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Home > Family & Lifecycles > Parents' juvenile behavior can worsen pain of divorce

Parents' juvenile behavior can worsen pain of divorce


Jewish Bulletin of Northern California
January 4, 2001

When adults manage to behave like adults, then children can manage to enjoy being children-even during divorce.

That's the opinion Philip M. Stahl, Ph.D. puts forward in his new book, "Parenting After Divorce." The Dublin psychologist and specialist in high-conflict divorce maintains that the parents' divorce itself is not so much a problem for children as the separation and conflict that often follow. With this in mind, Stahl maintains that the children's well-being is contingent upon parents' ability to prioritize the needs of their kids, control their own anger and, perhaps most importantly, communicate with both the children and one another. His book is a sort of "how-to" guide to accomplish this.

"It's not easy, but there are a lot of things about parenting that are not easy that we do because it's the right thing for our kids," said Stahl, a former congregant at B'nai Tikvah who still suits up for the Walnut Creek temple's softball team. "I've seen people in both my professional and personal life who've had some of the worst divorces imaginable. They constantly put their kids in the middle, constantly argue and-to be perfectly blunt-their kids are a mess.

"Others just do a wonderful job of, at the minimum, being civil and polite and, other times, even warm and friendly to their ex-spouses," continued Stahl. "If you can do that, it puts the kids so much more at ease. They can have their own lives."

Divorce, he points out, is non-denominational.

"We'd like to believe that maybe the Jewish community has fewer divorces, but I'm not sure that's true," he said. "I was talking to our local rabbi at B'nai Tikvah, and I know there are a number of families that are divorced or remarried, and while it may be a slightly smaller number percentage-wise, it is there and it is real."

Once divorce does indeed become a reality, Stahl believes the first step in maintaining a line of communication is for the separating parents to tell their kids exactly what is happening-and that it's not their fault"You need to answer your kids' questions. Tell things directly and at the right age-level so they'll have the capacity to understand what's going on," he said. "Always tell the kids, if possible together, that you're going to divorce. [Tell them] it has nothing to do with them, it was not caused by anything they've done. At that time you've got to tell them that you'll do everything you can to make things as easy on them as possible and, of course, follow through on that."

One of the first things divorced parents can do to ease the stress on their children is to control their tempers, or keep post-marital squabbles behind closed doors. Venting to the children about one's ex-spouse is particularly harmful, noted Stahl, who has written a few books and numerous articles on the topic of divorce.

He calls for parents to "turn the other cheek," no matter what one's ex has already said.

"Parents kind of play a game of 'one-up'-if you say this about me, I'll say more about you. This is most detrimental. On the other hand, you can always take the high road to start with, and try to convince the other parent to not do that with the kids. I really believe you should always take the high roadSomewhere along that road your kids will come back and thank you for it."

Rather than sniping at one another in front of (or often through) the children, Stahl recommends that divorced parents communicate directly with one another-as difficult as that might be.

A strong proponent of "joint physical custody," Stahl said that coordination between the two parents is needed to establish working weekly schedules and some uniform parenting rules.

While some parents may not be able to separate their own feelings about their ex-spouse from what is best for the children, Stahl said, parents' ability to reach a compromise depends "on their commitment to do what is right for their kids.

"Children don't seem to have trouble sleeping at two different homes," he said. "In general, children will do fine with any schedule so long as it's not haphazard or doesn't go back and forth too much. [Weekly] splits of 3-4, 4-3 and 5-2, 2-5 seem to be ones kids can work with, assuming the parenting is OK on both sides. If there's a high degree of conflict or poor parenting, that can change things."

Stahl emphasized that for joint custody to be feasible, parents probably can't live farther than 15 miles apart.

"Time and time again throughout the '70s and '80s we've seen that single-parenting is perhaps the toughest task in our society," he said. "The value of joint physical custody is that parents get a break. They get an opportunity to unwind, take care of themselves and grow in their own lives."

"Parenting After Divorce-A Guide to Resolving Conflicts and Meeting Your Children's Needs" by Philip M. Stahl, Ph.D. (178 pages, Impact Publishers, Inc., $15.95).

© Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, 2001. May not be reproduced without written permission.

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