A background in psychology (and possibly a moderate amount of anxiety about the way my decisions have impacted my child) have led me to do a lot of research about the effects of divorce on young children. And guess what? There’s a lot of good news when it comes to what the research says about children and divorce. In a nutshell, your kids are going to be just fine as long as you (and hopefully also your ex) can commit to:
- reminding (and showing) them often that they are loved, and that will never change;
- reiterating that nothing they did caused the divorce; and
- letting your child(ren) know when they will see the other parent again, and how they can contact them —from FaceTime to the telephone, email and in-person.
(And if your ex can be a bit of a jerk, don’t worry: there’s also good news for people who have less than cooperative exes! Research shows that children only need one loving, stable parent in order to grow up emotionally healthy.)
My ex and I divorced when my daughter was only 18 months old. Like most divorces, it was an extremely difficult time in our lives, and it was especially difficult to communicate the change in our family to a toddler.
Many people think that because young kids can’t communicate themselves, they also don’t understand. But the truth is, they understand way more than we give them credit for — and if we don’t explain what’s going on because the conversation seems too hard (or we flat out hide things from them), we can actually do damage. Developmentally, kids believe the world revolves around them, and that anything that goes wrong (or right) is because of something they did. That’s why kids often blame themselves for divorce.
Explaining what divorce is and how it will affect the kids is crucial. And at that age, visuals are key. So, I created a visual Daily Chart to reiterate to my daughter that every day would begin and end the same way, and a visual Custody Calendar to help her understand when she would see each parent. And guess what? The calendars worked. So well, in fact, that I founded my company, Mighty + Bright, to make these magnetic calendars available to all parents who are navigating divorce and co-parenting. I hope you’ll check them out.
Divorce is a process, and you can’t expect you or your kids to simply get over it and move on. The truth is, being from a split family will always be a challenge in some ways. My daughter, like many kids of divorce, still wishes my ex and I would remarry so our entire blended family — including new step-parents and step- and half- siblings — could all live together. Always missing someone is hard, and meeting your kids with compassion is and always will be really important.
But there are a lot of positives of divorce and co-parenting, too.
More Love in Their Lives
I’m proof positive of this. My daughter has so much more love in her life than she did before. She has a mom and dad, and also a stepmom and a stepdad, and all the grandparents and siblings and aunts and uncles that come with them. More love, more celebrations, more vacations, more experiences – in this case, more is definitely more, and that’s a good thing.
Taking on New Roles, New Perspectives
Now that my daughter’s family has more or less doubled, she now has an older sister – an experience she would never have been able to have otherwise – and also a baby brother. As you and your ex move on and grow new families, your existing child(ren) will have opportunities to play new and different roles in the families. This can help them develop greater empathy and see their world and their responsibilities from perspectives they would never have otherwise been able to experience.
A Greater Ability to Adapt
As your child settles in to the new normal of having two homes and two families, they’ll learn new techniques for adapting and for fitting in to new family paradigms. Exposure to different people, personalities and different familial styles will help your child develop greater understanding of how they fit in to the world. And as they learn to navigate new waters (with your stable support and encouragement), they’ll be able to apply this resilience, flexibility and ability to adapt to different situations in other areas of their life, over the long term.
Divorce is hard. Co-parenting is hard. Raising kids in general is hard. But your child is not at a disadvantage because of your divorce. As long as they know they’re loved, and as long as there is some stability in their life, divorce can actually help your child thrive in ways you may never have expected – which has certainly been the case in my experience.