January 30, 2014

Three Guiding Principles for Divorcing Parents

child playingDivorce is a challenging and life-changing experience for all family members, and most divorcing parents worry about how their children will be affected in the short and long term. Because divorce is such a significant event for children, these concerns are understandable. As a neutral child specialist, when helping parents address their concerns, I encourage them to consider three guiding principles.

Guiding Principle #1: The crisis of divorce should never become a trauma for children. 

Although divorce will almost always be painful and difficult for children, it is entirely possible for parents to keep it from becoming traumatic. Children can be traumatized when trapped in an environment of high conflict, danger, abandonment or abuse. None of these words should describe a child’s experience of divorce.

Guiding Principle #2: Children must be kept in the center and out of the middle of their parents’ conflict.

It is understandable that divorcing parents will experience conflict with each other. It takes mindfulness and empathy for parents to set the kind of clear boundaries that keep their children from being drawn into the conflict. Being in the middle always impacts children negatively. It is toxic to use children as confidantes, ask them to take sides against the other parent or disparage the other parent in their presence. The decision to take the high road and not put children in the middle is one that parents will never regret.

Guiding Principle #3: There is such a thing as a good divorce for families.

Judith Wallerstein’s longitudinal research on the impact of divorce on children painted a bleak picture of negative, long term developmental, social, academic, emotional and behavioral effects. Wallerstein studied families who divorced in 1971, a time when family law was typically adversarial and divorce was socially stigmatized.  In 1994, Constance Ahrens wrote The Good Divorce: Keeping your Family Together when your Marriage is Falling Apart based on her own longitudinal study. Ahrens found that when divorced parents could reduce conflict, communicate effectively, and co-parent cooperatively, their children did not experience long term adverse effects.

These children continued to feel a reassuring sense of family, transformed from under one roof to under two. With the right kind of personal and professional support, parents can make a healthy transition from a divorced couple to effective co-parents. Making this transition successfully makes a huge difference in the quality of life for children.

Non-adversarial methods of divorce undoubtedly enhance parents’ ability to create child-centered outcomes. Since 1990, there has been a sea change in family law, including models of collaborative practice, mediation and cooperative divorce. When divorce must happen, choosing a child-centered divorce process is another decision that most parents will never regret. For more information on Collaborative Team Practice, please visit the website of the Collaborative Divorce Institute of Minnesota.

Deborah ClemmensenABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deborah Clemmensen
Licensed Psychologist

Deborah Clemmensen, M.Eq., Licensed Psychologist was a child and family clinician for many years before her discovery of Collaborative Team Practice in 2000 motivated the transformation of her professional role from therapist to Neutral Child Specialist. This work---hearing the voices of every family member during a divorce or break up, keeping children at the center and out of the middle, and assisting parents in the creation of developmentally responsive parenting plans---is both a passion and a privilege. Find out more about Deborah's work at www.deborahclemmensen.com

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