Cooperative Parenting and Divorce:
Part I: Why and How to Keep the Child in Focus
Nobody gets married thinking they’re going to divorce even though the statistics are fairly well-known: in the United States forty percent of all first marriages, sixty percent of all second marriages, and seventy-three percent of all third marriages end in divorce. Half of all children living in the U.S. will experience their parents’ divorce; half of those will witness a second one. Studies on children of divorce show that they tend to have lower grades and a higher school dropout rate than children whose parents are still together, they struggle more with peer relationships, are much more likely to need psychological and substance abuse services, and as adults are almost twice as likely to attempt suicide. It is important to note that the divorce itself is not the sole contributor to these statistics, and rather it has been found it is high conflict co-parenting and loss of attachment to a parent as a result of divorce that causes these grim statistics.
If you have chosen to divorce it’s normal to feel anxiety, guilt, and sadness as a part of your parental grief process. Your children will be grieving too, and arming yourself with some information to guide your decisions in this process is critical. The information in this article is intended to help you improve the possibility of positive outcomes for your child if you have decided that divorce is what you need to do.
Knowing some basic concepts about children and divorce can help you navigate this time in your life during which you might feel like you have to figure out how to do everything differently. There are a few factors that contribute to how well a child fares after a divorce. The best predictor for long term injury to a child in divorce is the intensity and length of hostility between the parents. Fortunately, this is the one variable you can control – with cooperative parenting skills.
First we must understand why parental conflict is so destructive to a child’s foundation. They see us as their protectors who have total control. If we are out of control during conflict and unable to do our job of protecting them, the child will feel overly vulnerable and alone. This is frightening for a child, for as much as they want to prove their independence they understand they can’t actually fend for themselves and they need their parents to survive. A deep fear of abandonment will likely be heightened when parental conflict includes putting down the other parent in front of the child. Children see themselves as half of each parent, so when one parent vilifies the other, the child can feel vilified as well. If they hear the message that the other parent is not worthy of love or respect, they will fear that they themselves aren’t either. This can be especially damaging if the vilified parent is the one they identify with the most (usually the same-sex parent but not always). Anything that threatens their relationship with the two people whose job it is to protect and provide for them weakens their foundation and chance to build a strong self-concept and self-esteem. Additionally, children learn the skills modeled for them at home so as much as possible you want to model healthy and effective communication skills with their other parent.
Cooperative parenting during and after divorce can be challenging. You’re dealing with a lot of changes within your own relationship to your child’s other parent, there may be changes to some of the relationships with friends and family, you’re trying to forge a new life for yourself… all while striving to maintain a stable and happy environment for your child. Since you love your child and want to make decisions that give them the best chance for a healthy experience with your divorce, this guiding question can be a good start to helping you decide what to do at any given point: Is this choice I’m making right now keeping my child in focus (i.e. aimed at creating stability for them, modeling skills I want them to develop, decreasing the hostility between me and their other parent, and increasing healthy relationships with both of us?). So whether that choice is to yell at the other parent or stay calm, speak poorly or well of them to your child, or agree to change next week’s schedule or not, take a pause and a breath and ask yourself that question before taking action.