Divorce or separation is one of the most stressful experiences you may ever go through, taking a toll on you financially, socially, and of course, emotionally. As you know, when you are under that kind of pressure, it is hard to be your “best self” for other people—including your kids. Unfortunately, when the divorce has you at your most stressed is when your kids need you the most. Helping your kids through divorce can be a daunting challenge when you’re just trying to make it through yourself.
Experts on surviving disasters suggest that having a plan in place for how you would behave in a certain situation allows you to navigate emergencies successfully; because you already know what to do, you don’t have to devise a plan in the heat of the moment. Although much of that research focused on natural disasters and emergencies like active-shooter situations, the same principles can be applied to separation and divorce: if you know what to do under stress, you don’t have to figure it out on the fly. Practice the behaviors below whenever possible; doing so will build habits that allow helpful behaviors to kick in when you need them.
You know how your kids get irritable and irrational when they’re overtired or too hungry? The same thing can happen to you. You may think that you don’t have time to take care of yourself with everything else going on, but really, you don’t have time NOT to. If your battery is run down, you cannot possibly give your children the support they need. Airline crews stress that it is important to put that breathing apparatus on yourself first for a reason — if you are not well, you cannot help others. To the extent you are able, get enough sleep, eat healthful meals, learn stress-management techniques, and get emotional support for what you are going through. If you are feeling supported, you can better support your kids. Do your best, and forgive yourself when you fall short (as everyone does sometimes).
Use Your Manners.
You probably have some pretty strong feelings about your soon-to-be ex as you go through your divorce or separation. It’s understandable, of course, but just because you have feelings doesn’t mean you have to express them all the time. Your ex is no longer your romantic partner, but he or she is your partner in a very important venture: successfully raising your kids. Treat him or her, therefore, as a business partner with whom you don’t always get along, but whom you want to succeed. Behave civilly. Use your manners, including saying “please” and “thank you.” This accomplishes a couple of things: not only does being civil with your ex make him or her more likely to be polite to you, but it reduces the stress on your kids. It demonstrates, in a very real way, how to work together with people you don’t always agree with.
Don’t Put Your Kids in an Impossible Position.
You may feel that it’s bitterly unfair that you have to do all the heavy lifting of parenting, while your ex gets to play “fun parent.” Even so, you should support your children’s relationship with their other parent. When they return to your home after time with the other parent, listen with enthusiasm and interest to their stories of the fun things they did with their other parent. Don’t make your kids feel like they can’t share these things with you. They need to feel free to love both their parents, and to express that love. If at all possible, find ways to comment favorably (and honestly) about the other parent to your children.
If you were working on a project with a co-worker, would you withhold information from him or her that was necessary to do the job? Of course not. You might make yourself look better in the short term, but the project would ultimately fail. Well, co-parenting is your project. If you get information from schools, doctors, camps, or coaches, make sure your co-parent has it, too. And it’s not just official information that needs sharing; if you have a concern about your child, or your child has expressed something that a parent should be aware of, communicate that to your co-parent.
Support Your Co-Parent.
You and your co-parent have different homes, and very likely different parenting styles. You wouldn’t want him or her telling you how to parent; extend the same courtesy. There’s a pretty wide spectrum of parenting choices that are okay; your co-parent doesn’t have to do everything just as you do. You each have your unique strengths as a parent. Let your children experience them without hearing that their other parent does things “wrong.” If you’re worried about the inconsistency confusing your kids, remind them that each parent makes the rules in their own house.
Respect Your Co-Parent’s Time and Money.
It’s not only important to be civil, but to be respectful of the other parent’s time. Don’t be late for pick-ups or drop-offs, a common power play that fools no one and irritates everyone. Respond to texts, calls, and e-mails in a timely manner. Likewise, when your co-parent has parenting time with the kids, don’t make excessive demands on his or her time by contacting the children more than necessary, and avoid scheduling appointments or events for the kids on the other parent’s parenting time. If you must, give as much notice as possible.
By the same token, don’t play games with money. If you owe your co-parent money for something child-related, pay it promptly. If you can’t, explain why. If you share responsibility for a financial obligation, hold up your end.
Don’t Take the Bait.
Just because you’re trying to be civil and respectful doesn’t mean your co-parent automatically will. He or she may do things that infuriate you, and violate every suggestion on this list. Resist, if at all possible, the temptation to retaliate. It might make you feel better in the short term, but will accomplish nothing in the long term except to make your co-parenting relationship more difficult and even toxic. Be the better person, and be true to the ideals you are trying to instill in your children.
Eyes on the Prize.
When co-parenting gets difficult, as it inevitably will, remember why you are doing this: to benefit your kids. They are watching everything you do. Before you say a word or take an action, think about how it will affect them. Behaving poorly toward your co-parent may feel satisfying, even righteous, in the moment, but taking the high road on a consistent basis is what your kids need. And hard as it may be to imagine right now, someday, they will thank you for it.
For more guidance on working with a challenging co-parent or helping your kids through divorce, please contact our law office.
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