Divorcing with Children: A Step by Step Process
Divorcing with children means having to deal with the consequences of ending your marriage as well as ensuring the wellbeing of your kids. During this time, your life might start to feel like one long game of whack-a-mole, each item on your to-do list and each problem you have to solve popping its head above ground just long enough for it to be a nuisance.
Many moms simply don’t know how to make things right when their family has changed so irrevocably. And can you blame them? They are changing too.
When it comes to your children, however, it’s important to stay aware of the fact that they need structure and support to be both emotionally and physically healthy. Seventy-two percent of divorces occur within the first fourteen years of marriage. Put in context, these numbers mean that young children are often affected by divorce the most.
And yet, divorcing with children is never easy for parents or children, no matter their age.
While you struggle to pick up the pieces and move forward as you rebuild your life, you’ll also have to be there every step of the way supporting and encouraging your kids. Your adult children will certainly manifest their own reactions (just like younger children), but you are no longer responsible for their day-to-day survival in this world.
Is their such a thing as a good divorce? The general answer is not really. Sure, there are divorces you are grateful for and divorces you wish you’d had sooner—but divorce is rarely a decision you come to without careful consideration and a little heartbreak. Still, there are things you can do to make the transition easier for yourself, your soon-to-be Ex, and your kids. Here are some of the most important steps to take when you are divorcing with children.
Handle reactions in a healthy way
Prepare for your children to have an avalanche of angry and sad reactions to your divorce. These are inevitable regardless of how old your children are or the reasons for your divorce. As a parent, you have to make sure these reactions are handled in a loving, healthy way.
Acknowledge the emotional responses they are having. Denying the fact that they’re hurt or angry will only make matters worse. Reassure your children that it’s perfectly okay to feel upset, betrayed, sad, or lonely. Help them let these emotions out so that the healing can begin.
It’s best to have the conversation (and we do mean the conversation—you should figure out how to break the news of your divorce to your children before you sit down with them) as a family and to get your soon-to-be Ex involved early on. Regardless of the status of your relationship, assure your children that they’re still and will always be loved. Ask questions, like “is there anything we can do to make you feel better?” They might ignore you at first, but eventually they may feel like opening up and start talking about their needs.
Answer the important questions
Once the dust has settled and you’ve addressed your children’s immediate reaction to your divorce in a healthy and safe environment, the real questions will start.
We all know that children can be brutally honest. That’s why you need to prepare your answers for some of the most candid and difficult questions you’re going to face.
Some of the questions your children are likely to have during your divorce include:
- Who am I going to live with?
- Will I still get to see my mom or dad?
- Where will I spend the holidays?
- Where will I go to school?
- Will I still get to see grandma and grandpa?
- Does mom or dad still love me?
- Will we have to move, and will I see my friends again?
Chances are that you don’t have all the answers to those questions yet. Honesty is still the best policy in these situations. Tell your children that you don’t know quite yet, but that you’re working hard on a plan that ensures everyone’s happiness moving forward. You can also give your children books on divorce to help normalize the situation.
Build a strong support network
Like I said, having a “good” divorce isn’t always easy or even possible. After all, you cannot control other people—your children and your soon-to-be Ex or the way they handle negative emotions.
The only thing you own and can control is your behavior.
You should work toward building a strong support network when divorcing with children. You know your kids will need all the comfort they can get during and in the aftermath of your divorce (even if it happens to be a civil and good one).
Loving, extended family members can be a tremendous resource, both for you and your kids. During a divorce, you might be pressed for time, dealing with appointments and work and meetings with your lawyer while still managing all the mundane everyday things that need to happen for you life to keep running smoothly. Aunts, uncles, and grandparents can deliver a lot of practical caregiving assistance or help with the daily logistics of it all.
The warm and familiar presence of a family member is comforting and reassuring when everything else in your children’s lives seems to be changing rapidly.
Think about the practical aspects of divorce
Healing emotionally is obviously important (especially when divorcing with children) but so is ensuring the best future for your kids. You will have to face the fact that divorce means having a series of difficult conversation with your Ex—accept it and move forward.
Those conversations will have to focus on things like custody, child support, and spousal maintenance. Sorting these issues out of court will be the most painless way to determine what’s best for everyone involved and move on faster. Occasionally, though, a peaceful agreement just isn’t going to be possible.
You know your Ex well, and you know what reaction to anticipate from him*. It’s highly recommended you speak to a divorce attorney before approaching potential challenging issues you foresee coming up. Knowing what your options are will give you a bit of leverage during the negotiations, and an attorney can educate you on what you don’t know. Do not commit to custody or parenting plans without this legal knowledge.
Remember that you’re not always on mom duty
When divorcing with children, creating and activating your support network will give you the much-needed chance to fall apart and grieve while you step away from parenting. Remember the fact that you’re a human being and that your marriage just ended.
A grieving process is necessary, and it’s healthy. Understanding what grief is and allowing it to wash over you for as long as it takes will actually help you close this chapter of your life and move on to the next one.
Can you fall apart during and after divorce? Absolutely! And you should, of course, when the time is right.
There will be days when you’ll feel like staying in bed and not even brushing your teeth. If grandma and grandpa could help with dropping the kids off at school during such moments, you’ll get the opportunity you need to feel what you must—to be angry, overwhelmed, lost, sad, betrayed, or abandoned. (Possibly all at the same time.) Let those emotions out. They need to come out in order for you to metabolize what you’ve been through.
Don’t be afraid to look vulnerable in front of friends or your parents. No one is expecting you to be strong and tough during your divorce (except maybe your kids). If you give yourself an opportunity to mourn what you must—maybe what you’re mourning isn’t even him, really, so much as it is the fantasy that kept you hoping your marriage would turn around—you’ll be better positioned to reclaim yourself and who you want to be as you move forward with your life. You’ll be a better mom if you understand your healing process.
There is no doubt a divorce makes you face your fears. It delivers challenges and changes you never thought would cross your path. At times it will feel like you have to learn fast and have all the answers to every crucial decision. Empower yourself to slow down and seek the information you need to learn about your choices BEFORE making any decisions.
Get informed. Knowing what your options are before you decide anything will allow you to make healthier choices and create a plan. This will anchor you as you endeavor to be honest with your children. Keep the lines of communication open with them and your husband or Ex (if possible). While the divorce process is painful, the way you go about it will determine your and your children’s emotional outcome.
Since 2012, smart women around the world have chosen SAS for Women to support them through the emotional, financial, and oft times complicated experience of divorce. SAS offers women 6 FREE months of email coaching, action plans, checklists and support strategies for you, your family, and your future.
“When a woman comes through divorce with the proper guidance and her questions answered, her life stands before her like something she could never imagine while she was is in the dark.” ~ SAS for Women
Elizabeth S. Coyle is the current Director of Client Services for JacksonWhite Attorneys at Law based in Mesa, Arizona. She serves as a paralegal for the Family Law Department of the firm.