It’s not unusual for children to experience anxiety, anger, or sadness in the first two years after their parents’ divorce. Most will go on to thrive, but some (about 25%) are at risk for serious long-term problems. Successful parenting after divorce—along the lines of the suggestions listed here—increases children’s chances of finding long-term happiness and fulfilling relationships as adults.
These ten tips for successful parenting after divorce come from the research on outcomes for kids of divorce. They’re also informed by my experience as a counsellor, and as a divorced mother of two girls, now in their mid-thirties and doing well in their lives. As with so much else, I’ve learned a lot about successful parenting after divorce from the mistakes I made along the way.
- Reassure your children of your love and strength. Be as supportive as you know how to be. Listen with patience and compassion. Don’t push your children to talk about their feelings, but be present and available. Cook the meals you know they love. Reassure them you will always love them. Show them you’ll take care of them, no matter what. Let them know the divorce is not their fault.
- Create an atmosphere of calm, stability, and security. Establish and maintain dependable routines for mealtimes, bedtimes, and other daily and weekly activities.
- Take good care of yourself. Attend to your own needs for sleep, nutritious diet, exercise, and support. Do what you need to do to regulate your emotions, so you can respond thoughtfully and thoroughly to your children’s needs. Focus on breathing evenly and deeply—especially when you’re feeling stressed. Practice other techniques for mindfulness and relaxation, as needed. Successful parenting after divorce means showing your kids how adults cope well with problems.
- Don’t badmouth your ex to your kids, or try to restrict access. Negative feelings about your ex are normal and predictable during divorce. Talk openly to your friends, family members, or therapist. However, you’ll increase your children’s feelings of insecurity if you undermine their other parent. Similarly, you are damaging your kids if you try to restrict their access (assuming there are no concerns about safety or abuse).
- Don’t use your kids as messengers. When you have something to tell your ex, get in touch yourself. If you have questions about what’s happening when your kids spend time with your ex, ask your ex about it. Don’t put your children in the center of your conflicts. And don’t ask them to act as mediators or go-betweens.
- Be respectful in your communications with your ex. Keep the focus of your communications on your children’s well-being. Listen respectfully to your ex’s concerns about the kids. Phrase your requests as questions rather than accusations. ‘Should we set a later time for the pick-up?’ Not, ‘You’re always late! Do you know how that makes the kids feel?!’
- Try for a flexible consistency across households. Rules don’t have to be exactly the same at your ex’s home and yours, but it will help you achieve successful parenting after divorce if you agree on some basics. It’s best for children when they experience a flexible consistency about schedules, homework, curfews, and disciplinary consequences.
- Don’t argue in front of the kids, or pull them into your arguments with your ex. If you can’t agree about important issues (school choice, medical procedures) you may need to find a therapist or other mediator. When it comes to smaller items (bedtime being 7:30 or 8, the importance of flossing, whether ice cream is okay), be flexible. Look for ways to compromise (‘I can agree to an 8 pm bedtime if you make sure Sarah flosses every night’).
- Minimize your children’s feelings of homelessness. Make sure your children feel totally 100% welcome in your home, whether it’s their designated time with you or not. My ex-husband and I were good examples of successful parenting after divorce in lots of ways. Both of us worked hard to give our kids a good life in our respective homes, and communicated productively with each other. It wasn’t until much later that I realized our children had felt homeless all those years, as they went back and forth between our homes.
- Get help if needed. Successful parenting after divorce doesn’t happen all at once, and you can expect several months of disturbance and distress as the family changes. But if you observe serious coping problems in your kids—sleeping or eating disorders, trouble at school, drug or alcohol abuse, self-injury, frequent or violent outbursts, or withdrawal, it’s time to think about professional help.
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