Helping children through divorce

by Shoshana Hayman on September 21, 2015

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Shoshana-150x150When a marriage breaks up, the effects on the children are the biggest cause of worry and source of guilt for parents. Children will now no longer be able to be with both parents every day.  Sometimes they will not even be in the same city.

In unfriendly cases, children are like ping-pong balls, bouncing back and forth as one parent uses the children to hurt the other parent. In one case I counseled, the mother was afraid to re-marry because her ex-husband was trying to poison their son against her and the man she was dating.

Priority #1: Keep Children Attached to Both Parents

Children have deep attachment needs. These needs continue throughout their adolescent years. They would prefer their parents stay together, even in a bad marriage, provided that there is no abuse involved, so that these needs can be fulfilled sufficiently. Maturing adolescents, who think critically and idealistically, wonder why their parents can’t solve their differences peacefully and stay together.

Before the age of 6 — and sometimes after — children are not able to maintain connection with two people simultaneously. Because attachment energy polarizes like a magnet, when parents are not on the same side, the child gravitates to one parent or the other and lets go of the other parent. This polarized energy automatically causes a child to reject the parent she is not actively attaching to. The child is no longer orienting to the rejected parent, and no longer wants to be with or behave for this parent.

The child cannot control this. This is simply how the attachment brain works.

When parents are conscious of how this polarity causes chaos in the child’s attachments, they can work together to keep the child attached to both parents. This takes a tremendous amount of maturity on the part of the parents. The best outcomes for children of divorced parents result when the parents continue to act in the best interest of their children’s developmental needs and make the daily effort to keep their children connected to both parents. This is possible when parents are conscious of these dynamics and have the yearning to do what’s best for their children.

In spite of their separation as a couple, parents can remain united in their parenting. This means that each parent has to endear the other parent to the child. Speaking well of the other parent, affirming the other parent’s love for the child, finding ways to hold the child close to the other parent — these are all ways of staying on the same side of the attachment magnet.

As one divorced mother said, “It took a lot of strength, but I tried to give a clear message to my sons that I was ready to listen to their daddy stories and comment in a friendly, accepting way. I also told them good stories about their father, so they would think highly of him.”

Editor’s note: Read more of what this looks like in the Attachment Parenting home on API’s The Attached Family, including “What Co-parenting Looks Like for Us,” “Co-parenting Basics” and “It’s Not About You…It’s About Them.”

Priority #2: Make Room for Children’s Strong Emotions

Divorce creates inner and outer turmoil for both parents, making it difficult to concentrate on the needs of children and the turmoil they are experiencing. Parents need to make room for their children to express their frustration, sadness, disappointment, missing, helplessness, fear, worry, guilt and alarm. These are vulnerable feelings that need to come out if the child is to recover from this loss and continue to develop in a healthy way.

At least one parent needs to be the place where the child can bring his feelings, thoughts, worries and tears.

While parents don’t like to see their children unhappy, it is much better to allow these feelings to come out than to pretend that everything is fine. It’s no surprise when children in this situation act aggressively and antagonistically. Beneath the surface lies a deep frustration and a need to mourn this great loss. Children need safe outlets for this aggression — together with a parent — such as hitting pillows, jumping on the trampoline, pounding clay or another safe way to discharge this energy.

When children can express their vulnerable feelings to a parent and see over time that they can have independent relationships with both parents, they can recover and grow through this experience.

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Shoshana Hayman (11 Posts)

Shoshana Hayman, Neufeld Institute Faculty, is an Attachment Parenting educator. She and her husband have 6 children and live in Israel, where she is the founder and director of the Life Center: The Israel Center of Attachment Parenting, through which she translates and publishes Attachment Parenting books in Hebrew and follows up with their workshop curriculums. She is also Israel's Regional Director for the Neufeld Institute.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Olivia Sherwin January 7, 2016 at 3:12 pm

These are some great tips, and I appreciate your advice to keep your children attached to both parents when going through a divorce. I’ve started the divorce process, and I’m trying to make it as easy on my kids as possible. I’ll definitely try and stay unified in my parenting with my husband so our children will still have the attachment they need. Thanks for the great post!

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Jordan Smallville July 29, 2016 at 11:16 am

Thanks so much for this informative post! As a parent who is separated, with two young kids I can really appreciate all you had to say. My ex and I are going the uncontested route for divorce and we completely agree that we need to work together to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible for our kids.

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