No one walks down the aisle with divorce on his or her mind. Dreams of custody battles and financial frustrations don’t typically accompany that uniquely romantic moment. Yet divorce comes, sometimes when you least expect it. And the heartbreak doesn’t only impact the bride and groom — it’s the children who end up scared and uncertain as their family falls apart.
So what can you do? When divorce comes unexpectedly to your doorstep, how can you give your children the best chance to heal? How do you allow them the chance to be kids, answer their tough questions and ultimately help them move on to a future defined by hope and security?
It is no easy task, but you can help your children one step at a time.
- Take care of yourself: As the sole parent, it’s important that you have some friends you can count on, boundaries in place and priorities settled.
- Help your children heal: Take time in prayer, listen to their fears, be honest about your own shortcomings.
- Let your kids be kids: It can be tempting to turn to your children for comfort and strength — but that forces young hearts to become adults all too soon.
- Handle the tough questions: There will be times when your child will ask questions that tear at the very heart of you. Take a deep breath, sit with them and walk them through their feelings.
- Believe for a future: Almost every single parent worries that their child will repeat the story – that their children will encounter divorce and hardship. Yet as you help your children heal, you will discover that history does not have to repeat itself.
Take Care of Yourself
Shortly after becoming a single parent, I noticed that my daily life had changed, and peace was far from my home.
Shortly after becoming a single parent, I noticed that my daily life had changed, and peace was far from my home. There were days that I struggled just to make it through; I was exhausted and spent.
So I cried out to God for help, and the answer was clear. I needed to seek peace until I found it. On the surface, it didn’t seem possible. But, step-by-step the turbulent atmosphere in my home began to change. Peace transformed our single-parent home as I took control of key areas of my life.
Make a connection
First, I connected to a healthy church. Two years ago, I made a commitment to attend every Sunday and midweek service.
Second, I connected with other single parents. In my geographic area, 50 percent of all families are single-parent families. With so many others in the same situation, it was easy to find others dealing with similar issues.
If you don’t know how to find other single-parent families in your town, contact your church and the churches in your community to find out if they offer a single-parent group. You may be surprised to find one already exists. If there isn’t one, contact your pastor and start one yourself — even an informal group that meets a few times a month. By starting a group, I found several other single parents — right in my own church. We understand each other’s struggles, and we support each other.
Look out for your needs
If you have traveled by airplane, you have no doubt heard the airplane’s safety messages: If there is a change in cabin pressure and you are traveling with children, put on your oxygen mask first. After securing yours, you should then put a mask on the children you are traveling with.
This concept applies to single parenting. When I wasn’t rested or healthy, taking care of my children was far more difficult. I had to resist the urges to tackle the world in a day and pace myself. I needed to get enough sleep, eat healthy and exercise.
Though it seemed like too much to add to our schedule, I found several ways to incorporate exercise into my routine and include my children. Taking walks together, roller-skating with them, popping in a kid’s workout video. When I took care of myself, taking care of my children was less stressful, bringing greater peace.
Learn to say no
In a world that seems to be spinning faster, we are pulled in many directions, and so are our children. When too many demands tug on our families, stress increases and peace is harder to find. I learned I had to carefully control the number of commitments that came between my children and me.
I know many families that rush to soccer, baseball and piano lessons, and then return home exhausted. They are on the go nearly every day of the week. While none of these activities is bad, too many commitments exhaust the entire family. As I evaluated what really matters and let go of things that were less important, my family had down time to recharge.
Get on a budget
In order to gain financial peace, I put myself on a budget. Statistics show that nearly all single parents struggle with finances. My budget has enabled me to accelerate my debt payments, and in just two years I have gone from nearly 50 percent of my budget being debt to nearly no debt at all.
I also found that by giving my children a small allowance and allowing them to save for a candy bar or toy, I spend much less on small items. Additionally, I have ended check out “Mommy, please, please, please” stand-offs that used to occur regularly. From their allowance my children save 10 percent for their church tithe, 40 percent for short-term items such as candy and 50 percent for longer-term savings. They are not allowed to touch the long-term savings unless they have saved for something over an extended period.
Establish family time
No doubt, single parents spend time with their children. But if you are like me, much of that time is spent getting done only what needs to get done. Your children spend most of their time on chores, housework, shopping, etc.
One way that we have scheduled special family time is by implementing family game night. Each Thursday we spend the evening after dinner playing games. In warmer weather we opt to go to the park for family time. Make time just for fun — together. Making time for fun together has strengthened my relationship with my children.
Forgive their father/ mother
I have saved the hardest item for last. I realized, if I truly wanted peace to abound in my home, I had to forgive my children’s father. Anger and unforgiveness was eating away the peace I needed to be a successful single parent. I read the book I Should Forgive, But . . . by Dr. Chuck Lynch, and it helped me understand forgiveness. As I asked God for help, and as I forgave my ex, I realized that forgiveness brings the purest form of peace I can ever find here on earth.
Are you struggling with daily life as a single parent and feeling robbed of peace? Evaluate your priorities, routines and practices to find where you can make changes. Start small. Make adjustments as needed. And never forget that with God, all things are possible.
Effective Co-Parenting, Part One
Divorced parents must contain their anger and conflict in order to cooperate on issues of the children’s welfare.
At a minimum, biological parents who have divorced should contain their anger and conflict in order to cooperate and compromise on issues of the children’s welfare.
At a maximum, the co-parents can strive to enforce similar rules and standards of conduct in each of the children’s homes.
Most co-parents find it difficult to accomplish the former; only a few are able to achieve the latter. Nevertheless, co-parents should do everything they can to build cooperation between the two homes.
I’ll let the children explain what a functional co-parental relationship means in practical, everyday terms.
- Julie, 12, complained in a therapy session that she couldn’t invite both her parents to her music recital. “If they both come they’ll just scowl every chance they get. I tried inviting them both last year, and Mom wouldn’t speak to me for two days because Dad brought Amy [stepmom] with him. She refuses to be in the same room with them.” Julie learned to take turns inviting her mom and dad. If one couldn’t attend, she could invite the other. Unfortunately, this put her in constant turmoil, as she was forced to choose which parent she would invite to certain events. If the other wanted to come but couldn’t, Julie heard that parent’s disappointment and felt guilty. “Why can’t they just put aside their differences and tolerate a couple of hours in the same room?” Good question.
- Because Terrance’s parents always ended up fighting on the phone, he became the middleman to their visitation arrangements. His mother stopped speaking to his father and asked Terrance, at age 9, to communicate her preferences for drop-off and pickup. Terrance had no choice but to oblige, since he enjoyed spending time with his father on weekends.
In both these examples, children carried undue emotional anxiety and burden because their parents could not set aside their differences and act like adults.
An effective co-parent arrangement for Julie’s parents would mean she could invite both parents to her recitals and not worry whether they were fighting or anxious. An effective arrangement for Terrance’s parents would include their finding a way to talk rationally about their schedules instead of triangulating Terrance.
The bottom line is a system that allows children to be children and adults to be their parents.
Action Points for Co-Parents
1. Keep the goal in mind. Working with an uncooperative ex spouse is difficult, especially when you find it tough to give them any credit for change. On some level many ex spouses need to view the other as incapable of change. This leads you to look for evidence that the ex is the same and can’t be trusted; you might also discount evidence to the contrary.
Keeping the goal in mind means doing everything you can to be a Cooperative Colleague and remaining open to the possibility that your ex spouse might change along life’s way. When treating children who are members of a post divorce family or stepfamily, a standard part of my clinical work is to call ex-spouses for a consultation. I generally find them to be much less disagreeable than the other parent assumes they will be. In fact, they are often eager to improve the living conditions for their children. Remember, if you can grow up and change, so can they.
2. Be businesslike if necessary. Many co parents have learned how to handle difficult ex spouse relationships. Some use note cards while speaking on the phone to help keep them on task. Others avoid personal contact altogether, relying on answering machines, letters and e-mail. No matter what your avenue of communication, treat the contact as you would a business deal. Don’t get personal, seek the win/win solution, and stick to discussing the kids.
Having a business mentality may help you to avoid being sidetracked when your buttons get pushed. For example, one good business principle that applies in many circumstances is trying to find the common ground. Whenever possible, agree with some aspect of what your ex is saying even if you disagree with the main point. “You’re right, every teenager wants the independence a car provides; I’m just wondering if he should be rewarded with one right now given his poor grades.” If you can’t “close the deal” because of personal pain or attacks, politely take a time out from negotiations. Return to the table later when you have gathered yourself.
Visit www.SmartStepfamilies.com* for stepfamily resources, conference information and training events.
Effective Co-Parenting, Part Two
Coparents must share the goal of making it as easy as possible for their children to move between their two homes.
Guidelines for Cooperation
The following guidelines will help you help your children move back and forth between their two homes. All co-parents should seek to live according to these guidelines.* Consider how you might make each a reality in your situation. Remember that you are responsible for your contribution to how you and your ex interact. Change your part of the interaction even if you believe your ex spouse is to blame for the negative exchanges that have occurred in the past.
- Work hard to respect the other parent and his or her household. Agree that each parent has a right to privacy, and do not intrude in his or her life. Make space for different parenting styles and rules as there are many healthy ways to raise children. Do not demean the other’s living circumstances, activities, dates or decisions, and give up the need to control your ex’s parenting style. If you have concerns, speak directly to the other parent.
- Schedule a monthly (perhaps more often) “business” meeting to discuss co-parenting matters. You can address schedules, academic reports, behavioral training and spiritual development. Do not discuss your personal life (or your ex’s); that part of your relationship is no longer appropriate. If the conversation turns away from the children, simply redirect the topic or politely end the meeting. If you cannot talk with your ex face to face due to conflict, use e-mail or speak to the answering machine. Do what you can to make your meetings productive for the children.
- Never ask your children to be spies or tattletales on the other home. This places them in a loyalty bind that brings great emotional distress. In fact, be happy when they enjoy the people in their new home. (“I’m glad you enjoy fishing with your step dad.”) If children offer information about life in the other home, listen and stay neutral in your judgment.
- When children have confusing or angry feelings toward your ex, don’t capitalize on their hurt and berate the other parent.Listen and help them to explore their feelings without trying to sway their opinions with your own. If you can’t make positive statements about the other parent, strive for neutral ones.
- Children should have everything they need in each home. Don’t make them bring basic necessities back and forth. Special items, like clothes or a comforting teddy bear, can move back and forth as needed.
- Try to release your hostility toward the other parent so that the children can’t take advantage of your hard feelings.Manipulation is much easier when ex spouses don’t cooperate.
- Do not disappoint your children with broken promises or by being unreliable. Do what you say, keep your visitation schedule as agreed, and stay active in their life.
- Make your custody structure work for your children even if you don’t like the details of the arrangement. Update the other when changes need to be made to the visitation schedule. Also, inform the other parent of any change in job, living arrangements, etc. which may require an adjustment by the children.
- If you plan to hire a babysitter for more than four hours while the children are in your home, give the other parent first right to that time.
- Suggest that younger children take a favorite toy or game as a transitional object. This can help them make the transition and to feel more comfortable in the other home.
- Regarding children who visit for short periods of time or spend time in another home:
- Sometimes it is tempting to only do “special activities” when all the children are with you. That may leave some children feeling that they aren’t as special as others. Do special things with differing combinations of children (it’s all right if someone feels disappointed that he or she wasn’t able to go).
- Let the lives of those living with you remain unaltered, as much as possible, when other children come for visitation.
- Keep toys and possessions in a private spot where they are not to be touched or borrowed unless the owner gives permission (even while they are in the other home).
- Help children adjust when going to the other home.
Visit www.SmartStepfamilies.com for stepfamily resources, conference information and training events.
*Adapted from Everett & Volgy (1994). Healthy Divorce. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Inc. and Visher & Visher (1996). How to Win as a Stepfamily. New York: Brunner/Mazel. Posted by permission.
- If the children will go on vacation while in the other home, find out what’s on the agenda. You can help your kids pack special items and needed clothing.
- Provide the other home with information regarding your child’s changes. A switch in preferences (regarding music, clothes, hair styles, foods, etc.) or physical/cognitive/emotional developments can be significant. Let the other home know what is different before the child arrives.
- If you and your ex cannot resolve a problem or change in custody or visitation, agree to problem solving through mediation rather than litigation.
Next Steps and Related Information
Additional resources for divorced parents
Popular questions on this topic:
- I’m a single mom looking for positive male role models for my kids.
- What do I do when my child tells me about unkind remarks my ex makes about me?
- How do I explain to my kids that their dad left our marriage for another woman?
- How do I help my child develop a relationship with my ex-spouse while honoring her desire not to see him?
- My husband and I divorced some time ago. Now our young son is asking why Mommy and Daddy don’t live together anymore.
- Love Must Be Tough
- The Sacred Union Of Marriage I-II
- What Children Need to Know When Parents Divorce
- Helping Children Survive Divorce
- Six String Rocketeer
- Building a Strong Family
- Single Again: Managing the Financial Fallout
- Healing the Wounds of Divorce
- Helping a Young Child Recover From Divorce