What Every Divorcing/Divorced Parent Needs to Know About Protecting Your Child During and After a Separation/Divorce
By Leslie Petruk, MA, LPC, NCC
When parents divorce, regardless of the circumstance or the age of the child(ren) it has a significant impact on a child in many different ways. Looking at it through the eyes of your child and setting aside any feelings of anger or hostility towards your spouse is challenging, but is truly in the best interest of your child(ren). No matter how hurt, angry or disgusted you are with your ex-spouse, that should have no bearing on how you parent your child/ren together if your priority truly is to do what is in your child’s best interest. It is unequivocally in your child’s best interest that you deal with those negative feelings in order to maintain an amicable relationship with the person you created your child with. Your child should never under any circumstance feel as though they have to choose one parent over the other. Working to have your child align with you and your “side” or be angry towards their other parent is damaging to your child and is about you and not them. Often times parents profess they are not doing this when in reality, it is happening, although through covert behaviors. Dealing with your ex-spouse can be done amicably if both parties are sincerely acting in the best interest of your child(ren). One of the most damaging things you can do to your child is to use them as an object of your anger towards your ex-spouse/partner, whether in an overt or covert manner. Below is a list of do’s and don’ts that can assist you in parenting in a way that best protects your child and allows your child to thrive in the midst of a difficult time for them.
- Reassure your child that it is not their fault that you and your spouse split up. Even if your child doesn’t voice this, they almost always believe it is in some way their fault and need ongoing reassurance that this is not the case.
- Talk to your child on a developmentally age appropriate level. Your children should not be given more information then is appropriate for them to understand and process in accordance with their developmental stage. They should never be given information that is disparaging about the other parent. All children need to be allowed to love both of their parents regardless of the state of the relationship between their parents.
- Encourage your child to share any feelings or concerns they express to you about the other parent with the other parent without taking anyone’s Even if you think what your child is telling you is horrible, keep in mind it is their interpretation of the situation and it may not be completely accurate information. Your child may also be checking out whether you will defend them and take their side and join in being angry at the other parent. This sets the tone for how they will interact with you and the belief system they will form and hold on to.
- Make all decisions about your child free from feelings you have towards your ex-spouse and consider what is truly in the best interest of your child.
- Try to provide as much consistency and structure as possible during their time with you. Be reasonable and flexible in visitations when extracurricular activities, birthday parties, etc. overlap during your time — make the decision based on your child’s best interest, not your personal needs/wants.
- Answer the questions they ask you truthfully, to the extent that it is appropriate and in a way that is age appropriate. Only answer their question, don’t go into a long explanation and don’t share information that is inappropriate for your child to know. Any detailed information related to your relationship with the other parent is not appropriate for them to know — general information such as, “Sometimes moms and dad’s realize it is better for them to live apart, but it doesn’t mean either one of us will ever stop loving you, that you had anything to do with us living apart or that you will ever have to choose between us. It doesn’t change our love for you and our role as your parent.”
- Reassure your child that you are fine when they are not with you and that you can’t wait to see them when they return.
- Have clear, consistent and reasonable expectations and discipline methods. Providing as much continuity between homes in regards to discipline will benefit your child greatly. While you can’t control what goes on at the other parent’s house, it is best for your child if you are able to co-parent and come to some basic agreements in relation to setting boundaries/limits, discipline and are able to communicate productively about issues that arise related to your child(ren).
- If they express any negative feelings about their other parent, reflect your understanding, but reassure them that their other parent loves them and encourage them to speak with the other parent about how they feel. If it is a significant enough issue, call or initiate a conversation with the three of you present so your child knows you are communicating with one another to avoid he said/she said and an unhealthy dynamic in which your child feels obligated to tell you negative things about the other parent.
- Reflect your child’s feelings when they share things with you*. Focus on the feeling behind what they are saying rather then the content. For example, if a child tells you they are mad at the other parent because they didn’t have any fun with them during their time together – rather then probing to get information or discounting their feeling, state, “It sounds like you feel disappointed with the time you spent with your mom/dad this weekend.” This prevents you from taking sides but communicates that you understand what your child is telling you and what they are feeling. Encourage them to discuss it with the other parent, “I think your mom/dad would want to know that, so it’s important to talk to him/her about what you are saying. Should we talk to him/her when they pick you up/Should we call him/her so we can all discuss your feelings together?”
- Reflect your child’s feelings when they misbehave i.e. “I can see you are very angry right now, but it is not okay for you to yell at me and act disrespectfully. Would you like to talk about why you are feeling so angry?” (for some children, particularly depending on their age, they are unable to articulate their feelings, so suggesting they draw a picture may be more effective in how they can show you how they are feeling in a way that makes sense to them).
- Provide opportunities for your child/ren to share their feelings and know that you are not going to take it personally or use it as a weapon against them or their other parent i.e. “I know it must be a big adjustment for you and that you probably have a lot of feelings about mom and dad living separately. Would you like to talk about it/draw a picture showing your feelings/discuss it with me?”
- Try to co-parent with your child’s other parent — work HARD to maintain an amicable relationship. It is one of the best gifts you can give your child and it IS possible IF you are committed to do what is in your child’s best interest. Their well-being is not about your ex-spouse —- it is about them and your relationship with them.
- Stick to the visitation agreement you have made and pick up and drop off your child when you have agreed to. Allow for flexibility when various circumstances arise — be reasonable. Don’t use visitation as a way to control or get back at your ex.
- Be reasonable and flexible with visitation — if your child has a birthday party they want to attend during the weekend you have them, make the arrangements for them to attend. Always consider the impact on your child when making decisions related to them.
- EVER say or imply anything through your words or actions that is negative towards your ex-spouse in your child’s presence. Know that even when you think they aren’t hearing you….if they are in the house or in close proximity of you, they likely are hearing every word you are saying. Parents often think their children don’t hear their phone/personal conversations….but they do!!!
- talk about your ex-spouse with your child. If they initiate a conversation – remain neutral, no matter how hard it is. Don’t probe for information – if it’s an issue you have concern about — address it with the other parent in front of your child so any mis-communication, inaccurate presentation of information or issues of concern can be cleared up.
- use your child as a pawn to manipulate or try to hurt your ex-spouse. This is very damaging to your child and will have major long-term negative effects on your child and ultimately on your relationship with your child. Particularly in the long run.
- loosen the rules or boundaries – this is commonly done out of parental guilt and it creates more worry and angst for your child. Consistency, limits and boundaries are what will help your child feel safe.
- leave your guilt unattended to. You must address your feelings so they don’t affect how you parent your child/ren. Parenting from a place of guilt is NOT in the best interest of your child —- it is about YOU, not them.
- Try to buy your child’s affection through gifts, trips/vacations or money. Children see through this and it is teaching them the wrong thing. They would much rather have your time and attention.
- Allow your friends or family members to ever say anything bad about your ex-spouse to your child/ren. This creates an emotional dilemma for children and will put pressure on them to feel as though they have to “pick” which parent to love. While your/their anger may be valid, it is NOT EVER valid to express it to your child/ren! It only hurts your child and your relationship with your child to do so.
- exacerbate the loyalty bind your child is already experiencing. Allow your child to love both of his/her parents without feeling guilt or repercussions from you for doing so. They inherently experience a loyalty bind — give them permission to love both and assure them that you are okay with that.
- share information with your child that is not appropriate or necessary, particularly young children. This places too much emotional responsibility on them and can result in acting out behaviors, stress and anxiety for your child.
- Treat your child like a friend — they are your child and it is not healthy to try to befriend them — this is a method often used to try to be the “favored” parent and it is not in your child’s best interest.
- Allow your child to see or overhear arguments between you and your ex-spouse…particularly if it is related to them. Children internalize this to believe it is their fault that their parents are not getting along. They already believe it is their fault that you have separated/divorced — they need to be continually reassured this is not the case.
- Pawn your child off to relatives or babysitters for the majority of their visitation time with you. They need and want to spend time with you. This will build a foundation of trust and strengthen your relationship with your child in the long run. Children desperately want the time and attention of their parents.
- Probe and ask your child questions about the other parent, the other parent’s home, how they are spending their time with the other parent, who they are dating, etc. This puts your child in a very difficult position and is incredibly unfair to them. This can be emotionally harmful to your child and should be avoided at all costs. It is okay to ask them how their time/visit with the other parent was…but allow them the space to share/not share what they are comfortable with.
- Make your child feel as though they are abandoning you or hurting you when they are spending time with the other parent. This will not make them love you more – it will only make them worry about you and feel responsible for your feelings. This is very damaging to children and has long-term emotional consequences for your child.
- Make a decision about your child to try to hurt your ex-spouse. While you may accomplish your goal to hurt your ex, you are hurting your child more so. You are going to create great feelings of hurt, disappointment and guilt for your child. Over time, this will damage your relationship with your child/ren as they will eventually see through what you are doing.
Using your child as a weapon against your spouse can become emotionally abusive to your child and will have long-term negative consequences for your child and your relationship. Parents often deny doing this while the children are clearly exhibiting all of the symptoms of the loyalty bind they are in. Even the most cooperative parenting with an ex can produce this loyalty bind, so imagine when there is hostility between parents, what a dilemma that puts your child in! Children are very intuitive and can “feel” the dynamics between you and your ex-spouse. Don’t assume that the exchanges you have with your ex does not impact them or that the divorce is not affecting them…it is. You can minimize the impact of this by keeping their needs and best interest at the focus of all interactions with your ex-spouse. Cooperative parenting and supporting your ex-spouse through the parenting process is imperative to help your child deal with their feelings about your separation and to minimize the negative impact it may have on them and their lives. Acknowledging their feelings and vocalizing your understanding of how hard it must be for them will help them know you understand and care. You won’t always agree with the parenting of your ex, but learning to communicate with one another and work cooperatively in order to parent your child/ren is the best way to help your child through this so that he/she comes out as unscathed as possible. It is in YOUR control how you react to your ex.
*Book Resource for more information and guidance on this topic: How to Talk So Your Child will Listen and Listen so Your Child will Talk, by Faber & Mazlesh.