Many of us are raised to believe that any family structure outside of the traditional, nuclear one is somehow “broken,” and that divorce causes children long-lasting harm.
But when HuffPost asked folks to share the things they wish their parents had done differently surrounding divorce, people said again and again that they wished the divorce had come earlier.
“Research has shown that what harms the children most — whether parents are married or divorced — is conflict between the parents,” psychologist Ann Buscho, author of “The Parent’s Guide To Birdnesting,” told HuffPost.
If divorce is the way to end that conflict, then it can be to kids’ benefit. If parents manage to “put their children’s needs for a peaceful relationship ahead of their own emotions, children will recover and build resilience,” Buscho said.
Kate Scharff, a therapist who works with divorced couples, has noticed a number of parent behaviors that are upsetting for kids. These include: complaining about how hard it is to be a single parent, taking it personally when they want to spend more time with their other parent, speaking badly about the other parent to the parents of their friends, telling them that their other parent is trying to “buy” their loyalty with gifts and avoiding sharing family memories that include the other parent.
Looking back, here are things people say they wish their parents had done differently:
1. Leaving without saying goodbye.
“My parents split when I was 14 years old. My dad left without so much as a goodbye. I did not see him for 2 months. He waited until the divorce was final before he came back around. Needless to say, that created trust issues. My dad did what he thought was best and it was not. He relocated, leaving his family behind for the other woman and her family. I am 64 years old, and still occasionally tear up when I talk about my dad leaving.” — Janet Streng, Las Vegas, Nevada
2. Moving across the country.
“I wish that my mother would have stayed in same state instead of moving across the country. Only saw my dad during the summer.” — Roberta Steward, age 49
3. Being forced to take sides.
“Wish I hadn’t been used as leverage. Wish I hadn’t been bribed. Wish the courts hadn’t made me decide at the age of 8 which parent I wanted to stay with. Less blaming and bad-mouthing would’ve been great too.” —Liliana Filipe, age 44, Florida
4. Not modeling healthy ways to manage conflict.
“As a child whose parents divorced when I was young, I appreciate the amicable relationship my parents maintained, but I often yearned for their guidance on cultivating healthy relationships and managing conflicts that were often left unsaid or ignored. It left me feeling unsure about navigating romantic connections and constantly striving to prove my worth. I believe that understanding the foundations of healthy relationships would have empowered me and allowed me to foster more fulfilling connections.” —Melissa Jones, age 48, Lebanon, Indiana
5. Prolonging conflict.
“Answer is relatively simple: fight less and not drag everything out. There are 60-year-old emotional scars!” — Morris Armstrong, age 70, Connecticut
6. Ignoring children’s needs.
“I wish so terribly for the common things — that my parents would have divorced sooner, that they wouldn’t have parentified my siblings and myself, that my father didn’t move on so quickly. But most of all? I wish my parents wouldn’t have forgotten to tend to their children during what was, for me, a pretty extended and difficult grieving process. Because we were adults, they both essentially forgot about us and ignored the impact the divorce and their actions within the divorce process had on our mental health.” — Alyssa, age 37, Philadelphia
“My parents’ divorce was brutal and drawn out. Both my mother and father seemed entirely focused on their own interests and hurting the other party as much as possible, and their main means of doing that was by weaponizing the children involved. It wasn’t just inappropriate, it was traumatic — both short-term and long-term. It’s a form of abuse, and it’s the kind of thing that can cause mental health issues.” — Rikki Lee Travolta, age 52, Chicago
7. Bad-mouthing the other parent.
“My mother divorced my father when I was 4 years old. She and my grandparents often used the phrase, ‘If your father really loved you he would ...’ I grew up indoctrinated that either my father didn’t love me or he didn’t know how to love me. I never felt close to him although he was an honest, intelligent, and hard-working man. As a divorce financial planner, I encourage divorcing parents to avoid saying negative things about the other parent in front of their children. It can have a devastating impact on the ability of that child to form loving relationships.” — Laurie Itkin, age 54, San Diego
“I’m a child of divorced parents and I currently am an attorney who represents children in custody disputes. I wish that my mother had allowed me to make my own opinion of my father. I’m sure there were valid reasons my mother felt the way she did, but sharing them with me resulted in a burden no child should have to carry. I try to tell parents of my clients all of the time, criticizing your ex will only backfire. It may not be until age 36, but your child will only resent you for disparaging their other parent. The other major advice I tell parents: Your children know they are comprised of half mom and half dad. If one parent constantly bashes the other parent around the child, that child will wonder if they are also at least half ‘worthless, a liar, etc.’ ”— Jessica S., age 39, Geneva, New York
8. Introducing new partners too early.
“I wish my parents would have considered the impact and importance of bringing new partners into our family. I completely understand that dating after divorce is not without its challenges, but when children are involved, it adds another level of harmony and consistency that is a necessity. It wasn’t fair to the people who didn’t want kids in their lives and had no idea how to handle us, or to us, who were faced with these people who wanted nothing to do with us and saw us as an inconvenience.” — Jenny Dreizen, 35, Huntington, New York
9. Not validating kids’ hurt.
“I know one parent shouldn’t talk trash about the other, but I wish my mom would have talked some trash about my dad. It would have validated my feelings of abandonment. I knew he seemed absent but even to have my mom say, ‘I’m sorry he wasn’t here again. I know you are frustrated, and rightfully so.’ Where he was absent, my mom was the exact opposite. She made it to everything, home and away. Now that I am a mom and I reflect back, I don’t know how she did it! Did she leave work early all the time?! She was clearly dealing with depression yet I never saw it. She didn’t talk bad about him not being there.” — J. Long, Moline, Illinois
10. Treating the children as confidantes.
“My parents divorced when I was 16 years old, and it was the most challenging and traumatic experience of my life. Of course, I wish everything about it was different, but the two biggest things that would have made it easier for me as a teen are: 1) Not being pulled into the middle of the drama. I know this can be hard to avoid, especially with older kids, but try not to depend on your kids for support. See a counselor or therapist or find another source to help you through so you can shield your children from some of the conflict. 2) Don’t jump into the next relationship quickly and start bringing them into your kids’ lives. Again, I understand parents need support as well, but get professional help and allow some good healing time for your children before other partners are brought into the picture.” — Whitney Prude, age 34, Rochester, Minnesota
“I wish they didn’t make me their emotional support child. Being placed in the middle while they vented to me about each other was very inappropriate. Now I’m in therapy.” — Karina Rascon, age 29, Phoenix, Arizona
11. Refusing to be civil with your ex.
“Wish they’d been able to be civil with each other, even if it would’ve been a facade for the sake of their children. Wish they’d not used me as their go-between during their arguments. Wish they could’ve sucked it up and been in the same room, not make me have two grad parties.” — Adam Ehly, age 41, Omaha, Nebraska
“I wish my parents were cordial post-divorce. It’s weird growing up in a two-parent household, and then becoming an adult and your parents don’t speak at all. Having to adjust to holidays and traditions as an adult child of divorce is more challenging than I anticipated.” — Jazmin, age 27, Charlotte, North Carolina
12. Waiting too long to divorce.
“We don’t have divorce in the Philippines, but my parents separated when I was 16 or 17 and my mom re-married here in the US. I wish they separated sooner. I felt betrayed thinking that all the years of being together were just for show. Eventually my mom opened up and told me she could not leave my dad then because of us and the culture we have back home where a broken family is looked down on. That experience changed my perspective on love and family. I’m a single mom by choice because I would rather live in truth with my son alone than having to marry and live a lie.” — Maria, age 42, Arlington Heights, Illinois
“Gotten divorced earlier! Unfortunately, they thought it’d be better to wait till we all graduated high school ... which made my senior year (I’m the youngest) terrible.” — Lacey Romo, age 43, Benicia, California
13. Mishandling the announcement.
“I wish my parents didn’t tell my brother and I about the divorce when we were opening presents on Christmas Day when I was 8. I also wish they put me before their own pettiness they had going on between each other.” — Nicole Harris, age 36, Delaware
14. Painting too rosy a picture.
“I wish my parents hadn’t given me a false security about what it would be like for me. They used quips such as, ‘Just think, you’ll have two of everything! And you’ll get double the amount of gifts at Christmas and on your birthday!’ This remains a haunting memory for me, as it excited me so much that the following months were more traumatic than they should’ve been.” — Christine MacIntyre, age 37, Jackson, Michigan
15. Staying together “for the kids.”
“I wish my parents had not stayed together after my younger brother’s birth. They were just so damn miserable together. My mom had postpartum depression after my brother and they just did not know how to parent together while also being ‘functioning’ alcoholics. There was so much resentment and anger in my home growing up. I think they felt trapped in a relationship because they had us two kids together. They were so busy hating each other that they all but forgot about us and being supportive while they were trying to separate. It was pretty ugly. My brother and I leaned on each other a lot. We felt responsible for their separation for a long time.” — Tawny Draper, age 40, Alberta, Canada
“My dad was a controlling, angry man and my mom stayed far too long just to make sure my brother and I didn’t grow up in a divided home. The repercussions of her decision to stay as long as she did are still being worked through by both of us. I’ve watched myself transform into the passive, submissive woman my mom was in her marriage, letting angry and controlling men into my life. She was worried divorce would be a bad example of love for me. But I think it would have taught me when and how to leave situations that leave me hurt and broken.” — Camille Evans, age 27, Boston, Massachusetts
16. Not seeking therapy.
“My parents handled their divorce very well. They didn’t hold each other up in court. What I wished they did was seek therapy. Both of my parents came from abusive households, this was reflected in how they raised me. I’m 25 years old and I’m the one in rehab and therapy now. Generational trauma is real.” — Maria C., Puerto Rico
17. Not providing adequate financial support.
“I wish my mom would have hired a better lawyer so she didn’t have to work three jobs to put food on the table. This would have also likely resulted in her being a lot less tired, angry and resentful and, therefore, she would have had more time to be present. I wish my parents would have insisted on therapy. I also wish they would have loved us more than they hated each other. I’ll tell you one thing, though: My childhood has shaped the parent I have become and for that, I am eternally grateful. I will never allow my kids to feel like I felt as a child. My kids are safe, loved and appreciated for who they are.” — Becky Andrews Wright, age 38, New Jersey