by Sylvia Sirignano
Why is it that some children whose parents’ divorce suffer no negative effects from this event, while others experience life changing, negative effects? Researchers from many different disciplines have sought the answer to this question for almost four decades. Research has demonstrated that it is not the fact that parents divorce that can harm them, but rather how parents function after a divorce that determines whether or not children’s lives are negatively affected. Underlying all of the factors identified in the research describing how parents function after divorce is that what matters is the extent to which divorced parents can act like a family from the children’s perspective. Even though Mom and Dad are no longer members of each other’s family, children who do well after divorce are those whose experience is that their Mom and Dad still perform the functions of a family for their children. In this article I want to highlight what the research tells us about what it means to function as a family from the children’s perspective post-divorce and share a few ideas I have found helpful when working with divorcing parents to support the transition to a post-divorce which functions in this way.
The Function of a Family For Children
Functioning as a family from the children’s perspective after a divorce appears to have three major components. First, although it is commonly understood that a divorced parenting relationship which is low in conflic is a primary condition that describes a divorce that is good for children, we also know that even when there is no conflict, if Mom and Dad do not communicate about the children, are not at least cordial and do not cooperate with each other around parenting, and do not make decisions affecting children together, resolving ifferences respectfully in order to do so, children are still at risk for difficulties. Secondly, if family financial resources are not made available for the welfare of all family members in a way that is perceived as fair to both parents, and that maintains as high a level of financial well-being for all family members as possible, children are at risk for negative outcomes. Thirdly, if at least one parent is not able to protect children and be emotionally available, invlved, and supportive of children’s lives and eperiences, children are at risk for negative outcomes.
One way to understand how a couple whose marriage has ended can become a post-divorce family from the children’s perspective is by thinking about the family in its most basic ofrm. Families functin in our culture as the social and economic unit that provides financial and emotional support and guidance to its members, especially to the children, but also to the adult family members. For most American families the marital relationship serves as the foundation for the family, or at least serves as the beginning of the family. Yet, of course, families can be composed of one to any number of adults who work to support themselves, each other, and the children with or without a marital relationship as the foundation. From children’s perspective, it is not necessary for the adults to be in a marital relationship as long as they can cooperate around providing the financial resources for the family, and around protecting and emotionally supportingthe children, while teaching their values and expectations about how to behave and succeed in the larger culture. Whether the adults in the family are also able to be emotionally supportive to each other is not so important to children, as long as the adults are cordial with each other.
When there is more than one adult in a family, those who have primary responsibility for raising the children need to make joint decisions about the children and face and resolve any differences they have in order to do so. These decisions have to do with what values to teach as well as what are effective ways to teach values. When the marital relationship is working well, Mom and Dad are able to address these kinds of issues in ways that are respectful of each other and that result in a resolution of differences. Children who experience parents behaving in this way know that Mom and Dad respect each other and think the other is a good parent, even though they may disagree about some values or aspects of discipline.
When parents are unable to do this, either because the differences are never addressed and discussed, or because they are not discussed and resolved respectfully, children learn that one or both parents do not respect the other and/or that Mom and Dad have difference values or ideas aout child rearing that they are not able to resolve. In this situation children are left to sort out the differences between Mom and Dad that the parents are unable or unwilling to do, and they are asked to make assessments for themselves about what is right that they are not yet cognitively or emotionally equipped to make. Of course, children can find themselves in this situation whether their parents are married or divorced. Certainly, unresolved, hostile conflict between Mom and Dad can prohibit parents from functioning as a family from the children’s perspective in each of these ways. Just as readily, however, no communication and an attitude that parents have no right or responsibility to engage in cooperative parenting with their children’s other parent can also do this.
Helping Divorcing Parents Become a Post-Divorce Family for Their Children
When a divorce can end conflict between parents and enable them to work more cooperatively together, divorce can be a good thing for children. When a divorce escalates conflict between parents, makes it difficult for one or both parents to be emotionally available to the children, and/or diminishes financial resources significantly for one or both parents, divorce can hurt children. As divorce professionals working with parents through the transition from being an unhappily married couple, to post-divorce co-parents we are in a unique position to help parents begin to have a vision of what a post-divorce family from a children’s perspective looks like. As a developmental psychologist who is well aware of the research, I am constantly exploring ways to facilitate the transition, as a mediator involved with the divorce process. What follows are some of the ideas I have tried and sometimes have found helpful.
Parenting Responsibilities: Rather than framing the task writing a parenting plan as having to do with arranging parenting schedules, i.e., determining who has the children at what times, I find framing the task as coming to agreements with each other about how to share parenting responsibilities can be helpful. One strategy I have used to encourage divorcing parents to begin thinking about how to do this is to ask them to think about what they see as their own and the other parent’s strengths and challenges as parents. Which parts of parenting are each oft hem good at, and are relatively easy and enjoyable, which parts are more difficult and challenging. Thinking like this can lead to a way to divide the children’s time between Mom and Dad that allows hcildren to get the best each parent has to ffer, and protects children from the frustration parents feel when trying to do something with children that is difficult for them. It also emphasizes that what is important to children’s well-being is not whose home they sleep in when (although that is very important especially to newly separating parents), but that both parents have opportunities to be actively involved in children’s lives when they are awake which provide for positive interactions between each parent and the children.
Communication: Since communication between parents is essential, I find it helpful to suggest that parents come to agreement about how that communication is going to happen in a way that is comfortable for both of them. I also suggest that they agree on what information about the children’s experience is important to both of them to receive from the other. I find that although working out detailed communication plans may seem silly to many, doing this ends up preenting many related conflicts and is a very concrete way of spelling out what each can expect from the other.
Respecting Differences: When there are differences between parents about values and discipline strategies, I have found it helpful to encourage them to come to agreements about as many of these issues as concerns either one of them about the other’s parenting. If instead parents are made to feel that they are powerless to protect their children when the children are with the other parent, their own parental authority is diminished in the children’s eyes. It does not work for children for parents to believe that in all cases it is okay for Dad to do whatever he wants when the children are with him, and for Mom to do whatever she wants when they are with her, when they are aware that one parent worries about their health, safety, or well-being when they are with the other parent. Only when parents can be accepting of the other’s parenting, even though they may disagree and do things diferently, can it work for children to know that Mom and Dad disagree about something or do things differently. When one parent cannot respect the other’s parenting decisions, it does not serve children well if parents do not find a resolution to their different ideas or styles that feels okay to both of them. Of course this becomes particularly difficulty when most of the struggles between a divorcing couple are precisely about these kinds of parenting issues, but I will have to leave that discussion for another time since this topic in itself is another article.
Finances: Rather than framing the task of dividing up the couples’ financial resources as having to do with what’s fair to Mom and Dad, or how much does one have to give the other, I frame the task as having to figure out how the same amount of money that supported the family with one home can be dvidied so that it can now support two homes. This leads, then, to the discussion of what that means in terms of how much money each adult should have to carry their own expenses, whether that gets called child support or alimony. I also encourage parents to think about how they will share responsibility for actually paying the bills for child-related expenses as a way to figure out how much money each should have to cover these expenses.
Although researchers are still actively engaged in work to understand all of the factors impacting children’s well-being after divorce, what is already known gives us a good picture of what does not work for children. When the relationship between a couple keeps parents from resolving differences respectfully in order to make joint decisions impacting their children’s lives, children are hurt. When the way money is distributed between parents interferes with their children’s experience of being taken care of finacnially, children are hurt. To the extent that parents stay in conflict with each other so that children cannot use either of them as the emotionally available adult that they need, children are hurt. The better we as divorce professionals understand the implications of these findings, the more we are able, using some of the strategies described and others, to encourage divorcing parents to envision and create a post-divorce family that does work for children.
Sylvia Sirignano, Ph.D. is a development psychologist and family mediator who specializes in developing parenting plans in complex circumstances. Sylvia can be contacted at (508) 366-7557 or at firstname.lastname@example.org