Child Centered Divorce – A Model for Cooperative Co-Parents

Shawn McGivern

Shawn McGivern

By Shawn McGivern

In September 2000, TIME Magazine invited renowned sociologists and mental health professions to weigh in on What Divorce Does to Kids.

While the issue presented a balance of perspectives, what took front and center stage for readers and experts alike were the late psychologist Judith Wallerstein’s doom and gloom predictions for adult children of divorce. Based on her 25- year study of 131 subjects, Wallerstein concluded that children of divorce “look for love in strange places” and “make terrible life partner choices.”

“Expecting disaster, they will create it,” she writes. “They will delay career choices, delay marriages and likely get divorced themselves.”

 

Both her book and the TIME exposé drew harsh criticism. Christy Buchanan, author of Adolescents After Divorce undercut Wallerstein’s findings stating that, “There’s some good research suggesting that many of the problems attributed to divorce are actually present prior to the divorce.” Penn State Sociology professor, Paul Amato effectively dismissed Wallerstein’s predictions, saying in Time, “What most of the large-scale scientific research shows is that although growing up in a divorced family elevates the risk for certain kinds of problems, it by no means dooms children to having a terrible life.”

Twelve years later, what seems logical is that the subjects whom Wallerstein began tracking in 1971 reflected the loss that can stem from children being raised in an unhappy intact home and then being subjected to “adversarial ” divorce.

The fact is, divorce, like death, is a profound loss of possibility for the child. To him or her, it is as if a once-whole beautiful egg has been shattered into two jagged pieces.

Divorce will likely interrupt the child’s social, emotional and cognitive development. Studies show, however, that children can adjust and do better in the long-run when parents put their differences aside, work as a team, and model for the child the respect and collaborative spirit that informs a successful business partnership.

With 40-50% of marriages ending in divorce, it’s no surprise to find a plethora of literature on the how-to of divorce. For parents whose chief concern is their child’s well-being, however, some of the best thinking from judges, divorce mediators, attorneys and mental health professionals comes from The American Bar Association publications. My Parent are Getting Divorced: A Handbook for Kids and Co-Parenting During and After DIvorce: A Handbook for Parents offers concepts and codes of conduct between co-parents that aim to minimize conflict while optimizing the trust, autonomy, initiative, social interest, cognitive development, and capacity for friendship and intimacy needed in adulthood.

Tips for Cooperative Co-Parents

Kids’ fears and questions run rampant when parents separate. They may not have the language to voice their fears, but a typical interior diaglogue includes: What is divorce? Will I still see both of you? Where will I live? Will we still have enough money to do fun things? ? Am I going to have to leave my school, my teachers, my friends? This is embarrasing; what will other kids think? How will I buy Mom/Dad gifts for holidays or birthdays? If I’m with Dad on weekends, when can I see my friends?

Kids need assurance that it’s okay to be loyal to both parents. They hear criticism of Mom/Dad as descriptive of themselves. Often, when kids are exposed to parents fighting or negative comments about the other, they feel forced into the role of referree or caretaker. For this reasons, competent co-parents have disagreements in private. They discuss adult matters behind closed doors or with other adults. If and when they introduce a significant other to the kids, it’s understood that the child has input on where and when. Resilient kids are most often the product of two homes where warmth, acceptance, and open communications abide.

Language creates experience. Kids know “friends” are people who get together to have fun, enjoy the same things, laugh, and in times of difficulty turn to each other for emotional support. If you are true friends, kids already feel it . If what you mean by we’re friends is closer to “we’re not enemies,” however, try: “Divorce means that we will be living in separate houses. When it comes to major holidays, your birthday, things at school and other important events, though, we’ll get together as a family. There are going to be some changes for all of us, but one thing will stay the same forever:, your dad and I will always share our joy in watching you grown into the terrific person we knew you were the day we brought you home from the hospital.”

Family Advocate and many other child-centered divorce materials emphasize kids’ need for structure. Cooperative co-parents will ideally offer consistency in both homes with respect to times for dinner, homework, TV, internet,and bedtime.

In its Handbook for Clients, Family Advocate encourages single parents to exercise self care. When the kids are gone, make plans with friends. Join a support group. Let the housework go. Go to the gym. Take a class. Pamper Yourself . Relax.

Divorce marks the end of marriage. As Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Travelled, however, “where there is love, there is healing.” And, with child-centered divorce, the healing can begin.

 

 Shawn M. McGivern LMHC

 Conflict resolution/divorce mediation

shawnmcgivern@yahoo.com.

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