Weathering the Storm: Guiding Parenting During Divorce
Weathering the Storm: Guiding Parenting During Divorce
Categories: RECENT RESEARCH
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D.
Divorce counseling reveals a range of intense emotions that patients endure, from ultimate rejection by one’s spouse to the utter fear and terror of losing one’s children. In the counseling process, we can witness feelings, thoughts, and reports of actions for which we feel caught off guard and which we seek to hem in for both the patient and their children’s well-being.
The red-flag behaviors include, when patients:
- expose personal details, such as disclosing secrets about the patient’s former spouse, to their children
- indicate that their children are their best friends
- integrate themselves with their children’s friends
- make children feel responsible for their parents’ happiness
- ask their children for advice about handling the former-spouse—who is the children’s other parent
These actions should never occur because they jeopardize the patient’s role as a parent. As therapists, we need to balance empathizing with an individual’s experience with providing direction and insight that help the patient avoid potholes that may further derail his or her trajectory personally and in the parenting role.
By encouraging patients to re-establish and maintain healthy and clear boundaries, patients are better equipped to support their children and define their role as a parent. In divorced and intact families alike, kids need their parents to be parents and to meet their needs of the children so that they may grow and develop as best possible. For healthy parent-child relationships, it’s important to encourage your patients to identify and uphold these four principles of positive parenting:
- Establish and maintain positive goals and values.
Developing new rituals can be very beneficial to turning the tide and reclaiming order following divorce. During my own divorce, I recall feeling extraordinary amounts of stress and pressure. My daily mantra became, “Do your best and leave the rest to God.” I worked each day to communicate with my children that even if clouds are in the sky, this is a day like no other; let’s not miss it. I also wrote brief, positive notes to them every day—and they responded with their own heartfelt notes as well. I engineered positive discussions and identified inspirational activities, and we engaged in healthy, supportive activities together. Our connectedness affirmed that we would be fine as we sought to connect our challenges and experiences with our beliefs. Our spiritual resources—through joint prayer, conversation, preparing meals together, playing together, and talking about our lives very practically reinforced our bond. This is not to suggest that we didn’t confront and manage conflicts, struggles, and problems, and it does not suggest that difficulties and misunderstandings did not occur, but faith gave rise to a positive orientation that we embraced.
“Divorce changed everything. My outlook on life, what I want in a spouse, how I feel about family, my values, my character.”
–Eighteen-year-old (age fifteen at the time of divorce)
- Set clear expectations.
As a result of divorce, both children and parents may feel that their family has dissolved. It’s important to keep in mind that, divorce is not an end to the family; it’s a transition in a family’s development. A parent’s ability to guide the family process in a constructive direction is essential for children’s healthy growth.
Children need structure and support for their development; the family is an ideal matrix to support both continuity and direction. Help redefine expectations for your children and assure them of their secure place in the home, despite the family’s changed situation. Parents going through a divorce often feel emotionally drained due to the complexities of daily living, including adapting to visitation schedules, failing to establish order or rules in the home, inconsistency or lack of routine, in addition to their own responsibilities and personal struggles. To some extent, this is a consequence of divorce and also a reason for you need to work harder to maintain your family.
“My father made sure we still had memories together, whether it was riding around on bicycles or having our annual movie night. It may not have been our ideal situation, but he gave it his all—the life he knew we deserved.”
—Eighteen-year-old (age seven at the time of divorce)
- Discuss rules and regulations for your home and establish reasonable consequences and rewards.
The home, even after divorce, must mirror a good society in order to create a positive vision for your children’s future. Society includes rules and it includes consequences for breaking those rules. Reasonable consequences render reasonable children. Do not forgo consequences, as you would not forgo rewards for your children’s achievements. This is part of maintaining your parental role. As the leader, you need to be clear about rules, rewards, and consequences in your household as the family takes on a new form.
“I have a lot of friends that lose it, and I did too for a while, but my mom is old school… Though sometimes at night I would hear her cry and mourn, you would never know that anything was wrong. She handled it all and kept the three of us in line and on the straight and narrow.”
—Twenty-year-old (age sixteen at the time of divorce)
- Uphold respect for yourself and the other parent.
Acknowledging the value that both you and your former spouse bring to your children’s lives is critical during a divorce. Regardless of how complex the divorce might be, each parent usually seeks to maintain a mutual, parental relationship. Although you will determine how the other parent fits into your life, it is important that you permit your children to do the same for themselves. Otherwise, you will confuse your children and cause them to be conflicted about their parents’ roles in their lives. Children deserve the opportunity to adjust and respond to the divorce of their parents, much less their adjustment to a new, blended family.
“My mother and I had started to get closer as I became her confidante.I wasn’t a daughter, but rather someone my mother could vent to. When my mother started dating someone and he moved in about one month after her divorce, I quickly had to switch roles and start being an obedient daughter. It was disastrous. I fought with my stepfather the whole time I lived with them.”
—Forty-year-old (age ten at the time of divorce)
When you align your objective with these four parental principles—looking into the eyes of your child should feel reaffirming—knowing you are doing your absolute best. You deserve to feel at peace, knowing that you are doing the best you can —in the midst of this storm.
Excerpted with permission from Collateral Damage: Guiding and Protecting Your Child Through the Minefield of Divorce (Thomas Nelson, January 2017) by Dr. John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. Since its inception, Dr. Chirban has served on the Advisory Board for the daytime television show Dr. Phil, where he is a frequent guest. Based on research from more than 10,000 surveys from children and parents of divorce, Collateral Damage presents parents with an overview of the impact that divorce has on their children and offers ways to better serve their needs at this critical time. The book is available now for pre-order at https://www.amazon.com/Collateral-Damage-Guiding-Protecting-Minefield/dp/0718079884/