Parenting After Divorce

Parenting After Divorce:  Harm Reduction for the Children


The time of marital separation and divorce is among the worst for most people.  Separating spouses are usually swept up in a multitude of emotions.  There is sadness and distress that the once cherished relationship has deteriorated to a point beyond reconciliation.  There is usually anger that the other party was not willing to take the necessary steps to resolve the problems.  There is frustration and helplessness about having any impact on the trajectory toward divorce.  Both parties usually feel betrayed in some manner, whether by the perceived withdrawal of their spouse, an extramarital affair, or other changes that weren’t expected.  This is not an emotional context for optimal functioning, either personally or as a parent.  The last thing people want to do in this emotional state is engage with the other parent, to cooperate, to be cordial, to be reasonable, and to support and feel good about their children having a relationship with this (often despised) other parent.  But, everyone realizes that life must go on for the children, and most recognize that they have to work with the other parent, to some extent.  How do you come to terms with the hurt you feel, without acting on the urge to hurt back?  It will be useful to think about how you have adapted to other losses and hurts in your life, to see if there are lessons that can be applied in this situation.  If your review does not reveal any successful adaptations to past losses and hurts, you may benefit from seeing a psychologist to help you with that specific issue: adapting to loss, rejection and disappointment.

It will probably be obvious that you can’t deal with this hurt by erasing any trace of your former spouse from your life and consciousness.  They will be in your life forever because you share children.  Somehow, you need to find a way to co-parent with them.

Risk and Protective Factors for Children with Divorced Parents

The research on outcomes for children with divorced parents is useful to review.  Children of divorce have about twice the rate of various problems as children from non-divorced families.  You can increase or decrease the harm to your children by attending to the risk and protective factors listed below.  But first, what are the harms associated with divorce for children?

Children of divorced parents have higher rates of:

Externalizing problems like

  • aggression,
  • oppositional behavior,
  • property destruction,
  • getting in trouble,
  • early sexual behavior,
  • criminal behavior,
  • drug use

Internalizing symptoms like

  • depression,
  • anxiety,
  • low self-esteem
  • Teen pregnancy (double the rate)
  • School dropout (2 -3 times the rate)

It is important to remember that harm to children of divorced parents can be increased or decreased by the actions of the parents. On average, children of divorced parents have twice the rates of emotional and behavioral problems as the children of non-divorced parents.  However, there is wide variation in individual outcomes, based on the specific features of the divorced families.  Certain factors (what we call protective factors) protect children from poor outcomes, and certain factors (what we call risk factors) worsen the outcomes for children.  The more risk factors present, the more harm will accrue to the child.  The more protective factors present, the less harm will accrue to the child.  Below is a list of what we have learned from studying divorced families about risk and protective factors.

Risk Factors

Poor social and/or emotional adjustment of the residential parent. Examples include:

  • depression,
  • anxiety
  • mental illness
  • personality disorder
  • substance abuse

Having a non-residential parent with mental illness leads to

  • poor parent-child relationships (for children under 6)
  • poorer child adjustment

Compromised parenting after separation, especially in high conflict cases (this is common) involves:

  • Parents preoccupied or stressed
  • Parents more angry or depressed
  • Less positive involvement with children, less affection
  • More coercive and harsh discipline style

Loss of important relationships is a risk factor for children

  • Loss of friends and mentors if the family moves
  • Loss of contact with extended family
  • Loss of father contact (25% of children do not see their fathers by 3 years post divorce)

Continuing parental conflict with the child in the middle

Re-partnering and remarriage

Reduced or unstable economic situation

Protective Factors

  • Even in high conflict families, encapsulating the conflict and keeping it away from the children helps their adjustment and well-being
  • Good psychological adjustment of the primary parent
  • Competent parenting by either parent
  • Significant contact with the non-residential parent, including
    • overnight visits
    • School night overnight visits
  • Parallel or cooperative co-parenting arrangement
  • Limited number of family transitions (e.g., moves, remarriages, cohabitations)
  • Stable economic circumstances

In families with ongoing parental conflict, it is better to restructure the schedule to limit direct parental contact at transitions than to limit contact with the non-residential parent

  • make the midweek visit an overnight visit with return to school or daycare
  • make weekend visits start at school or daycare and end with return to school or daycare

Behaviors to Avoid for the Well-being of Your Children

  • Don’t ask the child to make adult decisions.  Don’t even ask their preference about decisions that might be in dispute between the parents (like a change of parent-time)
  • Don’t engage in conflict with the other parent in the presence of  the children
  • Don’t talk about issues or parental business during exchanges. If you need to talk about issue, send an email,  no more than 2 lines long
  • Don’t criticize the other parent
  • Co-parenting needs to be a business like relationship
    • Polite
    • Distant
    • Communicate less, not more
    • Do what you agree to do
    • Keep clear boundaries
    • Brief email and phone messages
    • Be pleasant, not friendly

Behaviors to include for the well-being of your children

  • Remember that no one divorced the children
  • The other parent’s input into any decision is as important as yours
  • The children will benefit from significant, quality time with both of their parents.  Do what you can to facilitate that for the children
  • If you have concerns about the other parent’s abilities to be a good parent, don’t approach them by criticizing.  Suggest you see a child psychologist together to discuss co-parenting and parenting issues, or suggest the children see a child psychologist. They will be able to assess the issues and give direction, without escalating the conflict between you and the other parent.
  • Keep the other parent notified of child activities (school, health, social, recreational)
  • Encourage the other parent to attend the child’s activities
  • Be sensitive to the needs of the other parent.  If they are not comfortable being around you, don’t approach them at jointly attended events
  • Always communicate with the same level of courtesy and demeanor that you would use with your boss
  • Don’t be silent about the other parent to the children.  Say positive things:
    • Anticipate that they will have fun with the other parent
    • Remark on the good things about the other parent
    • Acknowledge that they love and are loved by the other parent
  • Don’t burden the children with adult information regarding you and the other parent
    • Don’t complain about your difficulty with the other parent
    • Don’t say or imply that the other parent is not financially supporting, is refusing to allow some fun activity, etc.
    • Don’t talk about legal actions between you and the other parent
    • Don’t ask the children where they want to live or what parent-time schedule they might like (because it isn’t up to them).  Instead, take note of what they spontaneously say about what works well and not so well for them with each parent.  Their input can be used to improve the quality of time with each parent.
    • Don’t vent your frustration about other parent to them
  • Don’t engage in conflict with the other parent in their presence
    • This includes on the phone
    • At exchanges
  • Strive to be fair and focused on the needs of the children, even if you feel the other parent is not
  • Always take a problem-solving stance.  You will have disagreements.  Rather than exclude the other parent from the decision or retaliating or feeling paralyzed, move to discussing a process for resolving the dispute.  This might include consulting experts, going to mediation, or as a last resort, going to court. Listening carefully to the other parent’s perspective often helps clarify where a solution lies

Other Informative Findings from the Research on Children’s Adjustment to Divorce

Children’s Views on Contact with Father

  • Loss of contact with a parent is the most negative aspect of divorce for children
  • Children have strong dissatisfaction with infrequent contact with the non-residential parent
  • The majority of children want more and longer contact with the non-residential parent
  • Most children want input into the planning of living arrangements and time-sharing with parents
    • they are more likely to comply with plans if they have input
    • children want their parents to know that both parents are important to them
    • children have ideas about how much time and the pattern of the time they spend with each parent
    • they have feelings about their parent’s conflict and behavior

Note that neither parent should be soliciting the child’s input on these issues, as they will hear what the child thinks they want to hear.  A jointly chosen child therapist or a guardian ad litem are in a better position to bring the child’s perspective into the discussion.

Adolescents want opportunities for autonomy in parenting plans (e.g., more discretion about when and how they spend time with each parent)

When do children not want frequent contact with the non-residential parent?

  • When they have witnessed violence or emotional abuse
  • When they are frightened or traumatized
  • When the non-residential parent is angry, rigid, punitive, or coercive in discipline (harsh, aggressive, punishment by force such as imposed isolation to a room,  yelling, etc.)
  • When the non-residential parent is selfish, self absorbed, not interested, or preoccupied with other things like dating
  • When the child is aligned with an angry custodial parent
  • When they feel responsible for taking care of a fragile custodial parent (girls particularly do care-taking of mothers)

Parental conflict before separation

  • Does not predict the level of post divorce conflict very well
  • 20-25% of divorced parents lived in highly conflicted marriages
  • 22% lived in low conflict marriages
  • Moderate conflict marriages are associated with a small risk of ongoing conflict
  • Usually there is lower conflict after the separation
  • 8-15% remain in high conflict at 2-3 years post divorce
  • Psychological problems and personality disorders are common in this group
  • High conflict families are often driven by one parent, not both. Often one parent has disengaged and is moving on with life, but is pulled back into the conflict by the other parent

Dimensions of parental conflict

Some types of conflict are more harmful than other types

  • The intensity of conflict is more harmful than the frequency of the conflict
  • Conflict focused on the child (e.g., parent-time, disputes about the child’s activities, school) is more harmful than conflict about other issues (e.g., money, property)
  • Disputes that lead to aggression are more harmful than those that remain verbal
  • Conflicts that remain between the parents are less harmful than conflicts that involve legal action

Parental behaviors that put children in the middle of the conflict

  • Asking children to carry hostile messages (e.g., “tell your mother she should drop dead”)
  • Asking intrusive questions about the other parent or the time spent with other the other parent
  • Creating situations where the child feels the need to hide details or withhold information
  • Creating situations where the child feels the need to conceal their affection for other parent
  • Demeaning other parent
    • The long term effects on children hearing demeaning information about the other parent are increasing anger and a less close relationship with the demeaning parent
    • Demeaning statements of the other parent are harmful whether spoken directly to the child, or merely conversations overheard by the child

Parent anger and conflict

  • Eventually result in fewer contacts with the non-residential parent

Remarriage risk

  • Half of cohabiting relationships last less than a year. This means more losses for the child
  • 3/4ths of men and 2/3rds of women remarry
  • Remarriage and cohabitation does not decrease the risk for children
  • There is more risk of abuse in cohabiting families, particularly for girls

Relocation as risk

  • 25 – 45% of young adults report moving after parental separation
  • Moves of more than 75-100 miles create barriers to continuity of the relationship with the non-residential parent
  • There are negative impacts of moving for all school aged children

Effective parenting: Mothers

  • Warmth
  • Authoritative discipline
  • Appropriate expectations for children
  • Academic skill encouragement
  • Monitoring of activities

Effective parenting: Fathers

  • Active involvement
    • Help with homework and projects
  • Emotional support, warmth
    • Talking about problems
  • Involvement in school
    • Spending time in the classroom is not necessary
    • Should go to parent teacher conferences, back to school night
    • Support educational achievement in their children
    • Children with father’s involved in their school lives get better grades, like school more, and are less likely to dropout or be kicked out of school
  • Authoritative parenting
    • Setting limits
    • Non-coercive, non angry discipline
    • Enforcing rules
    • Appropriate expectations
    • Monitoring the children and their activities
    • Done with a warm and caring style

Contact with father

  • Frequency of father contact by itself, is not a good predictor of child adjustment
  • Frequent contact and good father-child relationship is a good predictor of adjustment
  • Amount of contact communicates to children how important they are to the parent

Adjustment in younger children

  • Frequent father contact in low conflict situations is associated with better adjustment in young children and boys
  • More father involvement (with kids 0-3) is associated with better adaptive skills
  • More father involvement (age 4-6) is associated with better communication and social skills
  • Attachment to a parent requires frequent provision of nurturing activities like feeding, play, discipline, basic care, limit-setting, putting to bed, etc.

As Kelly and Lamb (2000; Lamb & Kelly, 2001:; Lamb, 2002b) reiterated, the ideal situation is one in which children with separated parents have opportunities to interact with both parents frequently in a variety of functional contexts (feeding, play, discipline, basic care, limit-setting, putting to bed, etc.). The evening and overnight periods like extended days with nap times) with nonresidential parents are especially important psychologically for infants, toddlers and young children.  They provide opportunities for crucial social interactions and nurturing activities, including bathing, soothing hurts and anxieties, bedtime rituals, comforting in the middle of the night, and the reassurance and security of snuggling in the morning that l to 3 hour long visits cannot provide.

Overnight visits for very young children

In children from birth to 3 and 3 to 6, overnight visits with the non-residential parent are associated with

  • Psychological and developmental benefits
  • Fewer social and attention problems (rated by mother and father)
  • Higher rates of parent-child attachment.

Consistency of the parent-time schedule was most important for benefits for very young children

Father involvement with adolescents

  • More father involvement leads to less harm for divorced adolescents
  • A higher level of father involvement is associated with fewer behavior problems and fewer emotional problems
  • Boys and girls benefit equally
  • Father involvement in school and overall involvement leads to better behavior and academic functioning for children
  • Increasing the variety of activities shared by fathers and their children lowers the level of school failure
  • Ongoing school-related discussions between child and father is most significant in lowering school failure
  • Minimal father involvement in school-related discussions is worse than no father involvement in terms of school failure
  • Active father involvement and child support payment together are better predictors of adolescent adjustment than either alone
  • More adolescent exposure to parental conflict is associated with distress about divorce in both low and high father contact children
  • More parental conflict leads to deterioration of the child-father relationship

Custody and child adjustment

  • Children have better adjustment in joint physical vs. sole physical custody arrangements on emotional, behavioral and school performance measures
  • No difference has been found between the adjustment of the children in joint physical custody families and married (intact) families
  • Joint physical custody families tend to have lower conflict before separation than sole custody families, but the level of pre-separation conflict doesn’t explain the differences in adjustment
  • Joint physical custody has beneficial effects, regardless of conflict level
  • Joint legal custody is associated with increased father-child visits and fewer child adjustment problems
  • There is no greater conflict in joint legal vs. sole legal custody families

Retrospective views of college students about their parents’ divorce

(15 years average time since the divorce)

  • Feelings of loss predominate
  • 2/3rds missed not having their father around
  • 47% wanted more time with their father
  • 1/3 questioned whether their father loved them
  • Mothers were viewed as a barrier to spending more time with their father
  • Equal time was endorsed by 70% of adult children as the best time-sharing arrangement, regardless of the time-sharing plan they were raised with. 93% of those with a 50/50 time-share expressed satisfaction and thought that was the best possible arrangement for them
  • A substantial number of overnights with the non-residential parent was desired by 30% of those wanting more contact
  • There was more satisfaction with their family functioning if they were raised in a joint vs. sole physical custody structure
  • Greater closeness to parents was reported by those raised in a joint physical custody structure
  • More pain and feeling of loss was reported by those from a sole physical custody structure
  • Students were more likely to view life through the lens of divorce if they were raised in a sole physical custody structure
  • Students rated their level of pain higher with higher levels of parental conflict
  • Compared to non-divorced families, adult children from divorced families have less contact with their fathers, are less trusting of their fathers, and are less affectionate with their fathers