19 June 2009

Keeping kids whole when you split

Your children should be your first priority when you get divorced.

Your heart's raw, and you feel alone and abandoned.

Divorce tends to do that to you.

But as tough as it sounds, your children should be your first priority - and remain so if you want them to emerge from the break-up psychologically unscathed, experts say.

One half of all U.S. children under 18 will see their parents divorce at least once. It's not a statistic anyone's proud of. But the children of divorce today don't feel isolated or even shunned, as they were 30 years ago.

"Today, if your parents are divorced, you know a lot of other people whose parents are divorced, too," says divorce expert Nicholas Wolfinger.

Changes in laws have also helped. No-fault divorce laws mean quicker divorces - and less wear and tear on children.

"The strange thing we found is that among couples who fought a lot, divorce was actually good for the child," agrees another divorce expert, Alan Booth, a professor of social and human development. It distresses the children to be around, day in and day out, people who are fighting.

And because conflict doesn't always end when the marriage does. It's important to try to shield the children from any turmoil after the split, too.

Keep conflict to a minimum
"Jim," a car salesman, who didn't want his real name used, recalls that shortly after his divorce, he and his ex-wife got into a loud argument on the phone as his 7-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son sat listening in. He remembers glancing over at them.

"They had almost a frightened look on their face," Jim says.

He learned the hard way from that experience. "I really tried to keep that as much as possible to a minimum," he says.

Maintaining stability in your children's lives is critical.

If you can stay in the same house, great - or at least in the same school district. And try to avoid introducing your children to your boyfriend or girlfriend for as long as possible. And keep your "ex" as involved in your children's lives as best you can. "Jodie" and her ex-husband try to do just that.

Jodie, who also didn't want her real name used, remained in the same house with her two boys when she and her husband separated 10 years ago. Although he remarried, he lives nearby and still comes over each Christmas morning to open presents. And the boys accompany him to his house to open more presents with his new wife.

Maintaining routines was important to her and her ex-husband. "We just picked up, and we went about our business," she says.

Don't use children as pawns
Equally important is the need to avoid using children as pawns in the fractured relationship, especially older children, says Christy Buchanan, an associate professor of psychology. In a study of 522 California children of divorce, who ranged from 10 years old to 18 years old, Buchanan found that two-thirds felt pulled between their parents "at least once in a while." Another 10 percent said they felt that way "very often."

The more likely a child is to feel torn between their parents, the more likely the child is to be depressed and to be deviant.

Buchanan, defines deviant behaviour as ranging from skipping school to using drugs.

The adolescents Buchanan spoke to described being asked to carry messages between parents, feeling like spies in their parents' households, and not knowing what to say when one parent was especially critical of another.

Be Honest
An honest conversation, really talking about what your children are feeling, can make a difference. Keep communication open, always stressing the break-up wasn't the children's fault.

Some kids on the surface may look as if they're fine or coping or even say, 'I don't want to talk about it. Don't believe them. We can assume this is painful and stressful for all kids."

What divorced parents need to think about is not what divorce can do for them - but what divorce will do to the child.

Own marriages
Providing the best atmosphere for your kids does, in fact, pay off in a big way. The study reported that children from divorced families seem to be doing better than in the past in at least one critical facet of their lives - their own marriages. At least in comparison with children of non-divorced parents.

Before 1975, children of divorce who married were about 2.5 times more likely than others to get divorced. But the gap has narrowed considerably. By 1996, children of divorce were only about 1.4 times as likely to have divorced as their peers.



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