More than a million children every year become part of divorced families. January is International Child-Centered Divorce Awareness Month and a great opportunity to discuss some ways to have a Child-Centered Divorce.
Children and their well-being are the entire reason I work as a family mediator, child-specialist and parenting coach. When I decided on my career path 25 ago, I thought adults were unchangeable and frankly a waste of my time (granted, I was only 15 at the time!) Therefore, I decided I wanted to work with children exclusively, and began my journey to be a child therapist.
Years of work in the mental health field taught me a valuable lesson: providing a child with support and skills in a therapeutic setting wasn’t enough to make lasting change if they went back to households where the parents weren’t doing the things to support them. The parents were the ones with the power to make profound changes, sometimes with just some small tweaks to what they were already doing. Therefore, the majority of my work each day now is with adults, to ensure that the information for change is in the hands of those with the most power: parents.
Decades of research on children’s adjustment during and after divorce point to three main categories of things that have the most impact on children’s adjustment: Parent Conflict, Individual Parent Mental Health and the Parent-Child Relationship.
- Reduce the Conflict between the adults. The higher the level of conflict between the parents, particularly conflict about the child, was and is associated with poorer outcomes in child adjustment. This is true regardless of the parents’ marital status and remains important even once the family officially divorced. Reducing conflict can be accomplished by choosing a divorce process that is more amicable and cooperative, such as mediation or Collaborative. Improved communication is also associated with lower conflict, and this can be accomplished by working with a co-parent coach on communication protocols and new expectations and boundaries between you and your co-parent, regardless of your divorce process.
- Prioritize YOUR mental health. While parents often focus on their children’s mental health (and rightfully so), it’s just as important, if not more, to prioritize your own mental health. The stress from a divorce on a parent can impact the child in several ways: Parents under stress are often less attuned to their child’s needs, quicker to anger, and less consistent. These changes can have a destabilizing impact on children. Find your own mental health supports such as therapy or coaching, exercise, mindfulness and social connections can all help tremendously.
- Focus on your OWN relationship with your child. While there are plenty of things about a divorce that feel out of our control, we have the ability to make impactful changes. Many parents feel guilty about the impact of a divorce on their children and become more permissive parents in response. This can make children less sure of their relationship with you and confused what to expect in an already confusing time. Focus on finding the balance between the parenting style you had when you were in a two-parent household and figuring out how to best parent solo. Additionally, when all else fails, focus on connection over everything else. Ask yourself, “How do I make sure to connect with my child during the time we have together?” This can be new or continued rituals at wakeup, dinner, bedtime or upon transition into your home from the other parent.
Kathleen Zumpano is a child development specialist, family mediator and parent coach who has focused her practice on assisting families during and after divorce. She has been providing therapeutic services to children and families for over 15 years. Kathleen has presented at panels and workshops for the last 11 years on a variety of topics related to families and divorce across the United States and in Canada, on topics ranging from the Voice of the Child to resist/refuse dynamics. She is a past president of the Oregon Association of Collaborative professionals and continues to serve on the Board as well as on several other committees focused on the serving children and their families.