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How Parents Can Enhance Their Child's Adjustment During and After Parental Divorce

by Rex Forehand, Ph.D. and Nick Long, Ph.D

Introduction

It is estimated that between 40 and 50 percent of all marriages in the United States will end in a divorce. About 60 percent of these divorces involve children. As a result, more than one million children experience their parents' divorce each year. Parents of these children wonder about the effects of their divorce on their children and, more importantly, about ways to reduce any potential negative effects.

Does parental divorce have a negative effect on children? The answer is a qualified "yes." The "yes" is qualified for two reasons. First, the effects are not as terrible as is often depicted in the public media. If we look at research studies (and there are a large number of them) that have examined how parental divorce affects children, the magnitude of the effect is modest. That is, across large numbers of children whose parents have divorced, the average disruption to a child's adjustment is relatively small, regardless of what area of adjustment IS examined. Second, what is more apparent than the average size of the effect of parental divorce on children is the variability in children's reactions, with some showing more problems and some even showing fewer problems. These results emphasize the importance of how parents handle the divorce.

The following guidelines have been selected from recent research findings:

Nurture your relationship with your child

Children often are afraid that when their parents divorce, their relationship with one or both parents will suffer. Unfortunately, this fear may be well founded. Simply stated, the parent-child relationship is at risk for deterioration after divorce for both custodial and noncustodial parents.

It is critical for divorcing parents to understand the importance of the parent-child relationship following a divorce: a positive parent-child relationship is among the best predictor of children's post-divorce adjustment. If your child is to adjust well to your divorce, nurturing the parent-child relationship is paramount. A positive parent-child relationship involves affection, warmth, effective communication, appropriate boundaries and discipline, mutual respect and caring, child-oriented time spent together, and a general enjoyment of each other's company. Following are some ideas to help nurture the parent-child relationship.

  • Be an "askable" parent. A child needs to feel comfortable asking parents any question without fear of ridicule or rejection. An "askable" parent does not withdraw love or support if what is heard is disappointing or less than appropriate. By listening, parents invite children to communicate. We want our children to ask questions and express feelings; therefore, we must be willing to hear what they have to say. This means developing the valuable skill of talking less and listening more.

  • Utilize effective communication skills, which include: being polite, honest, open, and receptive.

  • Spend special time with your child.

  • Have fun with your child. Find activities that you both enjoy and can have fun doing together. Make sure that they are things that involve the two of you interacting and not just being in each other's presence. Provide your child with plenty of affection, encouragement, and praise during these times. It is through the fun times you spend together that you both develop a greater sense of caring, understanding, appreciation, and cooperation.

  • Express your love for your child. Don't hesitate to tell your child that you love him or her. However, actions speak louder than words. Hug your child. For many children of divorce, the greatest expression of love is a parent's understanding and true acceptance of the child's love of the other parent.

Encourage the involvement of the noncustodial parent

Many noncustodial parents, who typically are fathers, fail to stay involved with their child after the divorce. This is unfortunate as a child's adjustment is enhanced by a positive, active relationship with both parents.

If you are the custodial parent, following are some ways you can encourage your ex-spouse to stay involved with your child.

  • Maintain low levels of hostility and high levels of cooperation between the two of you.
  • Do not criticize your ex-spouse in your child's presence.
  • Encourage your child to initiate activities with your ex-spouse.
  • Encourage phone calls, letters, and e-mails between your child and her other parent, especially if the other parent lives far away.
  • Encourage your child to take items, such as his artwork and photographs, to show or give to his other parent.
  • Talk to your ex-spouse about the good things, not just the problems, about your child and coparenting.

Communicate to your ex-spouse that you appreciate his parenting role.

Do not argue with your ex-spouse in front of your child

Cooperation between divorcing parents is always best for children; if cooperation is not possible, however, then absence of conflict in front of your child is your goal. Regardless of the gender or age of your child, repeatedly exposing him or her to conflict between you and your ex-spouse is harmful.

Parental conflict in front of children can take different forms. It may be subtle, such as making verbal 'jabs' at each other, or, alternatively, verbal conflict can be more overt and hostile, such as threatening, screaming, and cursing. Furthermore, conflict may escalate into physical acts of parents pushing, shoving, or even hitting one another. Physical conflict is worse for children than verbal conflict; however, both are harmful for children's psychological adjustment.

Beyond the form of conflict (i.e., verbal or physical), there are other aspects that have been identified as particularly detrimental for children. As Robert Emery of the University of Virginia has noted, conflict that is frequent, remains unresolved, and involves the child in the dispute is especially damaging.

Following are some recommendations for how to handle issues with your ex-spouse that are most likely to lead to conflict:

  • Focus on what is best for your child, not on whether you can win an argument with your ex-spouse.
  • When you are in the presence of your child and your ex-spouse, avoid controversial issues.
  • When you do discuss issues with your ex-spouse, without the child being present, follow these guidelines:
    • Make sure the child will not appear on the scene during the discussion.
    • Work diligently at remaining calm no matter how angry or verbally aggressive your ex-spouse becomes.
    • Always focus only on the issue of concern (i.e., avoid bringing up other issues or your ex-spouse's faults).
    • Use a problem-solving strategy. Clearly define the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, evaluate the possible solutions, decide which solution to use, and finally evaluate how well it worked.
    • Recognize when you need outside assistance to resolve an issue with your ex-spouse.
    • If conflict between you and your ex-spouse does occur in front of your child, do not talk about it with your child until you have calmed down.

Develop a parenting plan

The way to parent most effectively is to have a plan! The purpose of a parenting plan is to encourage creative, individualized, and clear arrangements, as well as to facilitate cooperative parenting. Having a plan can make it easier for you and your ex-spouse to work together as parents and reduce the amount of conflict between you.

Joan McWilliams, an attorney and mediator in Colorado, points out that a parenting plan contains at least three sections:

  1. Decision Making How will you make decisions about health care, education, and religion for your child?
  2. Visitation How will your child spend time with each parent?
  3. Dispute Resolution What happens if you and your ex-spouse do not agree?

Following are some recommendations for developing a parenting plan:

  • Develop a plan with your ex-spouse as soon as possible. A professional mediator can often help the two of you develop a plan if you are having a hard time on your own.

  • Emphasize with your ex-spouse that the goal of a parenting plan is to clarify parenting issues, avoid conflict, and help your child. The earlier in the divorce process this can be accomplished, the less conflict there will be and the better your child will adjust.

  • Set a time with your ex-spouse to reevaluate the parenting plan as it will need to be modified at times.

Concluding comments

The best interest of your child should always be your priority during and after divorce.

"A hundred years from now it will not matter what sort of house I lived in, what my bank account was, or the kind of car I drove, but the world may be different because I was important in the life of my child." (Author Unknown)

About the Authors

Rex Forehand, Ph.D., is Regents Professor of Clinical Psychology and Director of the Institute for Behavioral Research at the University of Georgia. Dr. Forehand, a child clinical psychologist, has devoted more than thirty years to studying behavior problems of children and developing strategies for parents to use to change those problems. His research and applied clinical programs have been published in more than 300 professional journal articles and book chapters. His book Helping the Noncompliant Child (coauthored by Robert J. McMahon) has received national acclaim for its delineation of a proven clinical intervention program for therapists to use with parents of children with behavior problems. He is also the coauthor Making Divorce Easier on Your Child: 50 Effective Ways to Help Children Adjust (McGraw-Hill, 2002), upon which this article is based.

Nicholas Long, Ph.D., is a Professor of Pediatrics and Director of Pediatric Psychology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Children's Hospital. He is also Director of the Center for Effective Parenting. He is coauthor of Parenting the Strong-Willed Child (with Rex Forehand), which has received international acclaim for providing parents with a proven program for changing child behavior. Dr. Long, who has published extensively in the areas of divorce and practical approaches to parenting, has developed strategies to help parents manage common behavior problems of your children and for parents who are going through stressful times, such as divorce. He is also the coauthor Making Divorce Easier on Your Child: 50 Effective Ways to Help Children Adjust (McGraw-Hill, 2002), upon which this article is based.