Divorce and separation can make your life feel out of control. Even if the divorce was your idea, the process takes life as you know it and turns everything upside down. If you have children together, the process is even more fraught, because you need to keep interacting with your former significant other, manage custody and parenting time, and because you can’t just process your emotions; you have to help your children manage theirs. Let’s talk about some “don’ts for divorcing parents.” Of course, this also applies to people who have children together without being married and are separated.
If divorce makes your world feel like it’s spinning off its axis, it’s even worse for your kids, who have no say in the matter at all. As a general rule, kids thrive on routine, and their parents’ divorce is about as big a disruption to their routine as you can imagine. Children need to know they are safe, that they are loved, and to believe that their parents have things under control (even when the parents don’t feel that way). It can be easy to not be your best self during divorce, but here are some behaviors to avoid in order to give your children what they need.
Don’t Ask Your Kids to Pick Sides.
Your estranged or ex-spouse might, objectively, be a horrible person. They may have cheated on you, gambled away your savings, called you horrible names, and worse. No matter how bad your ex is, however, they are still your children’s parent, and children love both their parents.
When those parents separate or divorce, that love creates a tension for children: if they love one parent, are they hurting the other? If the answer you communicate (verbally or otherwise) is “yes,” you are setting your children up for anxiety, stress, and depression. Let your children know that even though you and their other parent need to live apart, you will both always love them—and they can and should love both of their parents. Never make your kids feel guilty for leaving you or for being excited to see their other parent.
Don’t Speak Negatively About Your Kids’ Other Parent.
Part of not forcing your kids to pick between their parents is watching what you say about the other parent. You can tell your kids that it’s good for them to love and spend time with both parents, but when you speak harshly of the other parent, you send a different message. What’s more, your kids, as they age, realize that they are made up of stuff from both their parents. If their other parent is a loser, a deadbeat, a jerk, what does that mean about them?
It may feel unfair to have to take the high road, especially if your spouse tells the kids hurtful or untrue things about you. Just remember that children observe a lot, and they are a lot harder to fool than you think. They will (eventually) realize which parent was acting like an adult, and acting in their best interests.
Don’t Make the Kids Your Go-Between.
You don’t want to talk to your ex; we get it. Since the kids are going to be seeing him or her anyway, it can be tempting to send messages through your kids rather than communicating directly. It’s not a good idea though, for a couple of reasons.
First off, kids can be unreliable. Even if your kids are mature and wise beyond their years and you trust them to communicate, it’s unfair to ask them to carry messages; it’s simply not their job, especially if those messages have hostile overtones. Second, it literally puts kids in the middle. If your ex doesn’t like the message, or responds poorly, your kids are forced to carry the response back to you. Remember what we talked about above—they want and need to love you both. Don’t make your conflict their problem. Don’t make them the rope in your personal tug-of-war with your ex.
Don’t Use the Kids as Your Spies.
Maybe your ex-wife says she can’t afford child support, or your ex-husband says his dating life is none of your business. You want to know what’s really going on, so why not ask the kids some leading questions about whether mommy has lots of new stuff in her apartment or if dad has introduced them to any new “friends?”
Asking kids to tell you about what’s going on in their other parent’s life or home is unfair. You are asking them to violate the bond of trust they have with their other parent. Put the shoe on the other foot: would you want them telling your ex about everything you buy or everyone you see? Even if your child agrees to act as your eyes and ears in an effort to please or appease you, they shouldn’t have to do that; they should feel your love is unconditional. And if you don’t like the news they bring back, they may feel that they have failed you, when they’ve done nothing of the kind.
Don’t Force New Relationships.
If you’ve moved on romantically after your divorce, good for you. But exercise restraint when introducing new partners to your kids. They may feel that you are trying to erase and replace their other parent, and they love their other parent. Also, if the new relationship doesn’t pan out for you, your kids may lose another adult they have come to care about.
On a related note, if your new relationship is going well, and you feel like a teenager in the throes of first love, don’t act like a teenager in front of your kids. Trust us when we say that nobody wants to see their mom or dad making out.
Don’t Avoid Your Kids’ Events.
You might want to avoid running into your ex at all costs, and that might mean you’re tempted to skip any event where that might happen—including your children’s sporting events, birthdays, graduations, recitals, and so on.
There is a choice to make here, between avoiding discomfort for yourself or hurting your child with your absence. Avoiding discomfort might be easier in the short term, but it will harm your child and your relationship with him or her in the long term. Be brave. You can do this. Your child needs you to be there supporting him or her.
Don’t Treat Your Kids as Therapists.
You spend a lot of time with your kids, so it’s natural that you would talk about your feelings to them, but you must curb this impulse. That doesn’t mean that you should never admit to your kids when you’re sad or having a bad day. It does mean that you shouldn’t rely on them for comfort or vent your very adult thoughts and feelings to them. Be a parent, not a needy friend. As noted above, it’s your job to help them manage their feelings, not the other way around. Do get a therapist so you have a safe and productive way to get your feelings out. And while it’s good to encourage your kids to talk to you, talking to a counselor can be really beneficial to them, too.
Don’t Treat Your Kids as Pawns.
This may be the most important “don’t” of all. Your kids need both of their parents. Do not withhold time with your children as a way of punishing their other parent for real or imagined misdeeds. You may succeed in hurting the other parent, but you will hurt your kids as much or more. They may lose respect for you for putting your needs above theirs, and they may have a very hard time forgiving you, even when they are much older.
To learn more about don’ts for divorcing parents, as well as some things you should do for your children’s well-being, we invite you to contact our law office.
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