Your conflicts should never be bigger than your children's needs. —Valerie Hale, clinical psychologist
When couples come into his Manhattan law office to hammer out a divorce settlement that seems likely to be especially contentious, attorney Todd Spodek adds something to the decor of the green-walled conference room that he hopes will calm things down: He scatters pictures of the couples' children across the surface of the hardwood conference table along which the two sides will face each other.
"I ask for pictures in advance — pictures of the kids in different settings: camp, home, at grandma and grandpa's house," says the attorney, who estimates he's handled thousands of divorces. "I tell them, 'How you handle yourself is part of their lives.' It helps. People work out crazy differences."
The U.S. government says 41 percent of first marriages end in divorce, as do 60 percent of second marriages and 73 percent of third marriages. About 30 percent of dissolving marriages involve couples who have minor children, which means that while two individuals are splitting up, it's unlikely many of them will be able to go their separate ways. Most of those with children will end up coordinating schedules and finances and meeting at events that are important to their children's lives for years, even decades to come.
Recommendations for what children need during and after a divorce continue to evolve with research, which increasingly points to choices parents make that can benefit or harm their children. Experts now say, for example, that absent abuse or neglect, children benefit from having strong relationships with both parents. They note that parents dissolving a union should make family-related decisions with a laser focus on what is best for their kids.
"Parents need to remain parental. They need to stay the grownups, and that's hard to do when they are in one of the most difficult periods of their lives. Always put the children first, even when you are angry or distressed at what the other parent is doing or saying," says clinical psychologist Valerie Hale of Salt Lake City.
"Your conflicts should never be bigger than your children's needs."
Stability and tact
When Gaylynne Gallegos (then Fisher) of North Salt Lake was in the middle of a divorce in 1995, she knew she was making decisions that would change not only her life, but that of her three children, then 11, 12 and 13. She decided every decision she made for the rest of their childhood would be about them. So to maintain stability, they lived in the same home, went to the same church and had the same friends and activities as when the parents were together. The one big change she made was going back to college to finish an education that had been put on hold. That was kid-driven, too — it improved her ability to provide for them.
Studies subsequently have backed her instinct that keeping life familiar and stable would help her kids thrive. A number of studies highlight instability as a "big factor in how well children adjust to divorce. Typically, children go through a long series of changes after divorce that make their lives more complicated and difficult," says Alan Hawkins, professor of family life at Brigham Young University. Families may be uprooted and even change homes several times, disrupting school, friendships and more. And as divorced parents begin to date again, the children may see "a series of relationships. Research suggests that a stable single-parent situation is, on average, (better) for children than these kinds of family transitions," he adds.
Absent abuse or a similar serious issue, divorcing parents should work together and make sure children maintain vibrant relationships with both parents. "Co-parenting" gives both parents a place and a say in their children's lives.
But while Hawkins notes a lot of research suggesting good co-parenting post-divorce is associated with better outcomes for children, he also points out it's not a cure-all. For example, he says, a respected study from Penn State found good co-parenting helps foster high-quality father-child relationships and fewer behavior problems. But it didn’t make a difference on some other outcomes examined. "Parents should try to keep a good co-parenting relationship but perhaps not expect that it will prevent all potential problems for children," Hawkins says.
Hale used to do custody evaluations and often asked kids what worried them most as their parents divorced. It was almost always that they wouldn't get to see both parents or that one parent would be sad. Kids need reassurance that even though things will be different, they still have two parents. If a child is going to live with one, the other can help by saying "I know you love me. We're good." Kids benefit from feeling their parents are all right, she says.
In instances where one parent did something that prompted divorce, such as infidelity, and the children know it, the other parent should acknowledge "that the behavior was bad, but the parent is still good and loving," says psychologist Julie Davelman of Tinton Falls, New Jersey.
In divorce, children can lose cousins and aunts and uncles and others on one or both sides of the family because of conflict, says Fran Walfish, a relationship and family psychologist in Beverly Hills, California. "Nurture, nourish and facilitate ongoing relationships. The more people who love and care about your kids, the less painful the divorce will be. Allow your child to be loved by many people."
You don't say
How former couples talk about and to each other has a huge impact on children.
Spodek describes divorce as a personal relationship that has components of a business relationship. If splitting couples can communicate with each other within that framework, it avoids toxicity, he says.
"Talk to your co-parent like you would a client," agrees Hale. "You can talk to patients, teachers, co-workers and others with a great deal of decorum. Good parenting communication is brief, factual and polite."
She teaches clients the power of a single noncommittal sound, something between a "Huh" and "Hmm." It's a great response when a child gets in the car and announces that dad's new wife thinks her predecessor is bossy. "It's the best word in the English language," Hale says. "Don't rise to those things."
The biggest taboo is bad-mouthing the other parent in a child's presence. That goes along with making children carry messages back and forth because you don't want to talk to each other.
Gallegos credits taking child development classes in college well before she ever got married with helping her negotiate the tricky terrain that came with divorce. She didn't ever talk badly about her ex to her kids. "It really affects how a child sees that person, and they are part of that person. I wanted them to have whatever relationship with him they possibly could," she says. "They'd have to figure that part out for themselves."
Extended-circle communication matters, too. Divorcing couples should thank their friends and family for support and for loving their children, then ask them not to gossip or bad-mouth anyone the child loves, even a new step-parent.
Ty and Linda Hatfield of Huntington Beach, California, both experienced their parents' divorces — Ty at about 12, Linda as a young adult. Parents of three grown daughters, the Hatfields have used his background as a retired law enforcement officer and hers as a child development specialist as springboards to become parent educators, starting a research-based parenting program called Parenting From the Heart.
They believe parents need to recognize and acknowledge their children's feelings throughout the divorce process — hard, Ty says, especially for "parents who are not doing so well themselves." Don't brush issues off with a "Don't worry, you'll make new friends when we move." Acknowledge what the child feels and where possible and age appropriate, let children have choices, they say.
They also suggest treating siblings as a team, instead of placing one in charge of the others, as long as ages aren't too far apart. And they promote family meetings where kids can offer suggestions to problem solve and decision-making can be shared.
Individually, children need one-on-one time with each parent, too. The parents are divorcing each other, not the kids, they say.
When children see their parents cope well and maintain balance, they are more likely to do so, as well.
Lisa Orban, mother of five in Quincy, Illinois, and author of "It'll Feel Better When it Quits Hurting," says after her divorce she nurtured the relationships her children had with other supportive, caring adults, including grandparents. She wanted her kids to have good role models close by who could listen to them and love them.
High school guidance counselor Scott White of Montclair, New Jersey, has seen what happens to kids in divorce — including his own. His advice for parents is always negotiate in good faith about everything, from money to custody, vacations and living arrangements. "Speak to each other, not through lawyers," he says.
More do's and don'ts
Most experts interviewed for this story recommend parents take a parenting class. And they unanimously suggest parents who are struggling seek professional counseling for themselves and for the kids if they need it.
Parents need to be thoughtful. Even small things can cause a blow-up if someone is overstepping, says Hale. Step-parents, anxious to be accepted and loved, sometimes create conflict by usurping a biological parent's role — taking a child for a haircut or doing too much in the classroom, for example. "It's not your child," Hale says, adding that unless one has a very good relationship with the child's biological parent, care is needed.
Successfully negotiating a divorce also involves looking past some things.
If kids talk about what happens at the other parent's house, Davelman suggests treating it as though they were visiting a friend's house: interesting, but not personal.
Some folks, though, can't let anything go. Hale says when a client uses the words "the principle of the thing," she thinks, "Write a check to your lawyer for an extra $10,000."
No one in divorce will make all the right decisions. But Hale said the good news is that most parents do well and most kids are resilient and flourish. It's not often the epic battle portrayed on TV. It's much more apt to be parents texting back and forth about Christmas gifts and schedules and sizes. They get along in reasonable fashion.
Even when both parents can't pull it off, there's hope. "If just one parent is warm, reflective and responsive, the kids are going to be OK. You can be that parent," Hale notes.