March, a month that marks the changing of the seasons, more recently has become known as the peak month for couples to change their marital status. According to a University of Washington study, more couples nationwide file for divorce in March than in any other month. For marriages that include children, what this means, of course, is that in the coming weeks, many kids will be receiving the unsettling news: their parents are splitting up.
Divorce is a fragile time for everyone involved, but when you are a parent going through the process of ending a marriage, divorce can become an opportunity to make choices that truly put your precious children first. Is your goal a child-centered divorce? Here’s how you can make the road ahead one that is healthy and stable for you and your kids.
Getting the Timing Right For You: March may be the most common month for divorce filings, but this doesn’t mean it’s the right time for every situation. Some divorcing parents may view March, with its long stretch of school days, as the least disruptive time to take care of attorney visits and court matters while their kids are at school. However, other parents may decide to wait until summer to file for divorce and use the down time of school vacation to spend more time with their kids and help them adjust. (This could be one reason why the other peak month for divorce filings tends to be August.) Carefully consider what will create the easiest transition for your kids.
Can You Live Under One Roof? Think about your living arrangements and whether the two of you can peacefully remain under one roof during the divorce process to help your children more gradually adjust to your new family dynamic. Couples who live in the same house during their separation and divorce, and sometimes beyond, may want to adopt a “nesting” schedule where one parent rotates out to spend the weekend somewhere else while the other parent enjoys one-on-one parenting time with the kids.
Stop Fighting: Studies that investigate the lasting effects of divorce on kids makes it clear: emotional turmoil and explosive fights between parents that negatively impact children, not divorce itself. For your kids’ sake, lay down the slings and arrows and commit to peaceful co-parenting. Helpful steps you can take to make this happen?
- Agree not to argue in front of your kids,
- Don’t bash your ex in your children’s presence,
- Smile and be happy for your kids when they tell you what a great time they just had with their mom or dad,
- Be prompt for custody exchanges,
- Stick to text messages with your ex if that helps your communication remain neutral, and
- Don’t involve your children in the details of the divorce.
Put Temporary Custody & Support Orders in Place: Whatever your living arrangement, once you have decided to divorce, put in writing a parenting time plan that outlines when each of you will see the children until a final order is reached in your divorce. Temporary child support can also be put in place. Even in the extreme situation where your ex has completely walked out on you and the kids, he or she is still obligated to financially support their children. Temporary custody and support orders help to stabilize family life for kids during the divorce process. Your family law attorney can help you draw up agreements, or if necessary, you can go to court.
Deal with Difficult Feelings: When it’s time to let your kids know that you and your spouse are divorcing, what your children need to hear most is that they are loved, they are safe, and that you are still a family. Whenever possible, both parents should be present for this conversation. It can help to rehearse beforehand what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. Encourage your kids to ask questions, but think carefully and be appropriate when answering. Questions older kids ask about divorce can vary significantly from those younger children ask. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, how will what I say impact my child’s ability to feel loved and safe?
As a next step, family counseling or individual therapy with a child psychologist can be an invaluable tool to help kids process their emotions in a neutral setting, without the fear of upsetting their mom and dad. Individual counseling for you (or joint co-parent therapy with your ex) is also helpful. As we have all learned from air travel, you really do need to put on your own air mask first in order to help someone else. So it goes with helping your family through this transition. Processing your own emotions will put you in a much better to help your children deal with painful emotions they may be feeling.
Explore Collaborative Divorce: Litigating your divorce in court pits you and your spouse against each other as adversaries. This can make reaching the goal of becoming peaceful co-parents to your kids all the more difficult, or even impossible. Whether you are just thinking about divorce, and have already begun the process, look into low-conflict collaborative divorce methods, such as mediation, to resolve your issues. By setting aside your differences and working together to reach positive outcomes you can both feel good about, you are modeling the kind of relationship you need to help your children thrive in the coming years. Also, all the money you save from not going through a dragged out court battle is money that can put towards something useful, like your child’s college education!
If you are one of the many parents heading into divorce this month, remember this: How you handle your divorce will have a profound effect on how your child relates to you in the future. In planning a child-centered divorce, think about the bright future your child deserves, and then act accordingly.