Dear Dr. Wes and Kendra: As a child of divorce myself, I’d like to get your advice on how to avoid making my own divorce as hard on my kids as it was for me. I remember feeling conflicted loyalties between my parents that continued on into adulthood.
Wes: You’re not alone. I see many adults still caught in that kind of parental pincer. All of us who work the divorce circuit push the same ideas — that kids are more important than hashing and rehashing your bad marriage or divorce.
As a child of high-conflict divorce, it may surprise you to learn that isn’t the norm. Most go more smoothly, particularly if both parents seek better lives and loves after the break up. Still, for many families the effects of divorce gone awry are devastating and even in optimal situations, it can be especially hard for teens
Early intervention is often the key to a successful split. Parents should seek therapy themselves and encourage that for their kids. Most divorces include a “dumper” and “dumpee,” and the dynamic for each is different as far as parenting goes. The dumper is typically at risk for underestimating the impact of his or her decision on the kids, and the dumpee is at risk for leaking inappropriate information and using the kids for emotional support. A trained therapist can redirect each party to avoid those trappings.
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A second key is mediation and collaborative law. They’re not only cheaper, but they give parties greater self-direction over custody and property settlement. By offering parents a place to work out differences peacefully, children are less likely to witness disagreement and acrimony.
By far the greatest danger in divorce is also the hardest to curb: the unrelenting power of narcissism. Some divorcing parties become enraptured with their own rightness, blaming their ex for all that goes wrong while hurrying on to second marriages, which end in much the same way. Narcissists see no problem in teaching their kids just how awful their ex (read: the kids’ other parent) is. That usually just infuriates the kids who feel forced to take sides. Because they’re blind to their own foolishness, narcissists also blame that fury on the ex.
Nowhere is the adage “to thine own self be true” more applicable than when managing a divorce for the best interests of the kids. Monitoring and curbing your own weaknesses will keep your kids safer and leave you in a more respectable position as a parent.
Kendra: According to University of Utah researcher Nicholas H. Wolfinger, coming from a divorced family left you twice as likely to end up divorced. Yet your divorce is the perfect opportunity to change the pattern you experienced in your home. Just because your teens are the product of divorce doesn’t mean they have to become another statistic.
Every experience, bad or good, is a teachable moment. So use your divorce to teach your kids how one finds the wrong mate and, more importantly, how one finds the right one. When your children enter the dating world themselves, promote the idea that they shouldn’t “settle.”
You can also teach them how to break up gracefully. When talking with your kids, say things like, “Although your father/mother is still a great person, we aren’t the best match.” Explain how issues like budgeting, decision-making, religion, work habits and morals tend to divide couples when they disagree.
If your child realizes the divorce was based on differing views, it becomes less important to pick sides. Besides, most kids, especially younger ones, aren’t likely to care which party is responsible. Such explanations also help kids feel that they are not to blame for the divorce.
Rather than a terminal illness, divorce can be like an broken leg aided with a cast and crutch. If you’re willing to swallow your pride and approach it as a collaborative effort, your children will experience less pain.
— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens” and “Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens.” Learn about his new practice Family Psychological Services at dr-wes.com. Kendra Schwartz is a Lawrence High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to firstname.lastname@example.org. Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.