expose their children to the conflict undoubtedly know it's wrong. However, difficult emotions like anger, shame, worry, or frustration override good intentions.

Even otherwise emotionally-healthy individuals can fall into the trap of blaming or criticizing others for their own discomfort.

Good habits can protect little ears from hearing negativity directed toward the other parent.

During co-parent coaching, one particular set of parents asked me to check in with their nine-year-old daughter, Emma, to see how she was faring during their repeated trips back to court.

Emma tearfully told me her mom and grandma had nightly conversations about dad that involved nasty tones and negative comments — an unwelcome intrusion into Emma’s bedtime routine.

The pressure this innocent girl experienced in her mother’s home left her depressed, restless, and unfocused. She felt so out of sorts! She lost interest in doing her usual craft activities and quit inviting friends over.

Her mother, back in court for the third time since splitting up from my client’s father, continued to blame her ex-husband for the problems experienced by their daughter.

Emma’s mother was blind to the impact her gossip had on her daughter. In turn, Emma had to work very hard with a therapist to create coping skills that at least partially restored her zest for life.

While good resources may be a help to children, parents can learn to get their own needs met in a way that doesn't toss the child under the proverbial bus of conflict.

Here are 5 steps to support children during a high-conflict divorce.

1. Value the role of the other parent.

Think of the other parent not as your "ex," but rather as your best parenting ally.

After all, doesn’t your child deserve to cherish the part of themselves that comes from the other parent? Why not build up the other parent to be the best they can be?

A recent client shared a story about his son, Trip. The high-school sophomore didn’t spend much time with his mother due to her erratic behaviors and constant drama with school personnel.

However, Trip spoke highly of his mother’s artistic and musical abilities that she shared with Trip on their bi-monthly visits. Trip’s father loved watching Trip beaming with pride when he spoke of the original music his mother wrote and produced.

Trip offered to help her pack up her paintings when she took them to various local art exhibits.

Even though there were a lot of ongoing difficult interactions between Trip’s parents, his father highlighted the shining qualities of his former partner. He dutifully supported Trip in compartmentalizing and cherishing positive feelings for her.

2. Find a small circle of people who you can share difficult emotions with in a structured manner.

A structured approach could include a set day, time, and place for compassionate conversations. With a small, trusted hive of support, parents can feel heard and understood.

They can feel "normal" again.

I was fortunate to have regular porch get-togethers with two trusted friends during my initial separation from my children’s father. My buddies and I were all going through unexpected breakups in the same summer.

Together, we unleashed some strong emotions trying to revive our egos. The three of us made sure we all got to vent, then went on to play old music, laugh, and remind each other we would make it through to another day.

3. Create a ready foxhole in your mind for a moment’s rest and recovery.

Emotional triggers often come on too fast and too strong to combat them thoughtfully in the heat of the moment.

My foxhole is a forest glade and a song that instantly consumes me with God’s presence. From that place, I can plan how to respond, rather than react, and create better outcomes.

Other foxholes could be an imagined sailboat cruise or cozy down comforter by a fire. The foxhole is a reminder that all events are neutral — it's only the story we believe about them that creates negative or positive experiences.

Shakespeare said it best in Hamlet, "For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

A safe bunker during an emotional battle gives us the few seconds it takes to notice what is happening. Then, intuition or logical thinking can catch up and direct our actions, taking the lead away from fight-or-flight reactivity.

RELATED: What To Do If You Feel Stuck In An Unhappy Marriage With Kids

4. Demonstrate a genuinely high level of well-being.

When parents aren’t doing well — either having trouble functioning or with dysregulated emotions — children notice. Seek out whatever resources are needed to get back to present, child-focused parenting as soon as possible.

No one is expected to be a robot without significant ups and downs during tough times.

However, let children know you take responsibility for your own life. Tell them what you are doing to take care of yourself and assure them you don’t need the child to take care of you.

5. Err on the side of caution when sharing divorce or court information with children.

While many parents say the children have a right to the truth, sharing adult information blurs the line of responsibility for outcomes.

Too many times, I see children with inappropriate influence over parental behaviors as the child takes on their own opinions about the case.

Children need parents to remember that they, the parents, are in charge. The parents and their hired professionals are handling matters as best they can.

Let parent-child interactions focus on the child’s interests and household functioning. Make plans and have fun together, as well as work together for routines, meals, and household tasks.

Your children deserve to get to the other side of divorce feeling secure, even though the family structure has shifted dramatically.

Taking good care of yourself and relying on resources allows parents to relieve the pressure on children and get them safely to the other side of the conflict.

Affirmation: "I am responsible to do my part in supporting my children through tough times. I courageously take care of myself and use resources to help me manage."

RELATED: 10 Healing Ways To Help Your Child Cope After A Devastating Divorce

Sign Up for the YourTango Newsletter

Let's make this a regular thing!

Amy Armstrong is the co-founder of The Center for Family Resolution in Columbus Ohio, serving separating and divorcing couples through parent coaching and mediation. Amy inspires clients to take responsibility for their mindset during tough transitions. For further coaching and mediation services, see The Center For The Family Resolution.

Author
Expert