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Darlene Lancer, JD, MFTDarlene Lancer, JD, MFT
A blog about Women’s Issues, Self-esteem and Relationships

Parenting After Divorce

Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT Updated: Nov 18th 2010

Children intuitively know that there are problems in a marriage, sometimes despite their parents' best efforts to hide them. They may even believe divorce is a welcome relief from their parents' hot or cold war. However, they do not share their parents' need to separate, but on the contrary, need both parents. They in fact go through the same reactions as parents, such as denial, reconciliation fantasies, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, depression, boredom, irritability, intense sorrow, low self-esteem, and feelings of helplessness. Schoolwork may suffer, and some act out aggressively, promiscuously, or with delinquent behavior. All these reactions are ameliorated by their understanding the reasons for the divorce and having a safe place to express their feelings, by regular, frequent contact with the non-custodial parent, and by the parents' acceptance of the divorce and resolution of conflict without placing the children in the middle.

child being pulled between two parentsBABIES: Even babies may evidence depression from inattention or from fear that the custodial parent will also leave. If over-protected, they may behave more infantile. Toddlers may become clingy, withdrawn, may regress, or become demanding and possessive.

PRE-SCHOOLERS: Regression is a normal reaction for the pre-school child for a few months. Longer periods signal more marital dysfunction. Other preschoolers may feel responsible for the divorce and thus try to behave perfectly. Some children feel unloved, need constant reassurance, and attach to non-parental figures, like teachers. Anger, sulking, petulance, whining, and bossing are typical and may be directed at peers, toys, or themselves.

GRADE SCHOOL: school-age child may insist all is fine. Others may experience extreme sadness and longing for the non-custodial parent. They even may make up stories about seeing that parent. The child may appease the custodial parent by not expressing anger about the divorce or by refusing to see the other parent. The child may withdraw from both parents not wanting to alienate either one. If the custodial parent is depressed or preoccupied, a child may feel deep deprivation, neglect, and resentment. When children suddenly are made responsible for their parent, themselves, or younger siblings, they feel cheated of a childhood. To compensate, the child may demand material things, start lying and/or become possessive. Some children feel frightened and unprotected without their father, and either try to assume his role or become too fearful to function normally. They fantasize disaster, can't concentrate and forget things. They may yearn for male company, avoid and blame their mothers. Allowing a child to act his or her age and encouraging contact with the father or other male adult is reassuring.

PRETEENS: They may feel intense anger and vengeful towards one parent, and act out with tantrums and problems in school. Particularly boys blame a single mother and perceive her as less authoritative than father. They balk at discipline. Becoming more restrictive and overprotective promotes more infantile behavior and defiance. Pre-teens may worry constantly about money, may have to work, or be put in the middle asking the non-custodial parent for money. Children continuously placed in the middle carry their parents' anger, and can become suicidal. Children assuming adult responsibilities at this age may feel guilty when they want to be with their friends and a sense of failure for not being able to fulfill their parent's needs. If they're abandoned or rejected by the absent parent, they may withdraw from their social life or hide their sadness with anger. Girls may be jealous of their father's partners and refuse to stay overnight.

TEENAGERS: To avoid their pain, some teenagers act out delinquently, promiscuously, abuse substances, or withdraw from friends. They might act pseudo-mature, then regress to childish behavior and seek younger friends. If the parent/child relationship is too close, a teen may have difficulty leaving home; if living with the opposite sex parent, boys may adopt the father's role and girls become a homemaker to dad. Both may have difficulty learning their sex role if estranged from the same sex parent. Teens also become money conscious, particularly if they miss out on college, and may become resentful and/or manipulate parents to their advantage.

PARENTING PITFALLS: Parents preoccupied with their own pain are unable to properly care for their children, and the children's emotional needs go unmet. Roles reverse. Instead of parenting, parents monopolize their children's time or share their troubles them. Using children as companions or confidants makes them feel overburdened and excessively worried about separating from that parent. Some parents go to the other extreme to boost their self-esteem by trying to be the perfect parent, burdening the child with their need for approval and validation. Another error is expecting children to take on age-inappropriate chores or other responsibilities to pick up the slack of their absent partner.

Parents mustn't pump children for information or make derogatory statements about their ex-spouse. They shouldn't put the children in the middle by asking them to choose or send messages between parents. Parents may be overprotective, over-identify with, and project their own sadness, helplessness, and fears onto a child; they are convinced that the child is experiencing the same problems that they did with their ex. They see themselves as a savior and the other parent as villain. Because their feelings are so merged with the child's, they have trouble tolerating their child's separate needs, love, and loyalty for the other parent. In extreme cases, any sign of affection towards the other parent is taken as a personal rejection. They alienate the children from the non-custodial spouse and are unable to maintain a nurturing, parental nurturing role due to their own unresolved anger and pain. These dysfunctional parenting styles indicate a lack of identity and maturity.

POSITIVE PARENTING: Parents should try to understand their children's experience and differentiate their spousal and parental relationships to better focus on the needs of the children. They must accept that they cannot will the other parent out of existence and that the children will love and need both parents forever. For the children's welfare, they will continue to interface with their ex for many years ahead. They must realize that they cannot control the other spouse's parenting style and decisions when the children are not in their custody.

Parents should honor their agreements and maintain an attitude of tolerance and flexibility. Their children can be analogized to a valuable business investment that they have to preserve together with a spirit of cooperation, despite their personal feelings. Parents should communicate in a businesslike manner and have regularly scheduled meetings to discuss the children. As in a business, personal comments, innuendos, provocative body language, and reference to the past or intimate experiences are inappropriate. When parents don't follow these guidelines, visitation can be a lonely and frightening experience of venturing into enemy territory. Such children are never sure whom they can trust, what is safe, and how to understand two contradictory views of reality. However, children can heal and return to normal tasks of development to the extent parents can cooperate and create a safe, harmonious environment for them.

The best way to help children is for parents to work through their emotions of the divorce and as a family gradually transition to a new structure. Parents must learn to cooperate, communicate, and problem-solve with each other and work out a bi-nuclear family living arrangement and parenting plan. Children should be included, as appropriate, to express their feelings and concerns. Older children can participate in the negotiation of the new family configuration. This is a stressful transition, and it's important to get help and support from other adults, not from the children. A family therapist can be an advantage in this process.


1. Tell your children the truth, with simple explanations. Tell them where the other parent is.

2. Don't bring up grievances or speaking derogatorily about the other parent to or in front of your children.

3. Don't discuss financial, legal or other disputes with your children.

4. Don't say things that might discourage your children from spending time with the other parent.

5. Don't pressure them to take sides.

6. Don't argue, fight, or make threats in the presence of your children.

7. Keep agreements you make with the other parent. Be reliable and prompt, so the children can depend on and trust both parents. Avoid scheduling activities for the children which conflict with the visitation schedule, and if unable to keep the scheduled arrangements, notify the other parent as soon as possible.

8. Don't use your children to get back at or send messages to your ex-spouse. Children in the crossfire get terribly wounded.

9. Children may feel responsible for the divorce or may try to bring parents back together. Let them know they are not to blame and that your decision is final.

10. Divorcing parents may feel guilty and overindulgent. Set limits with your children.

11. Continue to be the parent and seek other adults to fill your relationship needs. Don't allow your child to become "man of the house" or "little mother".

12. Arrange for both parents to be notified and be authorized to act in an emergency. Keep the other parent, school, and daycare advised of your current residence address and telephone numbers.

13. Reassure them that they will be safe, secure, and cared for; even though marital love may end, parent love endures.

14. Spend as much time as possible with each child individually.

15. Be patient with yourself and your children.


Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT

Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert on relationships and codependency. She’s counseled individuals and couples for 27 years and coaches internationally and is the author of two books: Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies. Her ebooks include: 10 Steps to Self-Esteem, How To Speak Your Mind - Become Assertive and Set Limits, Spiritual Transformation in the Twelve Steps and Codependency Recovery Daily Reflections. Ms. Lancer is a sought after speaker at national conferences, on radio, and to professional groups and institutions. Her articles appear in professional journals and Internet mental health websites, including on her own, and, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.” Find her on, Twitter @darlenelancer, and Facebook.

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