When you’re a parent, your divorce isn’t just about you and your ex. Your kids’ world is just as impacted. They’re learning how to cope with the breakup too. Face it: your intention has to be to get yourself and your children through one of the biggest if not THE biggest emotionally challenging transitions of your lives. Your role as responsible parents is to turn one household into two connecting households and keep the parental bonds between mother and father strong, with as little disruption as possible.
If you’re clueless about where to start, maybe looking at what NOT to do can help you discover the path for what TO DO. Maybe a crash course in how NOT to be co-parents who are emotionally destroying the kids is in order.
What to Share
Don’t share the nitty-gritty divorce details with the kids. For examples, don’t discuss a pending family court case, the division of assets, the conversations you and your ex are having with your respective attorneys … stuff like that.
Don’t sweep away the subject of divorce as if it hasn’t happened. Your kids are well aware that something is going on, despite your attempts to shield them from it. Have talks TOGETHER with the kids before, during and after the divorce to tell them what is going to be happening, where and how they will live (if old enough to understand). Don’t leave them in the dark; they will tend to think the worst. Details, presented in a calm and neutral manner are reassuring to kids.
Don’t make your kids messengers between their two parents. If you have something to relate to your ex – no matter how minor the message – communicate directly, parent-to-parent.
Don’t bad-mouth, blame, or vent your anger or frustration over your ex with the kids. When speaking about their other parent, be respectful.
Don’t use your kids as a substitute therapist. Shield them from your struggles as best you can. Go to counseling to work out your personal problems.
Don’t use confusing or vague language to explain why you are getting a divorce. Explain in a way they can understand, for their age and maturity level. Don’t sugar coat it, but don’t paint a picture of doom and gloom either.
Don’t create a wedge between your kids and their other parent. These can be subtle gestures and actions that your kids’ super-sensitive radar will pick up. Don’t put your kids in situations where they have to choose sides. You and their other parent should work together for the benefit of the kids. Your kids need both parents to be a part of their life. Don’t alienate them from their other parent.
Don’t grill your kids upon returning from a visit with their other parent. This stresses your kids and makes them cautious and guarded about what to share.
If you have parenting conflicts with your ex, keep a level head and look at the big picture, which is what is best for the kids.
Don’t try to prove you’re the better parent. You are both vital to raising your children, even if you each do things a little differently. Show constraint, understanding, compromise, and seek to resolve the conflict quickly before it grows more complicated and more difficult to resolve.
Don’t overcompensate their loss with gifts or special concessions like extending their curfew or letting them stay up later at night. It’s ok to give in periodically, but if done on a regular basis, your kids will think they can get away with anything. Overindulgence can lead them to believe they can do or say anything and you’ve become the enabler of that behavior or you’re pitting yourself against their other parent.
Safe and Accepted
Don’t give your kids the impression that your love for them has changed. Assure them you both love them just as before – and always will – and that you both will continue to be their parents, just like you have been.
Don’t let your kids carry the guilt that they are somehow responsible for the breakup. Assure them the divorce is not their fault. Tell them mom and dad are not able to get along together as before and that has nothing to do with them.
Don’t ignore any negative feelings you see in your kids … like sadness, shock, anger, anxiety, guilt, depression, confusion. Ask leading questions to get them to express what they are feeling and why.
Tell your kids that it’s ok to feel confused and upset. Allow them to express their distress but help them work through those feelings. Don’t let their behavior escalate to a dangerous, self-destructive level. Intervene with talks. Seek therapy, especially if their feelings and actions don’t budge and if unmanageable.
Don’t let your kids feel they’re on their own with their problems and feelings. Let them know you both will be there for them, help them through this difficult period, to discuss, question, work out anxieties and confusion.
Don’t tell them what to think or assume you know what they think. Encourage their questions. Be loving, understanding, patient, and assuring.
Don’t be afraid to apologize if you stepped out of line with your kids. Explain what you did and tell them you won’t let it happen again – and stay committed to that promise.
Don’t make major changes in your kids’ lives, if at all possible. Keep to schedules and routines. Limit drastic changes to their environment, if possible.
Give Them Access
Don’t limit their access with their other parent or other family members or family friends – unless you recognize abuse.
Don’t shut out your ex from your child’s school activities and extracurricular events and appointments. Keep them informed with emails, texts, and written schedules.
Don’t limit them from communicating with their other parent. Always give them free access to their other parent for calls and visits unless you feel the other parent would cause emotional or physical harm and unless the court has restricted those calls and visits).
The same goes for the grandparents. Don’t stop your kids from maintaining relationships with their grandparents with visitations and calls, even if it’s painful and your ex’s parents and you don’t get along. Set aside differences and work on finding solutions.
Monitor Their Behavior
Don’t ignore signs that your child is having problems coping with the divorce. They can manifest as health problems (asthma, upset stomach, loss of appetite or the opposite, extra-quiet or non-typical behavior)
If your child is hostile or having severe emotional problems, seek a therapist to get to the root of the behavior or attitude change. What most affects a child’s ability to cope with divorce is hostility between parents and how adjusted and accepting the parents are to the divorce. The majority of therapists agree on this issue – myself included.
Your #1 Priority
Make your child your #1 priority. Your dedicated support will make a huge difference. Without your support, they will not make it through the divorce and the remainder of their childhood and adult life without emotional battle scars. With the help of you and their other parent, your children can emerge from this unsettling period gradually. You’re preparing them to feel loved, confident, and able to deal with the challenges and opportunities now and for years to come.