Many divorcing parents struggle to identify the best approach for the children. It is a roller coaster at the best of times and when you throw children into the mix it becomes a minefield of emotional management.
If your marriage has ended acrimoniously it can be difficult to know how best to protect your children. Your natural reaction towards your ex may not be child friendly and you may have to think long and hard about the consequences of your actions on your kids in the long run.
It has been widely reported that arguing parents cause damage to their kids so many try to hide the animosity and pretend to have a friendly relationship. This belief is reinforced by a guide for divorcing parents called Sorting out Separation produced by David Cameron's Coalition. It states; "It's not the separation itself that can cause harm to your children, it's the level of conflict that they see or hear between parents. This is universally recognised as being very harmful".
There are however parents who will continue to row in front of the children and in extreme cases even involve them in the disputes. This can be very distressing for the kids however is there a happy medium?
A new US report out says that amicable divorce is just as damaging for children. Harry Benson of the Marriage Foundation says; "Getting on well might make the parents feel better about their split. But it does little for the children. To them it makes no sense if the parents get on well yet won't live together. The "good" divorce is a myth."
Marriages end for many different reasons, but if your partner has been unfaithful or hurt you badly in other ways then it is very challenging to hide away these emotions. It is natural that you feel upset or angry towards them. So it would take every ounce of inner strength to compose yourself to appear relaxed and comfortable with your ex.
However in a lot of cases we underestimate our children. They are extremely perceptive, even at a young age, and will have an appreciation of your true feelings, no matter how well you think you are covering them up.
Whilst it is not in their best interests to bad mouth the other parent or ask children to take sides in disputes, it is also not sending out a good message to pretend to be friendly and on good terms with someone that has been unkind, nasty or treated you badly. It sends out the confusing message that you should suppress any negative feelings in order to avoid conflict. It also says that it is OK to treat you badly.
I have had several clients who have always put a smile on their face and never cried or shown any pain or upset around their children during their divorce. They felt they were protecting their children and to some extent they were as it is never nice to see your parent distressed. However the underlying lesson they were teaching was that it would be a weakness to show negative emotion. The kids may grow up believing that it was not natural to feel bad and that if they did they should hide it at all costs.
We all know that in the real world we experience a wide range of different emotions from positive to negative on a daily basis. It's not what happens to us that counts, it's what we do about it, and children need to understand how to deal with the good times as well as the bad.
Divorcing amicably is a fine line to tread and one that many have strong opinions about. My belief is that conflict is never good in front of the children and should be avoided where possible. However even if you are happily married you will have disagreements as they are part of life and we cannot shy away from this life lesson. If you do have an issue or have been upset by your ex it is important to establish clear boundaries about what is right and wrong and be open about your emotions with your kids. It is OK to acknowledge negative emotions with your child without going into detail or laying blame. They need to know that it is normal to feel sad or angry at times but it is then vital that you give them a coping mechanism for this too. For example:
"Daddy/Mummy and I do not agree about this. I am sad because he/she shouted at me and shouting is not kind. Sometimes we do not agree with each other just like you don't always agree with your friends. The best way to deal with this is to have a think about how we can both be happy and talk about it tomorrow when we are both calmer."
This sends out several clear messages:
1. That you have clear boundaries about what is right and wrong and do not feel it is acceptable to be treated this way
2. It is normal for people to have disagreements from time to time
3. It is OK to express negative emotions
4. It teaches your child how to cope if this situation ever happens to them
Many clients have told me they have been surprised by the relief on the children's faces when they are open about negative emotions. One mother going through an acrimonious divorce told me
"It's almost as if a burden had been lifted from him and he can relax as the big monster in the corridor is now out in the open."
I am a big believer that you need to be honest with your children to protect them. Life is a journey with twists and turns as well as ups and downs. If you can teach them how to cope with life as you deal with your divorce they will grow up stronger and better prepared than a child who has no experience of these things.
So maybe, contrary to popular belief, in some ways divorce can be a good life lesson for children with a positive outcome.