Rules for Parenting after a Difficult Separation

Charles Emmrys PhD

Thinking Underlying These Rules

Children living through a divorce will, in almost all cases, blame themselves for the separation of their parents. The children most prone to invest in this self-blame are those between the ages of 6 and 11 but all children fall into this way of thinking to some extent. Secondly, children living through a separation will feel the urge to protect and support the parent they feel is most victimized by the separation. A process known as child parentification, this dynamic is notorious for arresting psychosocial development in children. It is this self-blame dynamic, the concern for their parents’ welfare and the inevitable instability that follows a separation that constitutes the second most important sources of stress for children living through a separation.

The most toxic stress is parental arguments and parental discord before, during and after a separation. Parental arguments are the most powerful predictors of poor outcomes for children whether the parents are together or separated. Controlling spousal conflict should be each parent’s most important priority.

The following rules are intended to diminish the impact of each of these sources of pain.

Settle Outstanding Issues as Promptly as Possible

Children are acutely aware of parental stress during the separation process and are very reactive to it. Dealing with contentious issues as quickly as possible is therefore important in reducing the parent’s own stress load and indirectly that of their children. Fiscal and child custody questions are usually the most contentious of the post separation issues to be resolved. Arriving at a solution and quickly setting in place the mechanisms by which they will be decided is strongly recommended. As long as custody and fiscal issues are not resolved, these or any other set of rules will not work as well as they should.

Once things are settled, be they through the courts or outside of the courts, the parents should clearly state to the children that the decisions are backed by the judge. They, in the end are the authority behind every decision. The children must not be led to think that one parent or the other got the upper hand even if the parents almost always think this very thing. Regardless of who got what, the judge signed off on it so the judge is responsible. If the children want to complain, they can write to the judge.

Know When to Communicate and When to Not Communicate

Communication defines a relationship. The more you communicate, the more you are related and the more chances you have of falling into an argument. For clinicians, the intensity of the communication between spouses (be it positive or negative) determines the extent to which they are still functioning as a couple.

If spouses decide to separate, diminishing the amount and intensity in their communication should be a priority. This allows for a quicker and less painful (in the long run) detachment from the other and frees up more time and energy to rebuild and restart one’s life. In interviews we conducted with what we considered were separated parents that had succeeded very well, the most consistent finding was that they spoke to each other very rarely. On average, the yearly exchange of words, if written down, would not fill half a page. In short, making things work does not mean lots of communication. It means short and functional communication without anger or argumentativeness.

There are, however, some themes that parents should talk about during difficult or special times.

The following are the four occasions when parents should communicate or be in the same space:

  • Child’s health – Both parents should be kept informed of health issues with their children if and when they develop and should both be present if medical staff is providing important information on chronic conditions.
  • Child’s school – Both parents should be kept informed of their child’s academic progress and should both attend parent teacher meetings.
  • Child’s special events – Both parents should attend key social events like sports team games, school productions, graduations, awards etc. The parents should sit separately but should both be present. Typically, the parent that is the custodian of the child at the time should be the one that goes to practices but games should be attended by both.
  • Yearly negotiations on visiting schedules – The parents are encouraged to decide on who has the child at which times as far in advance as possible and in strict accordance to the court order. Parents who have managed their separation best speak of the effectiveness of a yearly schedule that is set in March or April. This requires only one meeting a year and avoids lots of confusion. Once arrived at, parents should stick to the schedule unless really important issues arise.

The following are issues that parents should avoid discussing with each other:

  • Former spouses should avoid talking about each other’s parenting approach. Children are able to adapt very effectively to being parented in one way in one home and in another in the other home. This is evidenced by how well they can adjust their behavior to follow rules in the school, the rules at home, the rules at their grandmother’s home and the rules when playing at a friend’s house. It is OK if both former spouses adopt different approaches to parenting. Being able to parent your own way is one of the advantages of single parenting. If the child makes statements like “well that is not how Mommy does it!” the parent should say “that is at mommy’s house. In this house we do it this way”. “Both ways are OK but this is the way that works best for me”. Clearly, however, if another parent is doing something that you think may be abusive within the parameters of the law, the parent who becomes aware of it should report it to the child protection agency in their region. If a parent is unsure about what constitutes abuse, they can call a social worker for more information.
  • Former spouses should avoid speaking about each other’s personal lives. Inevitably, there will be lots of unfinished business in the relationship and the urge to talk about it or complain about it will be very difficult to resist. Very often, former spouses are motivated by wanting to set the record straight. Others see their former partner making decisions that they think will have negative results and want to be helpful. Regardless of the motivation, we would maintain that with separation comes the loss of the former spouse’s right to guide or otherwise influence the direction of the other person’s life be it in terms of how they organize their work life, their family life or their pursuit of other relationships or partnerships. Communication on these themes leads either to an increase in conflict (one parent feeling controlled by the other) or to an excess in communication that will slow down the separation process. If you say you are checking out, check out.
  • Former spouses should steer clear of talking about their former spouse’s new partner. Children are often rejecting of new spouses, seeing them as an obstacle to their deep wish for a reunification of their parents. For this reason, they may complain bitterly about this new person in their lives even when the person will not have, in any way, deserved the harsh words they get. Clearly, the other parent should refrain from commenting on the new spouse except to say that “your mother/father has a right to build a new life”. “If she/he has chosen this person to be with her/him and feels that this person can make her/him happy, then that is OK with me”. Saying this will be very difficult, particularly if the other spouse has left you for the new partner. That being said, the child needs to hear from you that it is OK for her/his mother/father to get on with their own life.

Making Custodial Arrangement Predictable for the Child

With some forethought, a yearly schedule can and should be developed if at all possible. Both parents should keep in mind when planning this schedule that children, particularly those between the ages of 6 and 14, begin the mental preparation process for changing houses 4 to 6 days before the event. If the child has a calendar that shows ahead of time where they will be, when they will be switching residences and when extended holidays will be with each parent, the stress caused by the move will be minimal. The “hangover effect” (irritability after coming home after a weekend visit with parents) will also be less intense. The key is to think through carefully this calendar. Having Father’s Day with Dad and Mother’s Day with Mom, attending to the birthdays of important extended family members, etc. are considerations that should be incorporated in the yearly schedule.

The above being said, there are circumstances when changes need to be made but these should be truly exceptional and for serious reasons. What should be avoided are things like “I got tickets for a play this weekend, could you switch your weekend for this time?” Finding a babysitter and not switching residences is recommended for those times.

Changing Homes

The psychological impact of changing homes has received considerable study of late by developmental psychologists. The current thinking would suggest that prior to age 4, changing homes is stressful to the child and should be avoided if at all possible. Finding ways to organize day visits such that the child can sleep in the same bed each night until the child’s fourth birthday is what is recommended. The courts have been somewhat slow to come around to this way of thinking but parents should consider such arrangements for their children.

From four to seven, weekend visits (two days at a time with the other parent) are quite well tolerated by children and quite feasible to work into a visitation schedule. A weekly rotation tends to be what children of this age adapt to the best as opposed to a biweekly schedule. In other words, a schedule that repeats itself every week in the same way works for children from four to seven. Biweekly rotations (such as visiting with a parent every second weekend) is difficult for children of this age due to the amount of time between visits. A biweekly weekend arrangement with a day visit on the alternate week can work but weekly schedules are still best. Ideally, the parent does not go without seeing the child from four to seven for more than four days.

From the age of seven, biweekly schedules tend to work best for the child that may want to be in the same place for the whole weekend. Sports events, sleepovers and other activities with friends tend to work better if a given parent is responsible for the entire time. It is the age that one week on one week off also works.

At age eleven or twelve, the child will often have their own ideas about where they want to live. Their reasons may include, wanting to be closer to friends or just wanting to pursue certain activities more easily pursued with one parent as opposed to the other. They may also want to simplify moving from one house to the other which, by age twelve, can get really tiring. Both parents should try and listen to the wishes of the preteen and give their request some weight. Court orders that include the option for a “voice of the child” assessment are encouraged.

Good separation agreements are development sensitive. By that we mean respectful of the child’s developmental stage and therefore shifts with the child’s age.

In cases where there are two children within 3 years of each other, the schedule should be built with the youngest child’s best interest as primary.

When Should These Rules Be Applied

In a separation process, there is often a period of indecision when the spouses are trying to decide if the relationship can continue or not. These rules would not be appropriate for this decision making period. They are best applied when the spouses have arrived at a final decision (as final as these decisions can be) and have moved to their respective residences.

Final Comments

Separation is painful. Communicating less with the spouse you are leaving can be particularly painful in the beginning. Yet spouses should realize that the more they communicate with each other, be it for fighting or for mutual support, the longer it will take to get on with their own lives and the slower the adjustment process will be for their children. Separation means losing the right to be an important part of the life of your former spouse. Being keenly aware of this will not only help both spouses move on but will lessen the stress in their child’s life. What is not lost is the obligation to be involved with your former spouse in the lives of your children. This should be done by setting clear boundaries and by avoiding using the children to indirectly affect the life of your former spouse.

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