Tips for managing divorce or separation with children.
One of the hardest aspects of counseling children is watching parents engage in long, bitter custody battles. These battles are expensive and exhausting for both parties and are always hard, or downright damaging, for children. Below are some ideas about ways to minimize stress.
1. Avoid speaking badly of your ex.
It’s hard. It feels impossible, especially when your ex is not abiding by this same principle. The reality is that talking badly of your child’s other parent is not helpful to your child. You will only confuse and hurt them by putting down the person from whom they received 50% of their dna and with whom they are likely spending at least some of their time. Follow the old rule of, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Simply smile and nod as you allow your child to talk about their other parent. Go outside and scream later.
2. Avoid speaking badly of your ex’s new partner.
Whether it’s jealousy, anger, or fear that your child might like the new partner better than they like you, putting down the new person in their life is not a winning strategy in the long-run. Your ex will resent you and your children may stop talking about what happens at mom or dad’s house because they are afraid of your reaction. Your best bet is to make friends with the new partner. Often that person can help negotiate the trickier aspects of co-parenting and smooth things out when you and your ex disagree.
3. Have a conversation with your ex about rules and values.
You won’t always agree on what your child eats or what time they go to bed, but it’s always better when both parents are at least reading from the same manual. It isn’t healthy for a child to get away with big things at one parent’s that are not acceptable at the other parent’s. Work with your ex to find common ground on what is acceptable behavior from your child.
4. Don’t try to fix your guilt or anxiety by buying expensive toys or activities.
While it’s tempting to provide your child with only pleasurable experiences while they are with you, children still need you to be a parent. Structure and consistency remain important even when you only see your child on the weekend. Your child doesn’t love you because you buy him the latest video games. He loves you because you are his parent. Children need to know that you are still the same reasonable parent you were before there were two households.
5. Agree to reasonable requests from the other parent.
Of course you’d agree to switch weekends so that your child can attend his grandmother’s birthday. Would you switch weekends so your child could attend the birthday party of the new partner?
If it doesn’t happen often and doesn’t coincide with a major event in your life, give in. Taking the high road almost always makes you look better and benefits your child.
6. Keep talking to your ex.
The more the two of you share about the good and the bad things in your child’s life, the better for your child. Talk about the note from the teacher or about significant people in your child’s life. Keep your ex up-to-date.
7. Understand that you will be tempted to break all these rules and act badly.
You and your ex split up for a reason. He or she will continue to drive you nuts as you attempt to find your balance in this new world of co-parenting. Hang in there. Being reasonable and taking the high road ultimately benefit your child, and what is more important than that?
Tempted to engage in a “fight-to-the-death” custody battle? Step back and ask yourself why. Are you acting in the best interest of your child or is this a power struggle with your ex?
Co-parenting is tough stuff, probably harder than you thought. Growth comes from challenges, however, and this is a real opportunity for growth for you and your child.