Permanency of Parental Role / Shared Parenting
 

The current research examining the effects of divorce on children concludes that a constructive divorce in a family with children requires minimizing the psychic injury to children through continued relationships with both parents and an atmosphere of support and cooperation between the parents. (Ahorns & Rodgers, 1987)

 

This statement from Ahorns and Rodgers reminds us that the primary focus and interest of the adults in the divorce must be the children and it is only by civil, supportive cooperation between the parents that the best interest of the children can be maintained and any damage to the children minimized by the divorce occurring between the adults. 

 

As your children see you and their other parent divorcing, it is important to communicate to them that this has nothing to do with their relationship with you or the other parent.  They need to be reassured that you and the other parent still love them and that those relationships are permanent.  Do not overtly or covertly cause your child/ren to have to choose between you and their other parent.

 

Just a reminder, children are not our pawns, or tools to be used to get back at the other spouse, that is abuse.  Please get this, when you have your child spy on their other parent, that is emotional abuse of your child.  When you say horrible things about the other parent, whether true or not, that is emotional abuse of your child.  You think the whole world has shifted for you, you think the floor has dropped away and you are in emotional pain, now think of what those things feel like to your child or children.  They are young and have even less experience and resources to work with to deal with the feelings of loss and confusion that come up for them.  They depend on you, their parents, to teach them how to constructively deal with loss and much of that teaching is going to come from your example of how you deal with the loss and uncertainty you have.

 

Perhaps now is the time for YOU to reach out to one or more of the types of resources mentioned above [for phone numbers of specific resources, see the Community Resource Pages – a link to resources page can go here] that can help you learn constructive, positive ways to deal with this change so that you can model those things for them.  Perhaps now is the time to begin shifting your thinking from shame and blame and poor me to being responsible, able to respond, for your situation, your actions and where you go from here.  Again, we may not be able to choose all our circumstances, but we can choose how we respond to them.  Use the power you have, to make strong, constructive choices for the benefit of you and your children and that does not include using your energy to deliberately make life hard for your child’s other parent.  If you are doing that, you are also negatively affecting your child.  …and giving away the power you have to create a supportive, positive life for your child and yourself.

 

Being a parent is a lifelong role. It is better to begin at once to build the communication and relationship with each other that promotes the good of your child.  Treat it as though it is a business and the purpose of the business is to support your children.  This will carry you through school functions, graduations, marriage and other special events and works best for your children when they do not have to choose who they will pay attention to, be with, at a joint “family” function.  Make it easy for your children to be with or see either or both of their parents and not feel like they are in a tug of war.

 

Dr. Tamara D. Afifi, in her May 20, 2012 TEDxUCSB talk discusses what determines outcomes for children as they grow into adulthood  [Use this link to hear the complete Ted Talk - Downloaded on February 3, 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=cKcNyfXbQzQ.]

 

There's one variable that determines more than any other how well children function after divorce and that's parents’ conflict.. . . The most profound finding on divorce in the past four decades is that parents conflict is more important than divorced per se in predicting how well children function.  In fact children whose parents have a lot of conflict and who stay married, those are the children that actually have the most difficulty psychologically and out of that, most difficulty establishing satisfying relationships later in life, not the children necessarily whose parents divorce.

 

It's not so much about the divorce as it is how parents relate to each other.

 

Dr. Afifi goes on to say the following.

 

Parents also need to know that the way they fight affects their children's bodies.   I remember . . . doing field research and I went into families’ homes   I was spending anywhere from four to seven hours in their home interviewing and surveying all the kids and the parents, everybody in the home, and I remember sitting on the couch with a child, Nate is 12 years old, sitting on the couch with him asking about his parents’ divorce and I remember him saying his stomach hurt a lot at night.  Then he would go to school and his stomach would still hurt.    He had a hard time concentrating and he was talking about how his parents fought a lot.  Then I asked him, “Do you talk to your parents about their fighting and what it's like for you?”  He said, “No I don't ever talk to them about it because if I bring it up it makes the conflict worse.”  

 

That defining moment had a big impact on my research.  I walked away from that interaction with that child thinking.  I have to do something different, other than self-reports in our surveys, to try and show parents, “Look at the way that you're fighting is affecting your children's bodies.”  From that point forward I began to look at physiology and children's physiological reactions to their parents conflict and other types of communication patterns through things like their heart rates their galvanic skin response to their sweat or arousal, in looking at stress hormones.  . . . when your body is stressed your brain tells the rest of your body to emit hormones like cortisol.

 

Dr. Afifi goes on to recount how, through using a controlled setting and taking samples of saliva, they found that when an area of disagreement was discussed by parents in front of their children, . . . “that parents [who] have really good communication skills, don't have very much conflict, they're supportive, they're competent in the way that they communicate, and are affectionate [to their children], it doesn't really stress out kids very much. . . They [the children] stress out a little bit, get a little bit anxious and in there their bodies are able to calm down really quickly [seen through the raising and lowering of the stress hormone markers].  It doesn't matter whether their parents are divorced or not.”

 

She went on to say that children whose parents have a lot of conflict, have a high level of reaction in anxiety and the evidence of production of stress hormones.  The more often the conflict, the longer it takes these effects to recede and when the conflict is frequent enough they do not recede causing physiological and emotional problems.

 

She says that . . . [One of the groups] of children that tend to have a really hard time with their parents divorce are the ones who never see it coming.  Again, communicate with your children.  Both parents can help the children have an easier time of dealing with the idea of the divorce by coming to the children with their mutual story that they have agreed upon.  Children, regardless of the age do not need to know all of the details of why their parents came to this mutual story, they just need you to communicate with them what is happening and to be reassured about how this will effect them.  They also need to know that just because their parents are divorcing, that does not mean they divorcing the children, regardless of which home the child stays in the majority of the time.

 

When children feel the conflict of being forced to choose sides in the divorce, being caught in between, either overtly, or by inference, one or both parents are “bad-mouthing” the other in the child’s presence, or openly fighting with each other, some of the frequent behavior your child may exhibit are:

  • Be quiet, not talk about what they are hearing or seeing, yet internalize the interactions.

  • Become aggressive, mimicking their parents’ conflict

  • “directly confront their parents and say, “Look, you need to keep me out of this.”  . . . That actually is the most effective for them, but they have to say it numerous times.  That only comes with age because we tell our children don't talk back to your parents, so they're usually not going to talk back to their parents.  As they age, they increase in their competence and their ability, . . . or they gain efficacy.  They think they now have the ability to tell their parents,. . . “Don't put me in the middle of it” (Afifi, 2012)

 

Afifi ends her talk with:

I felt this talk today was really important because I want to give parents efficacy [in] what they can do, “How can I feel.”, [and to know] “I can do something so that my children don't get put in the middle.”

 

. . . Parents feel very frustrated because they feel like they can control their own actions but they can't control the bad behavior of the other parent.  The first thing you need to do, if you can cooperate, is try and create rules between each other for how you're going to communicate to each other [as parents] and to your children and try to co-parent together.  . . . That's the best alternative, but if you tried and tried and tried and that's not working, the parent continues to bad-mouth you.  Don't engage.  Let go.  Focus on your own behavior, because time and time again adolescents and young adults will tell you, “I respected that.  I could see what was going on and my mom or my dad didn't go there.”

 

Robert Emery, who is a clinician and a researcher who studies divorce. . . said sometimes parents, former spouses, are really angry at each other because they hate each other, and sometimes they're really angry at each other because they still love each other.  You have to figure out why are you are so angry and then you have to figure out how to redefine your relationship.  You are no longer married to each other.  

 

You are co-parents trying to figure out how you can go from spouses to co-parents.

 

I would recommend trying to take away some of the emotion in conflict in general.  People tend to say the worst things, things that they regret, when they're highly emotional, highly angry, highly sad. 

 

Try and diffuse some of the emotions.  Something very simple, for example, is to email the parent instead of talking to them face-to-face so much or via the phone.  Email has its own issues, but it does tend to diffuse emotion. 

 

The last and final point that I wanted to make to parents, the most important thing you can do, is to listen to your child's voice.  They may not say anything, but try and put yourself in your child’s shoes, think of the long-term impact that this [of what you are about to say or do] would have and listen to their inner voice thank you.

 

Your communication with and about the other parent, in large part, determines the distress your children will experience “When parents involve their children in ongoing marital disputes, put pressure on their children to take sides or compete for their children’s affection, children are likely to experience distress… Children often describe their aversive feelings as being torn in two or caught in the middle.” (Afifi, Amato, 2006)

 

Afifi and Amato, 2006 say that adolescents who adjust to the changes in their life brought by divorce, were those whose parents engaged in cooperative parenting during the time after the divorce.

 

These children did not feel forced to choose which parent to love and be close to.  They experienced a supportive relationship with both parents. 

 

If you overtly (openly saying how horrible the other parent is) or covertly (playing the victim expressing some form of “poor me” or giving the children the cold shoulder or silent treatment when they have contact with the other parent) try to have your child take sides, the child has three main options according to Afifi and Amato, 2006.

 

  • Maintain a positive relationship with each parent.  However, nurturing a relationship with two people who are hostile toward each other can cause discomfort in the form of feeling both loyal and disloyal to each parent and feeling like they have to hide the fact that they love the “other” parent.  This includes the feeling that they have to hide who they are.

  • They may resolve their psychological imbalance and discomfort by taking sides, thus losing one of their parents.  They lose the guidance and support of one parent.  This is likely to lead to an inappropriate relationship with the favored parent, likely becoming their confidant.  Again, a reminder to parents, create an appropriate ADULT support system for yourself.  A system which provides support to you to go forward in creating the rewarding, happy life you want for yourself and your child.

 

When you pressure your child to make the second choice, you may feel comforted in the short term, but your child may harbor feelings of guilt about this and resent you.

 

  • The third outcome when children are feeling ripped apart is for them to reject both parents, therefore, losing the love and support of both parents.  With the third outcome everyone loses, both parents and the child.  “there is no positive solution for children caught between hostile parents.”

If you child is older, they may choose one other way as mentioned in Afifi’s 2012 talk, telling you not to put them in the middle, younger children are much less likely to do so.

 

Think about this, your children are your family forever.  Now turn it around, each parent is part of your children’s family forever.  This means through pre-school graduation to Elementary, Elementary School to Middle School to High School and High School graduation to College or a career; they will want both parents to share their joy – without feeling torn apart and having to take sides at these significant events.

 

Then there may be a wedding to celebrate and/or the birth of a child and maybe more than one GRANDCHILD, then the significant steps and events in your grandchildren’s lives --- get the picture?  All those events can be enjoyed together if you have learned to THINK – Children First! and can be in the same room with your child’s other parent without conflict. 

 

This may mean that you choose to think differently about what happens around you.  It may mean choosing to think differently about what you hear someone say.  It may even mean that you choose to think differently about what you THINK someone else is THINKING or INTENDING. 

 

It really is up to you what you CHOOSE to think and to decide if you will react (giving up your personal power) or respond (choosing to behave in such a way as to avoid increased conflict in a temporary situation – for your children).

 
 
 
 

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