After responding to a reader’s question about how to co-parent with a difficult ex-spouse in last week’s column, there’s always much more to say about raising children together during separation and/or after divorce. Although I have written about this many times, I’m struck by the number of divorcing parents lamenting their contentious dynamic with their ex-spouse and the negative effects on their children.

So what exactly do children need in order to adjust to your divorce or a change in parenting arrangements? The impact depends largely on the parents’ attention to their children’s respective reactions and emerging needs, with this becoming evident as the process unfolds. As much as both children and adults move through a grieving process during/after divorce, children initially need to overcome their sense of rejection, humiliation, powerlessness, and feelings of being unlovable. Although it is the parents who are divorcing, which has nothing to do with whether a child is a good student, whether she did her chores consistently, or played hockey well, children experience a strong reaction to the loss. This will manifest differently with each child, with some expressing their feelings overtly, reminding their parents daily of their sadness, anger and/or guilt. Others react more covertly, hiding their true emotions, with almost no discernible signs of distress. What’s most painful for children is having no control over the decision and feeling helpless to change it.

With one in every two marriages ending in divorce, there are quite a few children adversely impacted when parents aren’t willing to put the best interests of their children first. Although there might be a “difficult” ex-spouse, both parents need to consider the long-term effects they are creating for their children, who look to their parents to mirror a positive self-image. If hostility is high between the parents, children aren’t able to feel good about themselves, thus compromising their childhood. It’s important for children to feel comfortable in expressing both their negative as well as their positive emotions. It’s very easy for them to get lost in their parents’ grieving process, to assume roles that they believe will ease their family’s pain. For example, a son may assume the role of the “man of the house” if his father moves out. Taking on the more traditional role of “protector” of the family, this undermines his ability to simply be a child. If his mother is clearly suffering, unable to responsibly care for her children, this boy may easily slip into the role of caretaker.

Recently separated parents become the most challenged by the process facing them, confronted with making major life decisions — legal, financial, housing, parenting schedules — while they’re experiencing the intense loss of the marriage. To add more stress, they must address how to communicate on behalf of their children. Painful, abrupt separations can make communication extremely difficult, adversely affecting a parent’s self-esteem, evoking feelings of sadness, anger, betrayal, helplessness. This often creates a wide, hostile gulf between the parents, at a time when children need to know they can count on both of them.

Whatever the age of each child, he/she must never be expected to deliver messages between his/her parents, or to deliver support payments to a parent. It’s quite alarming how many parents use their children as pawns, relinquishing their parental responsibilities to them. Rather than pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone to communicate directly with an ex-spouse, these parents expect their children to assume this role, thereby putting them directly in the middle of their parents’ conflict. This not only causes deep, lasting wounds, but also robs children of their childhood. Despite the ending of the marriage, parents share the responsibility of raising their children together. This requires mutual respect, allowing the children to love BOTH parents without involving them in any hostility, or exposing them to disparaging remarks about the other parent. Children should NEVER be expected to choose sides, or to hear anything about the other parent’s shortcomings, his/her bad behavior. It is essential to avoid any discussion about sensitive issues or any topics that could potentially lead to conflict when in the children’s presence. Children not only worry about their parents when they witness contentious interaction, they also worry about what might happen next, what changes are coming. This type of interaction increases serious anxiety in children. Never share the “truth” about “gory details,” citing the reasons for the divorce, or negative details about the other parent’s life, past or present, to sway loyalties, or to help you navigate through this difficult time.

All important decisions — school, health, emotional problems, etc. — should always be discussed with your co-parent. Maintain a respectful, calm demeanor, leaving any residual marital issues or divorce decisions out of your parenting discussions, maintaining focus on the children. Avoid criticizing the other parent about benign issues, such as clothing, bedtimes or meals, deferring instead to his/her parental judgment. Although that may be challenging, there will be far more important issues as your children grow, so creating a collaborative relationship early on will be in everyone’s best interests. Parents should never expect their children to provide emotional support for them, to help them through their anger, sadness or loneliness. Some parents look to an older child to be their confidante, which puts an enormous, irreparable burden on that child.

Despite the pain and loss that divorce brings, it remains the parents’ responsibility to care for their children, NEVER the job of the children to take care of their parents. As new partners emerge after divorce, dating and time spent with that person should initially be separate from your parenting time. Children report feeling replaced by a parent’s love interest, and/or losing cherished time to be alone with their parent. There’s plenty of opportunity to introduce a serious future partner, once the children have ample time to adjust to the divorce and two homes. Children need to navigate through their childhood as unscathed as possible. Divorce can provide an opportunity for children to thrive, if parents build a solid, mutually respectful, co-parenting partnership. Otherwise, if parents attend more to their own needs, their children may carry the painful wounds of divorce for a very long time.

“Co-parenting. It’s not a competition between two homes. It’s a collaboration of parents doing what is best for the kids.” — Heather Hetchler

Please send me your questions.