When parents divorce, regardless of the circumstance or age of the child, it has a significant impact. Looking at it through the eyes of your child and setting aside any feelings of anger or hostility towards your ex is challenging but essential. No matter how hurt, angry or disgusted you are with your ex, your feelings should have no bearing on your parenting.
It is in your child’s best interest that you deal with those negative feelings so that you can maintain an amicable relationship with your ex. Dealing with your ex can be done amicably if both parties truly choose to act in the best interest of their children.
One of the most damaging things you can do to your child is to use them as an object of your anger. Here is a list of dos and don’ts that can assist you in parenting in a way that best protects your children while you are going through your divorce.
2. DO talk to your child on a developmentally appropriate level. Your child should not be given more information then is appropriate for her to understand and process.
3. DO encourage your child to share any feelings or concerns she has about your ex. But, be sure not to take anyone’s side.
Even if you think what your child is telling you is horrible, keep in mind that it is their interpretation of the situation and it may not be completely accurate information. Your child may also be checking out whether you will defend her, take her side and join in being angry at the other parent. This sets the tone for how they will interact with you and the belief system they will form and hold on to.
4. DO make all decisions about your child without getting wrapped up in the feelings you have toward your ex. Consider what is truly in the best interest of your child.
5. DO try to provide as much consistency and structure as possible during their time with you. This helps children feel safe and secure.
6. DO answer the questions they ask you truthfully, to the extent that it is appropriate and in a way that is age appropriate. Only answer their question, do not go into a long explanation. Also, do not share information that is inappropriate for your child to know or that unnecessarily criticizes your ex.
7. DO reassure your child that you are fine when they are not with you and that you can’t wait to see them when they return.
8. DO have clear, consistent and reasonable expectations and discipline methods. Providing as much continuity between homes, in regards to discipline, will benefit your child greatly. Ideally, you and your ex will discuss this and carry over discipline from one house to the other.
9. DO reassure your children that the both of you love them, regardless of any negative feelings you have toward each other.
10. DO reflect their feelings when they share things with you. Focus on the feeling behind what they are saying, rather then the content. For example, if your children tell you that they are mad at your ex because he didn’t have anything fun planned for them during their time together.
Rather than probing to get information or discounting their feelings, say “It sounds like you feel disappointed with the time you spent with your dad this weekend.”
This prevents you from taking sides, but communicates that you understand what your children are telling you and what they are feeling. Encourage them to discuss their feelings with your ex.
11. DO reflect your child’s feelings when they misbehave. Say, “I can see you are very angry right now, but it is not okay for you to yell at me and act disrespectfully. Would you like to talk about why you are so angry?”
12. DO provide opportunities for your children to share their feelings and know that you are not going to take it personally or use it as a weapon against them.
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13. DO try to co-parent with your ex. Work to maintain an amicable relationship. It is one of the best gifts you can give your child.
14. DO stick to the visitation agreement you have made and pick up and drop off your child when you have agreed to.
15. DO be reasonable and flexible with visitation. If your child has a birthday party they want to attend during the weekend you have them, make the arrangements for them to attend.
16. DON’T ever say or imply anything, through your words or actions, that is negative towards your ex in the presence of your children.
17. DON’T talk about your ex with your child. If they initiate a conversation, remain neutral, no matter how hard it is. If your ex is disappointing your child by not showing up for visits or following through with his promises, tell your child that you know how disappointed they feel and ask if there is anything you can do. Encourage them to talk to your ex.
18. DON’T use your child as a pawn to manipulate or try to hurt your ex. This is very damaging to your child and will have major long-term negative effects on your child and on the relationship you and your child have.
19. DON’T loosen the rules or boundaries. This is commonly done out of parental guilt and it creates more worry and angst for your child. Consistency, limits and boundaries are what helps your child feel safe and secure.
20. DON’T try to buy your child’s affection through gifts or money. Children see through this and it is sending them the wrong message. They would much rather have your time and attention. Don’t try to be the “favored” parent. Your children love you, not the things you give them.
21. DON’T allow your friends or family members to ever say anything bad about your ex to your children. This creates an emotional dilemma for children and will put pressure on them to feel as though they have to “pick” which parent to love.
22. DON’T exacerbate the loyalty bind your child is already experiencing. Allow your child to love you and your ex without feeling guilt or consequence for doing so. Children going through divorce naturally experience a loyalty bind. Give them permission to love both of you without any negative reactions.
23. DON’T share information with your child that is not appropriate or necessary, particularly young children. This places too much emotional responsibility on them and can result in acting out behaviors, stress and anxiety.
24. DON’T allow your child to see or overhear arguments between you and your ex, particularly if it is related to them. Children internalize this to believe it is their fault that their parents are not getting along. They already believe it is their fault that you are getting divorced. Children need to be continually reassured this is not the case. They hear you, even when you think they don’t.
25. DON’T pawn your child off to relatives or babysitters for the majority of your visitation time. They need and want to spend time with you. This will build a foundation of trust and strengthen your relationship with your child in the long run. Children desperately want the time and attention of their parents.
26. DON’T probe and ask your child questions about the other parent, the other parent’s home, how they are spending their time and who they are dating. This puts your child in a very difficult position and is incredibly unfair to them. This can be emotionally harmful to your child and should be avoided at all costs.
27. DON’T make your child feel as though they are abandoning you or hurting you when they are spending time with your ex. This will not make them love you more. It will only make them worry about you and feel responsible for your feelings. This is very damaging to children and has long-term emotional consequences.
28. DON’T make a decision about your child to try to hurt your ex. While you may accomplish your goal to hurt your ex, you are hurting your child more so. You are going to create great feelings of hurt, disappointment and guilt for your child. Over time this will damage your relationship with them, as they will eventually see through what you are doing.
Using your child as a weapon against your ex can become emotionally abusive to your child and will have long-term negative consequences. Parents often deny doing this while the children are clearly exhibiting all of the symptoms of the loyalty bind they are in. Even the most cooperative parenting with an ex can produce this loyalty bind. Imagine when there is hostility between parents, what a dilemma that puts your child in.
Children are very intuitive and can “feel” the dynamics between you and your ex. Don’t assume that the exchanges you have with your ex does not impact them or that the divorce is not affecting your childen. It is. You can minimize the impact of this by keeping their needs and best interest at the focus of all interactions with your ex.
Cooperative parenting and supporting your ex through the parenting process is imperative to help your child deal with their feelings about your separation and the impact it has had on them. Acknowledge your children’s feelings and how hard it must be for them to deal with their emotions. This will help your children know you understand and care about what they are going through.