This is part 2 of Advice from the Experts; adults whose parents were divorced. This blog focuses on not competing with the other parent for love and attention from your kids and not talking negatively about them in front of your kids. If you’re going through a divorce or are already divorced, these blogs can give you some understanding of what your kids are feeling and experiencing.
Don’t stay together for the sake of the kids. We’ve all heard people say that they stayed together for the kids. Unfortunately, if there’s conflict in the home then it’s not better for the kids to have married parents. They’ll have to learn how to navigate a divorced family but a “happy” divorce is better than the alternative.
Lisa A. shared, “Don't assume that "staying together for the children" is a good idea. Try to establish frequent contact for kids with other family members who can provide the loving support that they may not be getting as much of from their parents. Do not assume that teens that want to be independent are actually ready to be independent, just because it is more convenient for you as a single or separated parent.”
Don’t disparage the other parent. Your children are half of each of you and when you speak negatively or use the “your mom” or “your dad”, it’s really painful to your kids.
Stacey advised, “Never talk sh*t about the other parent. Love your children like nothing else matters and always be honest.”
Rhiannon said, “The divorce was never a problem for me; it was the feeling that these two people actively wanted to kill each other (which I heard, verbatim, on at least one occasion) and that they would stop at nothing to make sure we held the same contempt.”
Jessica suggested, “I would ask them to try as hard as possible to keep their opinions of their spouse and their dealings with their spouse from their children. They should let their children retain as much normalcy and regularity in their lives as possible. They should never talk about financial arrangements or other grievances with children.”
CN agrees, “Make it your JOB not to disparage your children's other parent! Bitch to your friends (out of earshot, please), talk to your therapist, smoke a joint, have a cocktail, whatever you need to do, do it. Just don't badmouth your kids' other parent. That is wrong on every level and grossly unfair to your child (makes them question what they think they know about their world, whom to trust, whom to believe) as well as to your ex spouse. (S)he is just as much (genetically, anyway) your child's parent as you are. Don't ruin your kids' life out of selfish spite.”
Isabella hated the arguments, “I would tell other people to not fight in front of your children and just get along for the children. If you aren't getting along, put on a fake smile and don't let the child feel like something is wrong. My parents fought in front of me and I always thought it was my fault or stressed about how i could fix it. If they would have just got along for us, I feel like the stress would not have been there. Keep communication with your child. Ask them how they feel about what's going on. I wish they had talked to me more.”
JD advises, “Work out your adult problems as and between adults. Don’t share the details with your kids. Reassure them that none of it is their fault - this is between you and the other parent. Tell them that you will work everything out and will still work together to take care of them - then do that! Never share your laundry list of the other parent's faults with your kids. They have the right and they need to love and respect both parents.”
Amy said, “Keep your children out of it. Keep your petty fights and "bs" to yourselves. Your children see more and understand more than you will ever realize. No matter how hard it is, how wronged you were, be the better parent. I saw what my mother did to my father, I know first hand the nightmare she put him through, but he never badmouthed her in front of me. He always reminded me that she was still my mother and that she still loved me in her own way. Looking back as an adult, I can only imagine how hard that was for him, but it makes me respect him that much more and it makes me appreciate that he tried for me, even when she wasn't willing to.”
Lisa B.’s mom was a role model, “ I actually would use my mom as the example. She was the injured party and yet she never badmouthed him. She stayed positive and made sure we appreciated what he did for us and meant to us all. That's astounding!”
Reinforce over and over again to your kids that it’s not their fault. Children have magical thinking and believe that they have control over situations in their lives because they thought about it. And don’t put your kids in the middle.
Jay suggests, “I would say that all parents should tell their kids that the divorce is not their fault and that both parents love them very much. Then follow it up with actions that reinforce that belief: don't put your kids in the middle, don't make them choose between one parent and the other, and don't talk badly about the other parent. While it may not have worked out for you two as a couple, you are still the parents of your children and you should both be able to share many occasions with your children and not have one parent there or the other because you can't stand to be in a room together.”
You can be more than civil, you can still be a family. There are couples who are definitely better as friends and after the divorce they find a way to spend time together.
Trine shared, “Things started out great after the divorce. No one ever back talked each other and we would have dinner together and go on vacation together. It was a wonderful setup. I would encourage parents to try to remain civil even after a stepparent comes into the picture. They say that love dies but jealousy lasts forever and I believe that is true with divorced couples.”
Nancy had a similar situation, “My parents would meet and do things together that involved us kids, would talk and meet and be together on all birthdays, mitzvahs, and events. We still all get together often for holidays at each other's houses. Remain friends as much as possible for the kids.”
Don’t compete with the other parent for love and attention. Love is not a zero sum game- your kids have enough love for both of you.
Ari said, “… They shouldn't use the children as pawns, telling the kids what to say to the other parent. But I also realize how difficult this is. In a way, you want to win your kid's affection. You're now in competition for it. You want to paint the other as a bad guy. It makes sense, but it is wrong and extremely hurtful to the kids.”
Jasmine agrees, “Don't make your child feel guilty for having a relationship with the other parent. Especially once they reach adulthood, that relationship is their business, not yours.”
Learning from adults who experienced divorce as children or young adults so that you don’t make the same mistakes or blunders is important. Your divorce relationship is unique and so is your family.
This blog is part 2 of 2 in this sub-series.
Jody Comins, MSW is a Divorce & Family Mediator and Collaborative Coach in the Greater Boston area. She is an adult child of divorce and uses her experience to create a child-centered practice at A Better Way: Divorce Mediation. She is a mentor for volunteer mediators in the Norfolk Probate & Family Court and a court approved facilitator for the required parenting classes in MA.