We have often heard people say that they are staying in their marriages for their children because they don’t want their children to come from a broken home or to feel abandoned. These ideas make logical sense. Divorce can be an adverse childhood experience that affects a child’s ability to attach to others and feel secure. Research shows that children of divorce can develop an abandonment schema and believe that they will be abandoned. As adults, they often experience romantic distrust and feel anxious or fearful in love or avoid it all costs.
Divorce can, however, be essential to healthy social and emotional childhood development, especially in cases of domestic violence, abuse, and parental conflict when staying together for the children isn’t a good idea. The environment in which a child lives can chemically modify their genes, and young children who are subject to stress at home are at greater risk for adverse impacts, but, according to researchers at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, they are not doomed.
Children of divorce can develop secure attachments and sustain loving partnerships if they have supportive caregivers who respond to their needs and provide appropriate care.
Despite the widespread yet erroneous belief that people need only draw upon some heroic strength of character, science now tells us that it is the reliable presence of at least one supportive relationship and multiple opportunities for developing effective coping skills that are the essential building blocks for strengthening the capacity to do well in the face of significant adversity. (“8 Things to Remember About Child Development”)
Parents who divorce can raise secure children by minimizing their exposure to conflict and prioritizing their needs, which, in the absence of abuse and neglect, includes being supportive of the other parent’s relationship with the kids. Children also will benefit from having other secure connections within the community. A robust social network of friends, teachers, coaches, and other family members can be protective.
A strong support team will also better enable divorcing parents to overcome survival instincts that can fuel harmful child custody battles, especially when addiction, disorders, and maladaptive coping strategies are present. Developing a strategy and implementing safety nets with the help of experienced child specialists and lawyers can help both parents and children feel more secure in life and love.
Here are 5 strategies to reduce conflict in and after divorce and help parents raise secure children.
- Practice self-compassion. Divorce can elicit a parent’s greatest fear: making a mistake or the “wrong” choice that hurts their children. It also can unnerve and disorient parents when there ever present children are out of reach and away from home for days or weeks at a time. Anxiety and depression and a need for control can stoke or stall the legal process. Self-compassion is a parenting tool that can alleviate stress and help parents cope and protect their children from harm. Research shows that self-compassionate parents who treat themselves as gently as they would a dear friend, are less anxious, more able, and good role models for their children who, through imitation, learn to practice self-kindness instead of self-blame and cultivate resilience. Practice self-compassion, not self-pity, to help your children feel secure.
- Create a safe haven for yourself and your children. Cultivate a safe and peaceful environment that provides a calm space and sense of safety. Ask your children open questions and listen without judgment so they learn that they can come to you in times of need. Avoid inconsistent punishment, which can lead to insecure attachment and trauma. Create predictability and maintain consistent rules and boundaries. Speak neutrally or kindly about the other parent. When a parent makes unkind comments about the other parent, a child feels they must choose. Their self-identity and self-worth suffers. They may think they’re unlikeable. Acknowledge and validate the challenges and emotions that you’re experiencing during divorce, but do not to rely on your children for emotional support. Intense emotions may make a child believe they must protect their parents. A safe haven provides kids with emotional and environmental stability.
- Avoid a child custody battle if you can. Child custody battles are heartbreaking, nerve-wracking, and often, traumatic. Parents who go to court surrender control of child rearing decisions that often are best made by those who love and know the little ones best. They also subject parents and children to evaluations by court staff who may not have any formal training in childhood development, can misconstrue conduct and conversations, and make recommendations that neither parent wants. Child custody battles are usually expensive unpredictable gambles that create long-lasting wounds. If at all possible, avoid asking a judge to determine the fate of your parenthood and negotiate realistic detailed co-parenting agreements that anticipate issues and include alternative dispute resolutions.
- Share legal and physical custody. A child who has relationships with two or more healthy parents is more likely to overcome the adverse affects of divorce. Family courts in many states, including California, have adopted this principle, and moved away from awarding one parent sole custody. Judges regularly enter joint custody orders and favor parents who work together to make major decisions in their child’s life. If your child is secure with your spouse or ex, it doesn’t mean they can’t be secure with you too. If your ex is a decent parent who hasn’t been as hands-on as you, your child can certainly benefit from the relationship. If abuse, violence, and mental health issues are not of concern, learn to work together to co-parent or parallel parent.
- Hire a collaborative child specialist or co-parenting coordinator. A child specialist in collaborative law is a neutral consultant whose sole purpose is to help parents negotiate co-parenting agreements. A co-parenting coordinator is tasked with helping parents navigate disagreements together, but unlike a collaborative professional, the co-parenting coordinator has legal authority to make legally binding decisions when parents do not agree. Both are often mental health professionals or experienced lawyers who have expertise in children’s developmental needs and child custody law. If you and your co-parent generally see eye-to-eye, hire a collaborative child specialist to facilitate difficult conversations and provide solutions and safety nets that improve your co-parenting relationship. If you’re at odds and have difficulty making decisions about your children’s health, education, and day-to-day lives, hiring a co-parenting coordinator will give you direct and easy access to a skilled professional who can resolve disputes without requiring you to hire lawyers or go to court.
Research shows that children of divorce are more prone to experience emotional, physical, and social distress than their peers, but with patience, compassion and care, parents can cultivate resilience and raise kids who give and receive love freely.
Co-author Helene L. Taylor is a California family law attorney with 30 years experience. She is certified in Applied Compassion TrainingTM by the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. Helene has helped thousands of clients of all identities resolve contentious child custody disputes and negotiate co-parenting agreements in Marin, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Napa, Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Helene provides consulting services to parents hourly, virtually, and in confidence. You can contact Helene L. Taylor here.