Parents need maturity, courage to help children through divorce

Published July 13, 2012

Rachel and Mike divorced less than a year ago and share custody of their 13-year-old son, Adam.

Over the phone, Mike told me that theirs was "a pretty amicable divorce.'' That changed, however, once he started dating Maggie, who spends most weekends at Mike's house.

For the past month, Adam has refused to spend time at his father's house, and clams up whenever they are together. Mike told me his son was becoming surly, "which is just not like him and never has been."

Mike is far from alone. Every year, another million American children under age 18 must deal with their parents divorcing. Rebelliousness, social isolation or a sudden change in friends, attitude problems and dropping grades all can crop up in the wake of divorce.

When separated or divorced parents argue, or criticize each other to their children, children are left feeling vulnerable and confused. Seeing how their parents are mishandling their own emotions, children don't have a safe place to express their own fear, guilt or anger. Parents must have the maturity and courage to set aside their own grief and be positive, supportive role models for their children. If they can manage that, they likely will find that their children will be resilient.

Rachel joined Mike and me for a few sessions to talk about helping Adam adjust to their new lives.

I reminded them that their divorce came just when Adam was already dealing with the physical and emotional turmoil that all adolescents grapple with. As he was starting to separate from his parents, trying to form his own identity and deal with new social pressures, what he thought was a stable family unit fell apart.

Pulling away from Dad was Adam's attempt to show loyalty to Mom while also expressing anger at his father for including someone new in their already jumbled lives.

Here are some suggestions I offered Adam's parents to reduce conflict and confusion during this major life event:

1. Normalize, normalize, normalize. Change, even for the better, is stressful. Children thrive in environments that are safe and predictable. If curfew has always been 10 p.m., continue that no matter which house they are sleeping in.

Some parents try to compensate for the negative effects they think the divorce has had on children by saying "yes" as often as possible. That's a mistake. Stay as consistent as possible in your parenting style. Effective parenting requires love and fair, consistent discipline, not friendship or inappropriate permissiveness.

2. Be open and honest. Divorce means loss to children, and they will have questions. Answer as honestly as you can without burdening them with too many unnecessary details. Kids deserve to have a basic understanding of why their parents split up. Parents need to come together and agree on what they will say. Statements like "Ask your dad why he left" or "I have no idea why your mom wanted a divorce" create confusion and place the child between warring factions.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

3. Reassure them, over and over, that the divorce was not their fault. Make sure they know that you genuinely care about what they are going through, not just your own misery. Children internalize conflict and pain. Resist the urge to bash or criticize the other parent. Remember, your ex-spouse is still your child's parent. Negative messages will only instill shame and confusion in a child.

Mike and Rachel were able to resolve some of their misunderstandings while sorting through new expectations since the divorce. They agreed on ways to co-parent Adam while maintaining separate households. Later, Adam was encouraged to ask questions in family sessions to gain a better perspective on what he could expect.

Mike saw that he needed to compromise, too.

A few weeks ago, Mike called to say that Adam had resumed their weekend visits.

"Now I see my girlfriend during the week so when Adam comes over, the three of us are not always together,'' he said. "Adam and I have some alone time, too."

Barbara Rhode is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. Petersburg, and co-author of "Launching Your Child to College and Beyond,'' available at She can be reached at (727) 418-7882.