Easing the impact of parental divorce on their adolescents

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

So, a newly divorced single parent asked: "Why would I want to treat someone well who I wanted to divorce and am glad I did?"

The answer is, you probably wouldn’t, except if you have children. In this case, you must both share responsibility for helping them adjust to what for them is an unwelcome and challenging family change.

As soon as you can, come to terms of emotional acceptance of whatever differences drove you apart so you can let old grievances go. Do this partly for your own sake, but also for the sake of the children who can have emotional struggles of their own.

After all, parental divorce is very significant and painful event in the lives of children, particularly for adolescents who have more years of parental marriage to lose. At the least, they may have three emotional impacts to manage.

  • There can be grief over loss of the unitary family.
  • There can be anger at betrayal of the parental commitment to family.
  • There can be anxiety from uncertainty over what is going to happen to family now.

So, what is the best way to treat the other parent? Treat your ex-spouse as a valued ally on whom you depend to work toward a common objective – the welfare of the children. To maintain and cultivate this alliance, treat him or her diplomatically by demonstrating acts of consideration that convey the value you place upon this relationship.

Tackle fears with common sense. If she's scared of dogs, don't hustle her across the street when one is coming. Demystify the fear. ("Oh, a puppy! Let's ask the owner if we can feel how soft his fur is.") In tense moments—shots come to mind—be sympathetic but not too emotional, says Atlanta-area pediatrician Roy Benaroch. Say, "It will be OK. It will be over in a few minutes," not, "I know—it hurts! It hurts!"

(If you are remarried, explain to your new partner how important it is to maintain a working alliance with your ex-spouse. Showing consideration for your ex-spouse is not a matter of romantic feelings for him or her; it is a matter of caring to maintain a well working alliance with the other parent for the children.)

It may sound too old fashioned and trivial to matter, but quality of the divorced parent relationship has a lot to do with courtesy each parent shows the other. "Courtesy" refers to specific acts that signify consideration. Successful parental alliances after divorce are maintained by a meticulous show of consideration, and they can deteriorate without it.


Obviously, the relationship between divorced parents does not always run smoothly, any more than the course of true love, which in this case ended in divorce. However, with effort and attention , there are some specific acts of courtesy that signify consideration and tend to support a strong working alliance between two divorced partners who are still committed to sharing childcare responsibility as parents.

To help start you thinking about what such acts might be, reflect on the ten possible "Articles of Consideration" suggested below, and see if you are willing to sign them for the sake of allying with your ex-spouse, for your children's sake.

Remember that discipline is not punishment. Enforcing limits is really about teaching kids how to behave in the world and helping them to become competent, caring, and in control.

1 "I will be reliable." I will keep the arrangements I make with you and the children. You can count on my word.

2 "I will be responsible." I will honor my obligations to provide for the children. As agreed, I will provide my share of their support.

3 "I will be appreciative." I will let you know ways in which I see you doing good for the children. And I will thank you for being helpful to me.

4 "I will be respectful." I will always talk positively about you to the children. If I have a disagreement or concern, I will talk directly to you.

5 "I will be flexible." I will make an effort to modify childcare arrangements when you have conflicting commitments. I will try to be responsive to work with unexpected change.

6 "I will be tolerant." I will accept the increasing lifestyle differences between us. I will accept how the children live with us on somewhat different terms.

7 "I will be supportive." I will empathize when you are going through a hard time with the kids.. I will care about the welfare of your relationship with the children.

8 "I will be involved." I will problem solve with you when the children get in difficulty. I will work with you to help them.

9 "I will be responsive." I will be available to help cope with the children’s emergencies. I will be on call in times of crisis.

10 "I will be reasonable." I will talk through our inevitable differences in a calm and constructive manner. I will keep communicating until we work out a resolution that is acceptable to us both.

By subscribing to these articles of consideration, you model behavior that you encourage in return, and you strengthen the alliance with your ex-spouse, as he or she is encouraged to do with you.

Divorce a marriage for the adult's sake; but afterwards, jointly recommit to a working parental partnership with your ex for the sake of the kids. At worst, what you don't want is an adolescent complaining: "Now they get along worse now than when they were married. I feel caught in the middle of their resentments. It feels like they love to hate each other more than they love us kids!"

Give appropriate praise. Instead of simply saying, "You're great," try to be specific about what your child did to deserve the positive feedback. You might say, "Waiting until I was off the phone to ask for cookies was hard, and I really liked your patience."

Much better for your adolescent to be able to say: "My parents may not have been able to get along in marriage, but they really pull together when it comes to their children."

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