Find the New Normal: Navigating Divorce with Little Ones

Research consistently demonstrates a link between family structure and children’s healthy development, generally favoring stable, two-parent households over alternative family arrangements. However, the reality is that separation and divorce are a part of life for countless American families. While we know what the ideal family looks like in terms of promoting children’s well-being, isn’t it also worth considering how to make the most of things when your family doesn’t quite fit the mold? What protective factors can we focus on to help kids cope with divorce in the short-term and thrive in the long run? Here are three key themes for parents to keep in mind when creating the “new normal” post-separation or divorce.

  1. Boundaries:  When dealing with stressful circumstances, such as the end of a marriage, it can be especially difficult to remember the importance of having a “filter” around our little ones. However, the truth is that healthy boundaries are more crucial than ever during tough transitions. The best thing parents can do for themselves is seek support from friends, family members, or their own therapist so they can keep it together in front of the kids. Side note: as tempting as it may be, badmouthing the other parent does nobody any good! In fact, some research suggests that it may be more harmful to your own relationship with your child than anything else.
  1. Consistency:  Children are remarkably resilient and will be able to adapt to the “new normal” that you co-create, as long as the old routine is replaced with a new one. What exactly this structure looks like will vary for each family; the important piece is that some degree of predictability exists. Who picks the kids up from school? What do meals look like? How do weekends go? What about holidays? When is it appropriate to bring a new partner into the mix? These are all questions that deserve thoughtful planning and commitment to consistency. If you and your former partner are struggling to make these decisions without professional help, consider the benefit of therapy focused on coparenting. The therapist can serve as a mediator to make sure both parents’ voices are heard and decisions are ultimately made in the best interest of the child(ren).
  1. Validation:  The reality is that divorce is painful for all members of the family, and unfortunately parents don’t have the power to prevent their kids from subsequently experiencing sadness, anger, and/or fear. However, parents can help their little ones feel supported through the magic of validation. All it takes is listening to your kids–fully tuning in and making time for them—and letting them know that whatever emotions they’re experiencing are normal and valid. Parents, try to separate your own emotional state from that of your kids; don’t assume that they will feel or react in exactly the way that makes most sense to you. If needed, solicit additional support from teachers, guidance counselors, and even a therapist, so that your child knows he or she has a whole team of people who care for and believe in them.

Kate Kadleck is a therapist at RTC with a passion for working with children, adolescents and families and is experienced with kids as young as age 5.