Many couples dread talking to their ex-spouse about parenting issues. This is understandable, especially after a contentious separation or divorce. But by avoiding discussions about co-parenting, you unintentionally put the burden on your kids. They’re left to figure things out for themselves.
For younger, adaptable and resilient children, this can still result in healthy adjusted kids. On the other hand, children in certain developmental stages or those coping with additional stressors can begin acting out, have poor academic performance, develop a lack of trust in others or internalize their pain.
Here are 8 ways to build a shared vision of parenting with your ex-spouse so your children feel safe and loved as they adjust to their new life.
1. Express your values - without demeaning your ex's values.
Children are primed to learn from the world around them. They gather information from the people they encounter and love. A child will take positive experiences and integrate them into their sense of self. If you want your child to see your values as credible, strong and important, don’t boldly criticize the values of your ex-partner. This is crucial in helping your child become an independent thinker. If you openly criticize the ideas and values of the other parent, you are setting yourself up to be the mean and unfair parent. Your ex-spouse will always be a part of your child, even if he/she grows to disagree with their values. If you are openly negative or critical, your child may even become more connected to the values of the other parent in opposition.
Don’t use phrases like “you’re acting just like your dad” if this is said with a negative connotation. - Jenny Greenbaum, Family Therapist, Devon, PA
2. Write down household rules or values.
Think about the rules and values of your new home. Encourage the other parent to do the same. If you don't currently have open communication, creating a list of what’s important to you about parenting or your values can be a helpful reminder of how to work with your children. Plus, when both parties are ready to talk, you are better prepared for the discussion with your previous partner and develop a parenting plan.
3. Create a divorce support network for yourself.
You may not be in a relationship following your divorce; you may be feeling a lot of sadness, anger and loss. Reach out! Join a divorce support group, form a network, find a Facebook page, start blogging, open up at work, reach out to old friends, make an attempt to find new friends! This can be very difficult for newly divorced people. Perhaps it’s a matter of first taking some space for yourself to regroup. Rely on others if you need to. If you think it will be helpful, start with a trained professional who can provide you with the right resources. This can be a therapist or a mediator. Remember - Don’t rely on a child for emotional support. Keep adult level emotional events and activities in the adult realm.
4. Choose your parent-to-parent communication style.
Defining the right communication tool is an effective starting point. Create boundaries if you need them. Is email the only way you wish to be reached about the finer details of parenting? Are phone calls reserved for emergencies or instrumental forms of parenting? For example, would you prefer to be on call if your son’s mom cannot pick him up from school on time? Or would you prefer that to be someone else in her network of support? Keep checking in about the style and amount of communication you wish to have with his mom or dad. Keep in mind - This communication style might look very different in the beginning than after the initial adjustment period.
5. Decide on the role of your in-laws after divorce.
This can be difficult, especially if you do not have a close relationship with your sister, brother or parent in laws already. Define the boundaries you’d like to have for both sides and ask them how they’d like to help. If any of these family members play a large role in your child’s life, it’s important to stay connected. Children who are close to other family sometimes find it easier to open up to them about this difficult time. Allow your children this space and try to maintain a working relationship with invested family members.
Even if you only spend five to ten hours with a therapist or mediator, this intervention can be very helpful. Divorced parents often come into my office when their child has been exhibiting signs and symptoms of unhealthy co-parenting for several years. I could write an entirely different article on the many ways children exhibit these symptoms! It’s never too early to get some input from a trained professional. If you are not financially able or you are not as committed or believing of the therapeutic process, it still helps to get some feedback from different professionals throughout your children’s lives. Many therapeutic professionals are open to changing their pricing for short term interventions or have sliding scales. They are also equipped to provide you with community resources. Do your research and if you feel like the therapist or mediator is not a fit for you, you can always walk away!
7. Don't undermine your former partner's parenting.
Make sure your child(ren) know that they cannot escape to one household to leave another. Unless a household is unsafe, cruel or extremely harsh, your child should not be able to make the adult level decision to leave the household of a parent. Sometimes children are making this decision to hurt the other parent or to escape age appropriate rules or tasks. If a child is upset in the moment and reaches out to you, it’s appropriate to talk to them and comfort them, but it may not be appropriate to go get them. This is something that should be discussed with your child’s parent at a later time. Don’t be reactive to a child’s emotional response to a punishment for behavior before knowing the details. Check it out with the other parent or anyone else in the household that might have more information.
If a household is unsafe, do what you need to to ensure your child’s safety. Otherwise, trust your ex-partner’s judgment until you know the details. - Jenny Greenbaum, Family Therapist, Devon, PA
8. Learn more about child development and behavior.
Equip yourself with knowledge. If you are parenting alone, it’s important to try and tease out whether or not your child is having a normal developmental reaction to an event or if their behaviors are becoming abnormal. You’d be surprised what’s considered “normal” for a teenager! Remember that even if your child can talk and act like an adult, their brains have years of maturing to do. Perhaps when you were preparing to have your first child, you did research, pulled in experts and read books and articles about kids and parenting. Think of this as another time to prepare for new parenting demands. Kids don’t come with instruction manuals, but there is plenty of information out there to help you be the best parent you can be.
Divorce doesn't have to be a negative thing for your children. In fact, a divorce or separation can often result in a healthier environment. Open communication, continued examination and effort and the goal of raising healthy children can be a wonderful recipe for successful and independent children.