The Child’s Trauma/Loss of the Relationship Between the Parents
In a divorce, most people understand that the relationship their child(ren) had with each parent will be changing. It doesn’t matter how the parenting time schedule is organized, your child will suffer some amount of loss of (and trauma from) the changed relationship with his/her mom and dad. But more than that, your child will also lose the ability to see the daily interactions and relationship between his/her mom and dad. Psychologically, this is another big, and unique, loss and trauma.*
This can be a little tricky to understand, and can be difficult to compensate for when you split up.
Think of this in terms of a soccer team. There is tremendous value for a child to be part of a team. In soccer (or any sport), kids learn how to control their body, how to control a ball, and how to work together as a team. Each of these aspects has unique value. When the season is over, the child can kick the ball around in the backyard, but the relationship with the team is gone. Some of the ways to compensate for that loss are playing again the following season and facilitating relationships with former teammates. Joining another team in the next season also helps. Of course, families are not merely soccer teams.
In families, mom and dad will typically find new partners and create new families (a new team), but psychologically, the new family cannot fully replace the original family unit: it is rarely the same thing for the child. Unlike soccer (and school, church, etc.), parents are special** people in a child’s life, and the relationship the child observes between the parents has special psychological impact. Making a new family that provides gentle protection and comfort goes a long way to help, especially if the parent and step-parent apply enhanced parenting skills. The key to providing a positive psychological experience for your child is to maintain some form of positive and visible mother-father relationship.
How can parents do that?
It depends of course of the level of cooperation from the other parent. If there is some amount of cooperation, the obvious ways are spending time as a “family unit”. Attending social events in public and in the home together is one way, although that is not possible for everyone. Engaging in many small and positive exchanges can help. Sharing transitional objects (comfort item), especially for young children is important, and these can be a blanket or stuffed animal that always goes with the child. Using a common approach to parenting theory helps with consistency. Comprehensive and holistic parenting books including The Whole Brain Child, Between Parent and Child, and Mind in the Making. (Some parenting books, like Love and Logic, have good points, but do not offer a comprehensive or science-based approach.)
When there is no cooperation, and it becomes difficult to create any form of a visibly positive mother-father relationship, the burden to do so usually falls to the one parent who can take their child’s perspective, and come up with creative solutions. Some ideas include frequent use of positive statements about the other parent and displaying photographs. But this becomes tricky, and can actually backfire. Parents need to use targeted attachment parenting strategies which should be discussed with your lawyer or parenting coach. One resource for parents, but not the easiest read, is the book Integrative Parenting: Strategies for Raising Children Affected by Attachment Trauma.
*See Assessing attachment in Families: Beyond the Dyad, by Rudi Dallos, in The Routledge Handbook of Attachment: Assessment, edited by Steve Farnfield and Paul Homes, Routledge, 2014.
** Parents are primary attachment figures, which has an intense psychological significance on a deep neurobiological level.