They’re a no-show or late at almost every custody swap. They promise to call or Skype the kids…and then don’t. They frequently “forget” to share important information like…your son was sick over the weekend, or that really big science project they were supposed to work on was left untouched.
Unreliable exes often don’t seem to realize that their behavior not only makes it difficult to co-parent, but also makes it hard for kids to feel safe and secure in their relationships with their parent. Stuck with an ex who can’t — or won’t — take parenting responsibilities seriously? Here are 5 tips to help you keep your kids feeling as secure as possible in the face of someone who does everything possible to make them feel insecure.
Adhere to the custody order. Don’t get into a tit-for-tat situation. If your ex keeps the kids during your parenting time, don’t seek revenge by keeping them during her time, or docking child support. Document the situation in an email. Refer her to the section in the court orders that she is violating. Ask for her cooperation and let her know if she doesn’t adhere to the orders, you will have no choice but to contact your attorney. Make sure not to write anything incendiary, as your email could get read in court.
Don’t let your frustration spill on to the kids. Whether consciously or subconsciously, your ex is trying to get a reaction out of you, so don’t give them the satisfaction. Notice when you’re feeling triggered and take steps to avoid outbursts in front of the kids. If you find that you can’t control your frustration, or that you’re snapping people other than your ex, do what you can to keep your emotions in check: journal, vent to friends, talk to a therapist, exercise.
Acknowledge the problem appropriately. You may need to talk to your children about their other parent’s unreliability: either they bring it up, or your life has become so chaotic that you have to discuss the problem. Acknowledge how your ex’s behavior makes them feel, but don’t slander the other parent (even if you think they deserve slandering!) If your ex has a diagnosed mental illness, you can say something like: “Daddy has a brain disorder.” If your co-parent is merely selfish and irresponsible, you can say: “Mommy has a hard time realizing that her actions can affect other people. This has nothing to do with you, but I know it hurts your feelings. I’m sorry.” Take this opportunity to talk to your children about what they can’t control (other people) and what they can control (their own actions).
Maintain boundaries. Setting boundaries with someone who continually ignores them is tiresome, but necessary. Unreliable exes need to know they don’t get to change the timeshare willy-nilly, or drop in unannounced, or interrupt family dinner with lengthy phone calls. They also don’t get to play games with child support. Communicate with your ex simply and directly – in writing – and explain the consequences of this repeated behavior: returning to court to modify custody, for example, or filing a motion to enforce child support.. When writing emails, stick to the facts, and resist the urge to set your ex straight.
Empower your children. Unreliable parents can do a head-trip on kids: they invalidate their feelings and make them think their job is to meet the parent’s needs. If you see your child being manipulated by your ex, give him tools to express his needs and feelings assertively and appropriately: “When you do X, I feel Y;” “I don’t feel comfortable doing that;” “I would like you to listen to me, when can we talk?” Tell your kids that the point is not to change their other parent’s behavior, but for them to have a voice. If they’re afraid to speak honestly with the other parent, have them talk to a therapist. This will give them a safe space to say things that they might not even be comfortable telling you.
When co-parenting with an unreliable ex, it’s important to accept that they most likely will continue their dysfunctional behaviors to some degree. Pace yourself: you will be fighting an uphill battle until your kids reach the age of majority and custody is no longer an issue. Instead of focusing on how your ex’s behavior is hurting your children, recognize that you have the chance to teach your children the important life skill of handling adversity. And while they may never be able to depend on their other parent, they will feel secure knowing that they can depend on you.
Have questions about your custody arrangement? We can help you asses your rights and options, and map out a strategy for a plan that truly put your child’s best interests first. To speak with one of our experienced family law attorneys, please contact us to schedule your initial, no-obligation consultation.