So, you are divorced. And now you have to share your kids with an asshole. Or a semi-asshole. Or just someone you used to love and now can barely tolerate. How do you do this without messing the kids up even more? After all, divorce in of itself is a huge black stain on their development. Right? Nope. Wrong. The real truth is that divorce isn’t really the problem. Research shows the black stain is all in how you handle the divorce AND the co-parenting afterward.
Sometimes it is hard to see the forest through the trees. But here’s a very important thing to remember when it comes to co-parenting: None of the issues in your now-defunct marriage matter. Not anymore. Letting your children love their other parent freely without having to filter it through your hurt is THE BEST way to raise happy, well-adjusted kids. It’s not always easy, don’t get me wrong! And, of course, there are always circumstances beyond our control in the other household. But if you follow a few simple guidelines on your side of the fence, allowing room for this relationship isn’t as impossible as it may seem!
Here are some basic but important rules of thumb when it comes to establishing a healthy space for your children to love BOTH of their parents:
Speak positively about your co-parent. No trash talking or harping on bad qualities. Remember, your children are 50% you and 50% their other parent! Don’t lie, but DO talk up any positive interests, characteristics, or traits that your former partner has. Your kids want to be proud of their parents and they want to feel good about the things they have in common with both of you. Pump them up, don’t deflate them.
Help your kids prepare for holidays and birthday celebrations for your former spouse. This signals that it is okay to love and celebrate this other parent, because they see that even YOU toe the line here. Also, it might even come back your way from the other household if you do!
Openly be (or pretend to be!) happy that your kids have a relationship with their other parent and show that you are a-okay on your own when they are not with you. The last thing you want to impart on your children is guilt about leaving you “alone.” It is okay to tell them you miss them, but always include that you are so happy they are having fun.
Be open, enthusiastic, and positive when children share stories about their time with their other parent. DO NOT pry for details or press for information. Just show pleasure and interest when they happily recite a tale.
Likewise, be skeptical when your kids share negative or inaccurate stories of how “awful” your co-parent is. To be sure, if there is true danger you must heed it! This is not to say to dismiss any warning signs of real issues. If there are true problems, handle it directly with your co-parent and/or legal authorities and not in front of your children. But, in the typical day-to-day, often kids will exaggerate disagreements or issues they have with their other parent to gain attention or sympathy from the other side.
Do not ask children to keep secrets from your co-parent. Your kids are not your co-conspirators. Never make them complicit in hiding information or keeping things from their other parent out of guilt or fear. You want your children to know that they can come to you when they have something to discuss. If you teach them that they must hide mistakes or worries from either of their parents, you are doing a disservice to YOUR relationship with them, not just their relationship with their other parent.
Give your children reasonable access to their other parent when they are with you if they ask for it. Facetime, phone calls, texting, whatever feels comfortable in your household and busy life. After all, don’t you hope for the same when the roles are reversed?
Make no bones about both parents attending child-centered events. School plays, concerts, sports events, and the like should be fair game for BOTH OF YOU, no matter who has the kids that day. Remember, at the end of the day you want to make sure your children do not have to choose one parent over the other for special events. Because, if they do, they might not choose you!
There is no guarantee of consistently smooth relations between you and your ex. Things shift, stuff happens, and personalities don’t always align. But you CAN control how your kids see you in the co-parenting realm and by taking the higher road. Even more importantly, by helping to foster an open, positive relationship between your co-parent and your children, you can also give your kids a leg up in how they see themselves.