3 Mental Shifts to Make to Help You Prepare Your Child for Divorce

By Ann Cerney, MS, LCPC

Ahhh, the sweetness of your child. Never in your wildest dreams did you believe you’d fall so helplessly in love and feel such fierce protectiveness over a dependent little human. But that you did. And, now, as you are facing divorce, this child, or children, is at the very top of your list of crazy what-if’s and if-not’s, possibly keeping you up at night. Rightly so.

The question you wrestle with – “how does one prepare a child for divorce?” is a sign that you
are thinking straight, and on the right track.

Children deserve mindful care taking and thoughtful handling before, during, and after a divorce. They are the innocent ones here, and deserve your best efforts to maintain their innocence. Specifically, their innate belief that they will remain a priority to both parents.

The truth is, the number one predictor of poor adjustment for children post-divorce is parental conflict. The higher the conflict between you two, the harder it will be for your kids to adjust and get on with their lives. This includes things like arguing about the parenting schedule, extracurricular activities, holidays, and general nastiness or attitude toward each other that implies that you don’t like each other.

Preparing your child for divorce will come naturally to you and your co-parent when you have a child-centered divorce mindset. Sounds easy, right? You both love your child, and you both believe that you are focused on what is best for him or her.

I’m talking about a mindset that takes into consideration the fact that you are probably going to have some strong negative emotions toward each other at the same time you need to be co- parenting.

And to be effective co-parents, you need to have a cooperative relationship. It’s a dialectical dilemma. Two opposing forces operating simultaneously.

A child-centered divorce mindset is one that carves out a sacred space for anything child-related to exist between you and your co-parent. All other issues that you two may be settling are left at the door. This space is 100% child-centered.

The mindset you want to develop to prepare your child for divorce will serve you – and your child – for the rest of your lives.

When you both sit down to talk with your child to talk about what the future will look like, she or he will have questions about how life is going to change. This mindset will help you answer those questions, and prepare your child for divorce.

Mindset Shift #1: Understand that your child is not divorcing either parent.

Divorce will change your family both emotionally and structurally. You and your co-parent will move from living as a family in one home to a family living in two homes.

Still family? When children are involved, yes, you are still family, living in two homes.

In the deep recesses of your mind, you may resent that you are still related to your co-parent, through your child. Keep that resentful thought in the deep, dark basement of your mind. Your child deserves two parents, even if they are not married to each other. Gift your child with permission to love you both, no matter how you feel.

Why do I feel so strongly about this?

First, when children hear a negative remark about either parent, they automatically personalize it. This is because children are psychologically fused with their parents. As they grow up, they will differentiate from you, but as young ones, they identify strongly with you both. If you – or their other parent – is ‘bad’, they take is as a reflection of themselves.

Second, children need the opportunity to develop relationships with both parents organically. They will learn who you both are, what they can expect from each of you, on their own. This is part of learning that is essential for future relationships, and you do not want to withhold this opportunity from them by offering the ‘cliff notes’ on their other parent. They will resent you for it down the road, trust me.

Regardless of the circumstances of your marital breakdown, your child should not be privy to them. It’s easy to leak your negative feelings about your child’s other parent unintentionally. Be aware of your language, even your body language, when you talk about each other. Find another outlet for these feelings so they don’t build up.

You and your co-parent will need to develop a narrative, your story about why you are divorcing. It should never include any unsavory facts about the way your marriage ended, even if they are true. Keep it child-friendly. Truly, your child sees himself as part of you both, and needs to continue loving you both.

TIP: Draw a family tree for your child showing both homes, with both parents, all on the same family tree. What if you or your co-parent remarries, or becomes involved with a significant other? You are still family, with a different variety of family tree. Get creative with this, and realize that the traditional nuclear family no longer exists.

Mindset Shift #2: Prepare yourself – and your child – for the changes ahead.

After you and your child’s other parent separate, you will probably no longer be living with your child 100% of the time. The law requires that you and your co-parent have a formal parenting schedule. This helps to clarify who is the ‘on duty’ parent every minute of every day and night.

That’s not to say that you aren’t always ‘on duty’ when you’re a parent. It’s not a part time job, right? But divorce creates a false sense of ‘off duty’ when the schedule says it’s your co-parent’s parenting time. This can be hard for you and your child to adjust to.

It’s likely that you may not see your child every morning or say good night every evening. Due to these parenting gaps, you may (probably will) experience a deep sense of loss. There will be fewer opportunities for your child to share their day, express hopes and fears, and for you to offer guidance, reassurance, and hugs.

Do not pass this grief on to your child by saying things like “I miss you so much when you’re at Daddy’s”, or “I’m so lonely when you are at Mom’s house”. It’s ok to say things like “I’m going to be happy to see you on xxx day. You are always here in my heart.” You need to talk to your children about your divorce in an age-appropriate way. But you also need to be careful of what you say to them.

Your child will adapt to living in two homes with your support. You will adapt to the gaps in your time together, in time.

TIP: Help your child prepare and adapt to living in two homes by creating a calendar for him to use. If he’s a toddler, make one together using Legos. You can build it showing his overnights at dad’s house in red, mom’s in blue – or whatever color he chooses! If your child is using electronics, set up a google calendar together that you, your co-parent, and your child can all share online.

Mindset Shift #3: Hold the space for co-parenting with your child’s other parent, no matter what.
These parenting gaps, when you are ‘off duty’, can be excruciatingly painful when your co- parent isn’t communicating with you effectively or at all. It’s just part of the deal that you both are going to miss the little things, her face when she takes her first roller coaster ride, her excitement when going to a friend’s birthday party, when it’s your co-parent’s parenting time.

It’s in your child’s best interest if their other parent is in the know about what happens when they’re at your house. Sharing some of this with your co-parent creates a bridge for your child between the two homes.

Does this mean you should send snapchats and upload videos for your co-parent in real time? Not at all. You both have a right to your own lives. But does it hurt you, at the end of the day, to text your co-parent some pics of your child from the fun outing you had? Probably not, and hopefully it will be reciprocated.

TIP: Ask your child what pictures they would like to send to the other parent from your outing together. Or, send a text or email to your co-parent about what you and your child did today, and share it with your child. Make sure your child knows that you are keeping the other parent in the loop about life at your house. Remember, it feels unnatural and scary to your child for one parent to be in the dark about any aspect of his or her life.

You and your child will have much to adjust to, without any doubt. There are some predictable, well documented, and avoidable situations that cause children pain and harm during divorce. The good news is that you can learn to avoid many of them by simply working these three child- centered divorce mindsets every day.

Ann Cerney is a Fellow of the Collaborative Law Institute of Illinois, and the founder of Cerney Divorce, a coaching and parenting mediation practice in the Chicago area.