Studies show that it’s not divorce in itself that hurts kids in the long-term; it’s the level conflict that lingers between parents. Being successful at the job of being a divorced parent requires finding ways to deal with any contempt for or anger towards your ex, and support your children’s relationship with their other parent. If your former spouse cheated on you or walked out on you for any number of reasons, you may still be in bad place of deep hurt. However, unless your child’s other parent is abusive or there is a legitimate issue that renders your former spouse unable to parent (a mental illness or substance abuse issue that impairs their daily functioning), learning how to manage your feelings about him or her so they don’t bleed over onto your kids is a co-parenting must. Read on for some helpful tips on how to get yourself to a better place.
Avoid Bad-mouthing. There is simply NO reason to trash the other parent or his extended family in front of your children. Count to ten, leave the room, or hang up the phone if you need to. Bad-mouthing usually serves only to ratchet up negative feelings. Also consider that bad-mouthing often has a boomerang effect later on: your kids might eventually be angry with YOU for speaking poorly of their other parent.
Parallel Parent. Kids can feel conflict in the air, whether or not it’s spoken. If you simply cannot tolerate the sight of your ex without eye-rolling, snarky comments, or menacing gestures, refrain from being in that person’s company in front of your children. Schedule separate birthday parties and parent conferences. Use curbside drop-offs. It’s far more detrimental to kids to see parents avoid each other than to witness constant conflict. (Learn more about parallel parenting.)
Sweep your own side of the street. Applied to divorce, this famous 12-step slogan is a reminder to mind your own business, not your ex’s. This means that you stop trying to dictate and control what goes on in the other person’s house, or how he or she parents the children. Intrusiveness can generate conflict and plant kids in a war zone. It is not the end of the world for children to adjust to different rules and expectations between households. In fact, it can even be a valuable lesson on learning to adapt to situations, since life rarely works out just as we planned.
Avoid triangulation. Most kids, even those in intact families, will try to go around one parent to get what they want. High-conflict divorces only fuel this dynamic. What your kid is telling you about the other parent is not necessarily true; it could just be a way of getting you on their side so they circumvent Mom or Dad’s rules. Unless there is actual abuse going on in the other household, the best way to support your children is to teach them to advocate for themselves with that parent. If you become the go-between, you will only teach your child how to manipulate and pit people against each other, two characteristics that will cause havoc in their own relationships later in life.
Obey court orders. One of the best ways to avoid conflict is to stick to the court order. Pay child support in full, on time. Respect restraining orders. Do not make unilateral changes to visitation. If you feel the court order really needs to be changed, go to court to make it legal. By refusing to follow the terms of your custody agreement you are essentially inviting your ex to fight. You are also creating chaos for your children who will feel the stress of financial hardship and a lack of involvement with the other parent.
Respect your ex’s new partner. Teach your kids that you don’t have to like someone to treat them respectfully. This means maintaining eye contact, offering a polite “hello,” and exchanging brief small talk if you find yourself standing next to your ex’s new partner. Similarly, if your new partner is trying to usurp your ex’s role, please tell him that your kids already have a dad. The new person in your life needs to respect your ex as well. Tolerance and manners are values you want to pass on to your kids; if you can’t behave in an appropriate manner, how do you expect them to?
Limit litigation. Litigation is one of the most stressful situations anyone can go through, especially when it involves custody. Putting kids in the middle of a custody battle should be a last resort. For alternatives that are more child- and family-friendly, discuss with your attorney whether mediation or collaborative divorce could be in your child’s best interest. Bonus for you? These out-of-court alternatives also tend to cost less compared to litigation.
Work on your personal growth. Much of the conflict in divorce comes from people’s blind spots. Some project their own shortcomings and insecurities onto the other parent. Some people are controlling and competitive and cannot abide the thought of “sharing” their children with someone they deem inferior. And some people stay emotionally engaged with their ex by manufacturing chaos. If any of this sounds like you, stop focusing on what you perceive is wrong with your ex and deal with your own personal growth. Go to therapy, talk to a clergy person, or attend a 12-step program. Do whatever it takes to stay rigorously honest about the things you need to change about yourself in order to be a better parent.
Remember: your job as a parent is to model appropriate behavior. Do you really want your kids to grow up to replicate your own bad marriage and poor conflict resolution skills? Working through your feelings about your ex is difficult, but it is also essential for your kids’ well being.
Do you want to lower the conflict in your divorce and truly put your children first? Our attorneys can help. Please contact us for a free initial consultation.