Governor Proclaims “Family is Forever: Children and Divorce Awareness Week” for November 9th-14th
Robert Nohr, Ph.D.
Governor Doyle’s proclamation establishes the week of November 9th - 14th as a week-long public education event highlighting the needs of children in divorce in Wisconsin. Sponsored by the Collaborative Family Law Council of Wisconsin (CFLCW), the event will include educational presentations and outreach to the public, professionals, and the media.
As mental health professionals, we walk with many children, adults, and families as they experience the significant changes brought about by divorce. Part of our mission is to share the best information from research and experience to help strengthen families during a difficult time. When family members go through a divorce, it is a stressful time for all concerned, and a time of grieving. While we often read about the most spectacularly bitter “celebrity” divorces, the truth is that behind the scenes most families are seeking to move forward in a healthy way and provide their kids with the love and support they need to be successful in the long run. It turns out that the way the divorce unfolds is a bigger predictor of how children are affected than the mere fact of the divorce itself. Below are some key factors to keep in mind when going through a divorce:
1. The same boundaries between parent and child that were healthy in marriage are healthy in divorce. When a parent is going through a difficult time, it can be tempting to over-rely on children for emotional support, or even validation. Perhaps the most harmful form of this “parentification” occurs when children are caught in the middle of the divorce story. One parent may want to make it clear to the children that he or she is not responsible for the divorce by telling their story—“You know, I wanted to go to marriage counseling.” The other parent responds by listing the faults of the first parent---“Did you know he had an affair 5 years ago?” In truth, two spouses rarely come to consensus on the story of their relationship at the time of divorce—so how can we expect kids, who need a relationship with both parents, to mediate and integrate the story? Your story is valid, and you can use a therapist or a trusted friend to process all your feeling about your history, not the kids. A better option: Tell the kids the general fact of the divorce occurring with a lot of reassurance about how their needs will come first. As they grow older and understand the complexities of relationships themselves, they’ll thank you for not making them take sides.
2. Don’t fight in front of the kids. When the troops see the generals fighting it out about how to proceed, they lose confidence in the whole team and feel very insecure. Work to resolve issues with your ex in a context that is respectful, private, and adult-like. Overt conflict between parents is the number one predictor of negative outcomes for children emotionally following divorce. The good news is that most parents do come to peace for the sake of their kids. But the concern is that one study found that 25% of divorced couples were still in at least “substantial” conflict three years post-divorce. That statistic represents a great deal of needless suffering for many children in Wisconsin.
3. Stay in the picture. One long-term study included kids from Wisconsin (see Constance Ahrons, We’re Still Family) and found that when adult children looked back, they were most satisfied if both parents had “hung in there” and stayed involved in the kids’ lives. Children liked it when both parents came to their soccer games, showed interest in their schoolwork. There are many different placement schedules that can bring about substantial and meaningful times with both parents, but don’t drop out yourself or try to drive out the other parent. As someone once said, “The best parent is both parents.”
4. Keep parenting. Understandably, when adults are going through a difficult change, they can become overtaxed and lose focus on the parenting role. The kids will not be comforted if you stop holding them accountable to the same rules and expectations as you always have—whether done out of guilt, or fatigue. Rather, they will be comforted to know the big people are still strong enough to remain in charge and consistent over this time. Other forms of stability that can be helpful, if feasible, are to keep the kids connected to friends, neighborhoods, or schools that are familiar.
5. Find a healthy balance emotionally for yourself and convey it to the kids. We know that when human beings face a loss or stressor, a balanced approach is best. It is healthy to acknowledge feelings of loss and sadness, but to combine this with a “can-do” attitude about our own resiliency. Either extreme is not healthy. Sometimes we see the parent who is initiating the divorce doing a great job as the cheerleader of the “can-do” attitude for the kids, but not such a hot job connecting with the kids’ sadness. Similarly, we sometimes see the parent not initiating the divorce doing a great job empathizing with the kids’ sadness, but not such a hot job instilling confidence in the kids that we are all going to be OK. Kids need both truths.
6. Think carefully about the divorce structure you set up around you. Extended family will often take their lead from you—is this a war, or a problem to be solved? Similarly, there are many different options for the kind of professionals and the legal structure you use for divorce today (see article on collaborative divorce teams in the “Clinician’s Corner” archive on the cornerstonecounseling.com website). One of the major addresses that will be given as part of the upcoming public education week is Sharon Ellison’s inspirational presentation on “Taking the War Out of Our Words,” to be delivered on November 12th.
For more information on the events that are part of “Family is Forever: Children and Divorce Awareness Week” visit the CFLCW website, collabdivorce.com.
Robert Nohr, Ph.D. practices at the
Milwaukee location of Cornerstone Counseling Services. She can be reached at 262-542-3255 ext.