When parents divorce, they must also help their children adjust to changes in family life. During and after divorce, however, anger and hurt can tempt even the most mindful parent to say things that are unhealthy for their child’s emotional well-being. Here are the three biggest mistakes to avoid–and how to heal any past transgressions.
1. Don’t Fight or Snipe in Front of the Kids
When a married couple calls it quits, strong feelings often lead to heated arguments. Children of all ages find it upsetting, even scary, to hear the two people they love most in the world screaming ugly words at each other, especially if it involves threats or physical violence. For the kids’ sake and your own, try to keep marital disagreements civil. Invite compromise and seek to reach solutions, rather than focusing on who is right or wrong. Instead of rehashing past mistakes, focus on moving forward.
In addition, don’t make angry accusations within earshot of the kids. Strive for civility, but if you must argue, choose a time when the kids are in school or visiting friends or relatives to bring up those hot-button issues. And if violence is a concern, please do not take the risk of having the situation escalate.
An even harder habit to break is directing sarcastic or disrespectful comments at the child’s other parent in front of the child. Remember that kids love and look up to both of their parents. Your snide remarks make the child feel uncomfortable or even complicit. It is not their place to speak up in defense of the other parent, but they may feel guilty or resentful about remaining silent. Good incentives to hold your tongue: your children will learn good habits from seeing constructive behavior modeled for them, and in the meantime you’ll have kids who are happier and less stressed.
2. Don’t Overshare About the Other Parent or Adult Matters
Parents must remember to put the child’s emotional well-being first–and that means not burdening them with grown-up matters. Even if a kid or teen asks questions, they should not be privy to details and opinions about the marriage and what went wrong, the divorce settlement, court proceedings, attorney fees, spousal maintenance or child support. Kids need to know they aren’t responsible for paying bills or “fixing things” between their parents.
Sharing private details and harsh opinions about the child’s other parent is even worse. A child should not be told what one parent did to hurt you or “wreck” the marriage. It is confusing and frightening to a child to hear talk about “getting revenge” or “making the other parent pay.” And it can make a child feel bad to hear one parent boast about what they won in court from their ex.
A child is neither a confidant nor a counselor. Instead, discuss divorce details and your feelings with your attorney, therapist or trusted friend–and make sure children cannot overhear those conversations, either. In short, your divorce is not your child’s fight. They deserve to have relationships with both parents, free from adult drama.
3. Never Use Your Child to Get or Relay Information
One day your daughter mentions something about her other parent’s life that takes you by surprise–it could be a new love interest or car, a job change or travel plans. It might be tempting to ask her for details–but resist the urge. Using a child to obtain information about your ex-spouse puts the child in the deeply unsavory position of spying on or “ratting out” their other parent. They will feel torn between their loyalty to you and to someone they love just as much. Never ask them to report back to you after visiting the other parent.
Just as importantly, don’t use your child as a messenger or intermediary. If your ex truly needs to know something about your life–like a change of address or contact information–then notify them yourself. Don’t overshare about your own life. And never use your child to find out how the other parent reacted to your news.
Once the divorce is final, your former spouse’s life is none of your business and yours is none of theirs. If you hear something you believe affects your child, ask your ex directly. If you believe your ex is trying to use your child to learn information about you or deliver messages, request in writing that they communicate with you directly.
What to Do if You’re the Guilty One
It takes work to establish good co-parenting habits, and everyone makes mistakes. If you regret making any of the above transgressions, talk with your children.
Start by telling them you are sorry for saying things they should not have heard, and for putting them in an unfair situation. Tell them you now know better and promise to do better in the future. No matter how much time has passed or how old the kids are now, it sets a positive example for an adult to admit a mistake, apologize and demonstrate a willingness to change. If your child has been holding onto negative feelings about you due to your past behavior, having this difficult conversation can lay the groundwork for a better relationship.
For more tips, read our blog Kids’ Top 10 Rules of Divorce.
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