A More Natural Approach to Parenting

Helping Children to Deal with Divorce

Divorce and separation may well be the best solution to a discordant marriage. Nevertheless, divorce is the termination of the family unit and so it is often characterized by painful losses.

Although the divorce is viewed as an act isolated in time and place, it is actually a long drawn-out experience that begins with the initial marital disagreements, and often continues for many years after the legal issues are finalized.

For generations the prevailing thought was that it was essential to maintain an intact family for the sake of the children. Many parents endured the sacrifices of a loveless marriage to avoid the financial and social consequences of divorce. Marriage was expected to be a lifetime commitment, a pledge to do whatever was necessary to keep the relationship together.

It is clear from research, however, that children in high-conflict marriages have more psychological disturbances than children of divorce. Parents involved in a high-conflict relationship are often distracted from their roles as parents by the amount of energy and time that they expend warring with each other. They are less emotionally available to the children and less effective as parents. Though not to be taken lightly, it has been shown that divorce can result in better long-term adjustment when the divorce and separation reduce the conflict and take the children out of the middle. .

Young family with sad little boy hugging teddy bear and his parents looking depressed

During the time leading up to, during, and after divorce, children are anxious about their own security. They are not so much concerned with their parents' happiness as knowing that they will be protected and cared for. Parents must focus on their child's feelings and needs, even while in the midst of their own anger and discomfort. Often the child's needs are increased just as the parents are at an emotional disadvantage and unable to attend to the needs of their children.

Any sign of vulnerability in the child regarding the process of separation and divorce should be addressed. Common reactions of children include regression in behavior and social withdrawal. Sadness is typical, and depression is fairly common. Children frequently have psychosomatic symptoms as a response to anger, loss, grief, feeling unloved, and other stressors.

Older children may try to play one parent against the other because they need to feel in control. At the same time, they are likely to feel guilty and responsible for the separation, and they may agonize over their divided loyalties.

Routines of school, extracurricular activities, contact with family and friends, discipline and responsibilities should remain as normal as possible. Children should be given permission for their feelings and opportunities to express them. They must understand that they did not cause the divorce and cannot bring the parents back together. If possible, they should be told that each parent will continue to love and care for them.


Holidays are traditionally happy, fun and exciting times. There is a break from school and a chance to see friends and relatives. Children really like rituals and the feeling that they are part of a family. Rituals help them have a sense of what is predictable. It's something that they can count on every year.

However, for some children of divorced parents, the holidays can also be stressful and confusing. Things no longer seem normal. Family plans and celebrations may be complicated. For these children, the holidays are a reminder of what has changed and what is now different.

Child Custody

For more than a century, courts routinely gave women a preference of sole physical custody. The "tender years" doctrine dictated that small children needed the nurture and stability of a primary parent, and that parent was most likely to be the mother.

The current trend to joint physical custody (with the child going back and forth between parents' homes) has become a politically correct, gender-neutral solution to the problem of a child's growing up without the opportunity to spend equal time with both parents. The idea is that men and women must be treated equally in this and all other matters before the law, and therefore have equal access to the children.

However, eliminating the premise of the tender years in the guise of gender neutrality diminishes the importance of the needs of the child, and avoids a proper determination as to who is best suited to resume the caretaking role. By nature, the roles of the two parents are different. In the early years, the role of mother if she has been breastfeeding, co-sleeping and otherwise nurturing the baby is always primary. Mothers continue to be the primary parent even when they work outside the home.

Fathers are certainly important, but they are sometimes unprepared for the actual responsibilities of shared custody. From early in the baby's life, men defer to women on child-rearing issues and participate less actively in the child-rearing tasks.

In general, in the best interests of the child, mothers should not be required to give up physical custody for long periods, including overnights. Ignoring the close, responsive mother-infant relationship can have profound long-term detrimental effects for infants and children. This is not to downplay the critical role of fathers. Good fathers are doing everything in their power to parent their children to the best of their ability. Certainly in situations where the mother, for economic or other compelling reasons, has chosen to relinquish the primary mothering role to the father, it is entirely appropriate that such a relationship be continued and supported both legally and by the collective society.

Children as Property

Joint physical custody is not the ideal solution it was once thought to be. It may seem to be what is fair to the parents (and some parents may think it is best for the children), but it is often not what is fair or nurturing to the children, especially very young children. Child custody has become a right for which men and women fight, so children are often exchanged like property between parents who insist on their right to them. Not that these parents don't love their children; they love them more than anyone else.

Children need security and roots. Too often the child may be shuttled back and forth between parents and have no real feeling of a "home." Parents who want shared physical custody in order not to be a "visitor" in their child's life do not recognize that their solution only renders their child a continuous visitor shifting between two households. Younger children, in particular, do not adapt well to transitions.

When one spouse has had very little to do with caring for and raising the child or if during the initial separation the child has been made a part of disagreements and arguments, the court will need to know that. It does not bode well for joint custody, under which the parents have greater contact with each other than they would with a sole custody arrangement. For two uncooperative people sharing custody, this probably means that the arguments, disagreements and anger will continue. This in turn will create tension that is communicated to the child, and all the benefits of joint custody could well be negated by the parents' behavior.

Courts: Conflict and Competition

The conventional method for obtaining a civil divorce reveals a general attitude of conflict and competition. Indeed, the civil courts refer to one spouse as "plaintiff" and the other as "defendant". This nomenclature accurately demonstrates that in our society, an adversarial nature is inherent to the process of divorce.


Divorce mediation challenges the methods and assumptions of the adversarial divorce process. It is for couples who have decided that separation or divorce is inevitable but who are able to work cooperatively with each other to come up with a parenting schedule tailored to their children’s needs without a court imposed plan.

Divorce mediation is a family-centered process guided by a trained, neutral, independent third party who guides divorcing couples to work through the issues and decisions of a divorce in order to achieve a workable, fair and reasonable agreement in which children are not treated as property to be divided.

Lawyers can be consulted during the mediation process, but usually aren't (to save money). However, each party must individually consult a lawyer before the mediation agreement is signed. Depending on how complex the divorce is, one can have anywhere from a few to a dozen mediation sessions. Mediation will not be successful unless both parties are communicative and trust each other.

Collaborative Divorce

A way to avoid the trauma of a courtroom altogether is a process called collaborative divorce. Collaborative divorce brings together family lawyers, mental health professionals, and financial advisors to help couples reach divorce settlements without going to court. As part of the collaborative law method, each parent is represented by separate attorneys who are certified in collaborative law and whose job it is to help them settle the dispute. Both parties must sign a contract committing to stay out of court.

Collaborative lawyers do not represent the party in court. Their sole purpose is negotiating agreements. Neither party may seek or threaten court action to resolve disputes. If that should occur, the collaborative law process terminates and both attorneys are disqualified and must withdraw from any further involvement in the case. The process then begins anew in the court system and both parties must hire new lawyers.

All participants in a collaborative divorce agree to insulate the children from the proceeding and to act in such a way as to minimize the impact of the divorce on them.

A child specialist may play a role in the collaborative process, working with children of divorcing parents. It is their job to assist the children in understanding that the parental dispute is not their fault and to teach them how to cope and communicate with their parents. In this way, the children have a voice in the proceedings and become part of the team process.

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