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How to Get Divorced Without Messing Up Your kids

Yes, you’re a mess. But your kids don’t have to be. Here’s how to get things back on track post-split.

Photo: Shutterstock

Several months after a long, agonizing divorce, my son and I walked into the home of new friends for pizza and a play date.

“So,” the new kid said, trying to act casual. “I hear your parents are divorced.”

“Yup,” my boy, then four, answered. No frills attached.

“Cool,” he responded. “So are mine. Want to see the tons of Legos in my room?”

And then they were off.

But the other mother and I stood together, silent and teary. What had been a shoulder-shrugging encounter by two kids with divorce in common marked something momentous for me – and, I imagine, for her, too. Without digging into conversation, I knew that those few seconds between our boys had grown out of many other tears and talks. That casual, no-biggie exchange by two preschoolers with four homes said, “It’s okay right now.”

Recognizing those moments, embracing them with tears, acknowledging them with silence, writing them down, recalling them later on the phone with my mom and dad -- that’s what I’d spent much of those years doing. Change, I’d told my little boy over and over through moves and rescheduling and visitation hand-offs, is hard. And also good.

Every year in the United States, 1.5 million children’s parents divorce. And while researchers, therapists, family court judges and attorneys and even the adults who are splitting debate how this will impact children today and in the long term, no study can prepare a parent for the desperate questions whispered in a dark room well past bedtime, the holidays spent shuffling between homes or the little bits of grace when a child gets to just be a child, rather than a kid caught in a family trauma.

Today, my son is in third grade, a voracious reader who is very serious about Tae Kwon Do, refuses to ride a bike and often emerges from his room wearing an outrageous costume -- a typical nine-year old whose parents live 17 minutes apart.

Together, we’ve found many more moments of both small and significant grace -- hiking in Hawaii, saying prayers on the phone when he is away on vacation with his dad, reading aloud books about kids from all kinds of families, looking over wedding photos, deciding to move in with my boyfriend, having more honest conversations in his dark room when he should be asleep. Each one of them have affirmed and reaffirmed that he (and I and this life) is more than okay, it is happy and healthy and now, pretty normal, relatively routine.

But we’ve also had tough talks, worries, our own kinds of heartbreak as we deal with divorce in new and different ways. When the change gets hard again, here’s how we – and other little families like us – find the good again. And here’s how you, as the parent, can guide your child through the rough stuff to the very-big-deal no-biggie moments.

Speak from your heart
Books, legal advice, friends who have been-there-and-done that – they can all help formulate the words. But my own experience also taught me to trust my instincts and keep my responses as simple, short and heartfelt as possible. Even when it was hard.

“Mommy and daddy loved each other very much and were very happy,” I told my son in the beginning, “and then we weren’t. I saw that something had to change, and quickly, so we could all be happier, healthier and have peace in our hearts and home.”

As he got older, my son asked more intense “why” and “what really happened” questions and the conversations got deeper and more complex, but I was guided by those early words and still feel fine admitting that I am hurt, frustrated or confused, too. That way, even if we do not see the situation the same way and he does not know all the details, our connection can simply be in saying our feelings aloud.

“The best way to explain divorce was to take the humble road of letting them know I was sorry that I couldn’t make it work,” says single mom of four Kelly Wickham. “That wasn’t to garner sympathy, but to tell them that it was actually okay for this not to work out. Every discussion was couched with words that reminded them that they were loved and support and that none of that love for them would change. It was important for them to see me as an individual person with feelings.”

Jessica Peterson, who has been divorced since her eight-year old son was just a toddler, agrees. “Hold on to sincerity as best as you can,” she says. “There will be issues that will be age-inappropriate and not something you can get into with a six-year old, but even little kids recognize truth and sincerity, and they will love their parents for being honest.”

Find the positive, especially in conflict.
My own attorney advised me to rely on my parenting agreement when the inevitable “Daddy lets me do this and you don’t” arguments arose. She suggested that, even before my son could read, I tell him about the document and say, “Daddy and I disagreed about a lot of things, but these are the 52 points we both agreed on, that we both signed our names to and decided was important in raising you together.”
I have borrowed those words dozens of times since, turning questions like, “Why don’t you and Daddy like each other anymore?” back to a positive place, focusing on what we do agree on rather than the differences in our homes and parenting styles and choices.

Brooke Randolph, a licensed mental health counselor who works with divorcing families, says that finding the good is critical, especially when there are parental disagreements. “Stay positive, even when it is difficult,” Randolph advises. “All you can control in any situation is your own attitude and behavior, but this is even more clear in a conflictual break-up.”

Don’t talk smack.
It’s hard not to express your anger at your ex in front of your kid. But it really is important. “Take the high road whenever possible,” says Amy Nathan, author and mother of two. “It’s harder. Often not as much fun. But always better.”

Even when Wickham was not on speaking terms with her ex, she chose to veer the conversation away from any negative words about him -- especially when those comments came from her kids. “I began saying only kind things about their father in their presence, even when they wanted to complain,” she recalls. “I’d say things like, ‘Well, those are his choices and it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you,’ so they knew the same was true for me.”

Think you’ve mastered this? It’s still best to tread carefully. Mind your facial expressions, furious texting and phone call declines, eye rolls, sighs and other emotional indicators that kids pick up on. “Most importantly,” Randolph adds, “remember to keep conversations away from child-sized ears. Children do not need to hear blaming, snark or negativity. Children need to have as positive a view as possible of both parents.”

And remember: keeping your anger in check doesn’t just help the kids. It is a daily, and sometimes hourly, exercise in breathing through pain, conflict, confusion and pain so that you can heal, too. After all, a healthy, self-caring, aware, reflective parent is the model for all the kids in the house.

Channel those negative emotions!
When I realized my son was struggling with the transition time after his dad dropped him off at our house and that I, in turn, spent that half-hour feeling resentful and protective, I decided we’d turn that time into a simple yoga session. For months and months, we diffused those difficult feelings by breathing in and out with Rodney Yee and his 20-minute PM Yoga tape.

We also started doing more “balloon breaths,” a technique his pre-K teacher taught of filling the cheeks with air and then slowly, slowly letting it out. They’re meant to help kids work through tantrums, but they helped us both move through our own agitations.

Then I strategized with my therapist about when and how to engage my ex-husband. I made myself a note about which topics to text him about and which would be best to broach on the phone. Many nights when back-and-forth messages started flying, I opted out completely, putting my phone on silent or waiting until days later to hit play, save or delete.

Stick to the business of raising a child with the other parent.
When all else failed and I realized I was spending too much energy strategizing about how to deal with my ex-husband, I shifted my thinking about our relationship: We were now in the business of raising a child.

It sounds, well, divorced from the emotion of all that parenting entails, but it was a necessary step in moving on and preventing my son from being trapped in adult details.

I told my ex-husband that, from that point on, I’d being dealing with him with the same professionalism and respect that I do with the teachers and pediatrician, and I asked him to do the same. He was clearly surprised, but he agreed. And although that has not always been the arrangement since that conversation, I review that agreement with myself every time I have to call him about summer camp or child support or holiday visitation.

And if you do slip up and say something negative, pull the kids into an argument or bash the other parent? Apologize and make a quick, more permanent commitment with yourself to get back to a business arrangement.

Most importantly, “Do not triangulate the children in the divorce,” Wickham says. “It isn’t their fault and it isn’t ‘smart’ to use children against the other parent. They see right through that and it puts them in a terribly awkward position.”


Make new rituals.
The day before a judge pounded the gavel on divorce proceedings that lasted 18 months, I explained to my son what would be happening in court. “I just wish,” he said quietly, with wide eyes, “that the judge could know the whole story of us, of our family.”

“So let’s do that,” I responded, pulling out a large roll of white paper and all the markers I could find.

We sat together for hours, mapping out in pictures and words how his father and I met, moved cross-country and made a home, then made him. I ended with words about how it changed and we moved to a new home. My son wrote his first sentence on that stream of paper with our family story, and although the words weren’t true, they were his experience, his own writing, his part in that chapter.

“Let’s draw a picture of that,” has become a common response to working out issues or talking about transitions in the years since. We’ve built other new rituals when we’ve moved into new homes, had birthdays and spent time apart -- all of them marking what has been and what is now and what is to come in our own ways. That acknowledgment with markers and chalk and bubble letters feels good, even when our world is tilting uncomfortably.


Count your blessings. Often.
The easiest part of helping a child through divorce, says Peterson, is none of it. She’s chosen to put off some conversations until he is older and in the meantime, seek out classmates with divorced parents so he son has social perspective about his own family life.

Randolph recommends that parents support themselves with professional help, like a parenting coordinator or counselor.

One divorcing mom shared what many others have told me over the last decade: Expect the process to take longer than you expect (mine certainly did). Prepare yourself, support yourself, make note that this is a marathon and you will need the fuel of sleep, food, smart finances, exercise and allies.

So with all of that, it is critical to support yourself -- yourselves -- by openly acknowledging the blessings you find. Keep a family gratitude journal. Fill your halls with smiling photos of loved ones. Host dinner parties, even if your home is messy. Tell your child about a funny or happy memory you have from a time with their other parent. Make new friends. Find books about kids with two homes. Schedule a massage, a sitter, a nap. Have ice cream for dinner once in a while. Have your kid say thank you, write a nice note to someone, tell you what makes him feel safe, protected and giggly. Be silent. Stand still. Hug. Say, “I LOVE YOU” too many times.

Jessica Ashley is author of the single-mom-in-the-city blog, Sassafrass, named one of Babble’s Top 100 Mom Blogs, and the forthcoming Single Mom Nation. A parenting and relationship expert, she’s a former senior editor at Yahoo! Shine, and has contributed to Huffington Post, Babble, AOL, and Nick Jr. Jessica wears inappropriately high heels to the playground and is the mother of a Rainbow Looming 9-year old. The proof is in the pile of plastic bracelets at the bottom of her purse.

Plus, More from The Bump:

How to Tell Children About Divorce

The Truth About Being a Single Mother

Chat with Other Single Parents

-- Jessica Ashley

See More: Mommy Life