Parents can play a key role in keeping kids out of the middle. When Maggie Lawson’s husband walked out after 14 years of marriage and two children, she was stunned and, at first, couldn’t come to grips with her new reality. “I kept hoping it was all just a bad dream and that I’d wake up and we’d go on as before,” says Lawson. “Because of this, I didn’t have the capacity to understand how deeply the split affected the kids.” Divorce can be devastating for any couple, but it can be even worse for the children, not just during the divorce but throughout their lives. The ramifications run the gamut and may include behavioral problems, emotional trauma, promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse and difficulty bonding with others. For guidance on how to minimize the pain of divorce on children, we consulted with experts who deal with families and divorce. “Kids are not as resilient as we think,” says Tom Meehan, MSWLCSW, a child and family investigator (CFI). “It is unrealistic to think that parents can protect kids from the fracture of the arrangement that has been their family. The world they have known has been dismantled.” Divorce attorney Kim Willoughby, of Willoughby & Eckelberry, LLC, adds, “Every parent thinks they are acting in the best interest of the kids, but really what they are often saying (without being truly cognizant of it) is that they are doing what’s best for themselves, believing the kids will benefit from that. The hardest thing on children is their parents being consumed by the divorce and not being the best parents they can be.”

“Anyone who says that kids adapt easily to divorce is overly optimistic,” says Lawson, whose son and daughter were 8 and 11 when their father left. “I see lasting and probably permanent changes in both children as a result of this experience.” Both of her children, now 19 and 22, handled the situation in their own unique way, but Lawson views the adaptations they made as both positive and negative. They have developed good organizational skills from living out of two households, but her son alternates between being angry at his father, then at his mother. “Our daughter has built deep and meaningful relationships with friends, but distances herself from family members,” Lawson says. She worries about both children’s abilities to commit to a marriage in the future, but hopes that her remarriage three years ago has been a positive model. Karen Brown’s boys were just 1 and 3 when she and her husband separated for two years and later divorced. Brown didn’t say much to her children about the divorce, thinking it wouldn’t feel much different from the separation. “That was naive on my part,” says Brown. “Much of the divorce was a nightmare, and it wreaked havoc on the boys, especially the older one. But I couldn’t have seen that ahead of time, so I didn’t prepare the kids for it.” Often after a weekend with their father, the boys, now 7 and 9, return home angry at their mother. “There have been numerous times when one child or the other has opened his mouth, and his father’s angry words have poured out,” says Brown. She counts on a couple of days of boundary-pushing when the boys return to her home, readjusting to rules that are quite different from their father’s. Brown has also noticed that her older son gets sick for a few days after experiencing a lot of tension between his parents, while her younger son acts up in school.

Much of the pain and conflict can be avoided by getting counseling before, during and after the divorce. “The earlier the better,” says Carol Lay, Ed.D., a licensed clinical psychologist. “Parents often seek advice about the timing of the separation, what to tell their children and when,” says Dr. Lay. “At different stages of life, there is a need to rework the loss of the nuclear family all over again, so maintaining a relationship with a therapist over the years is very helpful.” When a divorce takes place, the complexity of the procedure is determined by the level of conflict between the couple determining what happens to their finances and children. The term “custody” has been replaced in the court system by “parenting time,” which determines who sees the kids and when, and “decision making,” which determines decisions about school, religion and medical issues. Ideally, if parents come to an arrangement for both parenting time and decision making, a trip to court is unnecessary. However, when an agreement can’t be reached, because of tremendous disagreement or a question of mental health, the couple appears before a judge. “Litigation is not the appropriate forum for figuring out what to do with the kids or what to do with husbands and wives,” states Willoughby. “It’s antithetical to what we should be doing as formerly married people.” Instead, she recommends using collaborative law, which incorporates experts in mental health and finance to address and cut through the emotional aspects of the divorce so that the answers rise to the surface, avoiding the courtroom.

In certain severe situations, the judge and attorneys may agree that a CFI be appointed. As an investigator on behalf of the court, the CFI meets with each parent, the children, teachers, sitters, therapists and neighbors to report to the court and make recommendations. Like Meehan, Gay Niermann, an attorney and child advocate, tries to help parents reach some resolution or agreement. “In addition to the investigation, a CFI can identify problem areas, such as communication, and make suggestions on better ways to communicate and reach agreements,” says Niermann. CFIs also suggest additional professional help, such as a therapist, a parenting coach or joint counseling. There are several things parents can do to protect their children from as much misery as possible before, during and after divorce. First and foremost, focus on their needs. Second, keep them out of adult disputes. Third, maintain structure and stability in terms of values, rules and activities between both households. Seek support from professionals for yourself and your kids. Treat your ex like a business colleague to help keep things cooler for yourself and your children. For more detailed suggestions, see the accompanying sidebar. In the course of dealing with something as painful as the end of a marriage, it is draining to maintain a somewhat normal life and give your children what they need. Yet as difficult as it is to do the work required, the result is that you become a better parent and person, and your child grows up as well-adjusted as possible.

• Make sure your children feel the love from both of you as well as from extended family and friends. The more love and support they feel, the better.

• Nurture yourself as a person separate from your children. It’s a gift to yourself and your children, as well as a good example to them.

• Keep the structure of life as similar to the time before the divorce as possible, and also between both households for continuity and stability.

• Assure your children that divorce occurs because of problems between the parents and that they did not cause the divorce, nor can they mend the marriage.

• Don’t bad-mouth your ex, no matter how hard it is. By doing so, you set a bad example and insult someone your child loves.

• Be open and honest with your children about the divorce in an age-appropriate way without giving too many disturbing details.

• Never use your children as liaisons between you and your ex. It is not their role and only causes them distress.

• Seek help when you or your children need it. There are many therapists who specialize in family issues as well as support groups for parents and children.

• Introduce a new love interest into the lives of your children slowly but honestly — for example, Bob is not their “uncle,” he’s your boyfriend.

• Set a positive example for your children regarding how you cope with your own feelings and dealings with your ex. The way you handle the divorce in front of your children can make a huge difference in their perception of themselves, their parents and their own futures.