So you have decided divorce is your best option – But what about the kids? What to say and how to support them when you are co-parenting.
Never underestimate how confusing a parent’s decision to divorce is for young children. They frequently blame themselves as they try hard to work out a reason for the separation. This is why both parents have to give them a clear, non-blaming explanation. This can be particularly hard as it is more than likely one if not both parents will be experiencing bitterness, regret, anger and distress.
These emotions are totally understandable and the hallmark of most divorces at some stage, HOWEVER, they just simply can’t be expressed in front of the children.
They do not need to know about the adult reasons for the break up…
Children need a simple, child ‘focused’ story.
Be patient, this story will probably need to be told and retold. Emotionally distraught children find it difficult to retain the story and are desperate to attach a meaning they can understand to it. Hence, the reason for so many questions. You will need to talk about the reasons for the separation a number of times. They will need this so they can process it at their own rate as it will take time for them to make sense of what has happened in their life.
They need the reason about the separation to be about mum and dad’s relationship, not about them.
Don’t use lengthy explanations, keep it short. Example, “mum and dad have stopped living together as we don’t feel like a couple anymore, but we are still your parents. We will always be your mum and dad”.
Make sure neither parent is blamed – don’t try to divide their loyalties, as this will have serious consequences psychologically for your children.
Reassure your love for them.
Co-parenting amicably with your ex – is rarely easy. Joint custody arrangements can be exhaustive and infuriating. Making shared decisions, interacting with each other at drop-offs or just speaking to a person you are angry with can seem like an impossible task.
Co-parenting is probably not the ideal solution for either parent as it is fraught with the potential for continual conflict. However, it is the best way to ensure your children’s needs are met (as long as they are loved and safe with both parties). It helps the children retain close relationships with both parents.
The first and most important step in becoming a responsible co-parent is to always put your children’s needs ahead of your own. This way your children will recognise they are more important than the conflict that ended the marriage. In turn these children will:
- Feel secure: when confident of their parents love for them, kids adjust more quickly and have better self-esteem.
- Benefit from consistency: Co-parenting fosters similar rules and discipline, so children know what to expect, and what’s expected of them.
BIG TIP: Remember, your feelings don’t have to dictate your behaviour.
Friends or a therapist make good listeners when you need to vent negative feelings; exercise is also a healthy outlet for letting off steam.
Stay kid focused, your child’s best interests are at stake.
Never use kids as messengers, as it places them in the centre of the conflict – something you must avoid at all costs.
Lastly, try to ‘chill out’ – if your ex has organised a special outing for your kids and it is going to cut into your time with them by an hour or so, graciously let it be. Hopefully one day the favour will be returned to you by your ex. At the end of the day, it is about what’s best for your kids.
Co-parenting is not easy, there will be times when you and your ex will disagree over certain issues. Try to keep the following in mind:
- Respect can go a long way – Simple manners should be the foundation for co-parenting. Being considerate and respectful includes keeping your ex in the loop regarding school events, being flexible about schedules where possible, and taking one another’s opinions seriously.
- Keep talking – It’s tedious but necessary. Never discuss your differences of opinion with or in front of your child. If you still can’t agree you may need to talk to a therapist or a mediator.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff – For instance, if you want your child in bed by 7pm and your ex says 8pm, let it go and save your energy for the bigger issues.
- Compromise – you will need to come around to your ex’s point of view as often as he/she comes around to yours. Compromise allows you both to ‘win’ and makes both of you more likely to be flexible in the future.
So, the children now have two homes…
- If you can type up and laminate reminder sheets for what needs to be packed each day, then do it.
- If cost is not prohibitive, double up on essentials so the children really do feel at home in both residences. Try not to be over-reactive when something has been left behind.
- Always drop off – never pick up the child on change over day. This avoids ‘taking’ your child away from the other parent. This way the parent who is just about to relinquish their time with their child can to do so in a loving and unrushed manner. Turning up to pick up your child and finding they are not physically or emotionally ready can be very stressful for all concerned.
- Compassion for their position will be critical, they need to know that you understand how hard it is for them, and that you will be there to listen to their frustrations and sorrows.
- Adolescents find 50:50 arrangements distressing but will rarely choose to disappoint their parents by saying so. It is important to be flexible around these living arrangements. Over time living between two homes can become physically and emotionally draining. This is particularly so in the latter years of high school and will need to be reviewed carefully as it can affect their school performance.
- Lastly, if you say that both residences are their home, then do your best to make it feel this way. Provide a space that is theirs, a space they can go to when they are feeling emotionally down or simply needing time out to process some intense feelings.
by Liz Paul, Psychotherapist & Counsellor