My husband and I are recently divorced. I have custody of our three young children, but their father lives nearby and sees them frequently. He and I are not on good terms right now, and I am worried about the effect this tension will have on our children. What can I do?

We are terribly sorry about the failure of your marriage — and about how easy civil divorce has become with so-called “no fault” laws.

The stark reality is that divorce has harmful effects on children. There is no getting around that. Still, you can take steps to minimize the impact and provide as comforting and healthy an environment as possible under the tragic circumstances.

First, the most important priority is to place the needs of the children first. A rift between their parents causes great anxiety to kids, and they need to be reassured of the love and support of both their mother and father — even when, outside of their earshot, the two of you aren’t getting along.

To minimize the emotional upheaval, it is vital that the two of you not argue in front of the children. As difficult as this may be, you should treat each other with respect and civility at all times. This is for their mental and emotional health.

The great lie about divorce as a solution to discord is that we can end conflict by walking away from the other person. The reality, especially when young children are involved, is that life will demand constant regular contact between the man and woman: passing the kids back and forth for visitation, seeing each other at school conferences, ball games, first Communion, graduation and on and on. Regardless of the circumstances of the divorce, it is crucial for the estranged spouses to establish a civil relationship. Even if he won’t cooperate, you must do your utmost to keep peace.

Second, this respect and civility should be evident to the children even when your estranged husband isn’t present. Well-intending friends and family members may try to support you by denigrating your husband. Politely but firmly ask them to refrain, and certainly don’t engage in it yourself. Regardless of your feelings, it is critical that you help your children to live out the Fourth Commandment to honor their father and love him as best they can.

Third, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can tough this out by yourself. It is tremendously difficult to remain strong and virtuous in the face of ongoing animosity and juggling life’s responsibilities alone. Receive the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist frequently, in order that God’s abundant grace can renew you and your children. God’s loving mercy and grace can sustain us through anything, and keep us from falling into despair.

Try to ensure that the faith formation of your children continues through all of this, even when they are with your estranged husband. They need to feel the Heavenly Father’s comfort now more than ever too. Do whatever is necessary to come to an agreement with your spouse about getting the kids to Mass every Sunday, going to regular confession and receiving Catholic education. Even if he does not practice the faith, urge him to be flexible in this area above all others.

Finally, pray constantly! Ask for wisdom, compassion, patience and charity in all things, both for you and your estranged husband. God can work miracles — even in dire circumstances.

The McDonalds are

family-life coordinators

for the Archdiocese

of Mobile, Alabama.