The divorce is over, but if you have kids, your relationship with your ex is not.
As you’re well aware by now, your relationship with your ex does not end just because you’re not living together anymore. In fact, some of the stresses you may have experienced during your marriage—especially conflicts over parenting styles and beliefs—can be exacerbated when you separate. However, your divorce is an opportunity to achieve greater clarity about what you can and can’t control, and to let go of the latter in a way that will improve the quality of your life.
Coparenting with your ex may be a challenge, especially if you’re the primary (and therefore, you may feel, superior) parent. It may be even more challenging if you’ve lost custody and feel that you’re being shut out of your children’s lives. But kids need both of their parents, and most important, they need to know that both parents love them. Whether you are the primary caretaker or have limited contact, make sure your children know that their relationship with you is secure and you will be there for them.
Here are some concrete tips for working toward a productive and reasonably harmonious coparenting relationship with your kids’ other parent.
Divorce is typically hard on children, so you should never cause additional worries for your kids by discussing adult issues with them. Many children experiencing their parents’ divorce will display signs of sadness, hurt, and anger. These are generally normal reactions, but many parents send their children to therapy before, during, and after a divorce to help them with the feelings brought on by this major life change. There are also many useful books geared toward helping children through divorce. Two of the most popular are Two Homes, by Claire Masurel and The Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families, by Mark Brown and Laury Krasny Brown.
Some children experience more severe mental and emotional reactions. According to Mark Banschick—a child and adolescent psychiatrist—a divorce can trigger Separation Anxiety Disorder in children. If your child is stressed, terrified to be alone, and/or is having anxious thoughts Dr. Banschick recommends speaking to your child’s pediatrician, in order to get a referral to an appropriate child therapist.
It’s important that no matter how angry you may be at your ex (now coparent) that you don’t make things worse for your kids by talking to them about adult issues, like the negative effects of the divorce. It’s not appropriate or helpful to speak to your children about custody issues, courts, judges, the parenting schedule, and/or child support and money. Remember, they’re already dealing with the pain and insecurity that’s a normal result of their parents break up, adding to that will only hurt your children in the long run.
It’s also harmful to your children to hear that someone they love and rely on for their care is a loser, a louse, or whatever other pejorative you want to lay on your ex. And don’t think that the kids aren’t listening while you complain about your ex to your best friend on the telephone. If you must express your frustration, do it when you know the kids are nowhere to be found. Better still, try not to do it at all. Every minute you spend putting down your ex-spouse is a minute you don’t spend thinking about how to be a better parent yourself, or considering all that you have to be grateful for in your own life, or simply doing something you consider fun. Keeping that type of negative thinking out of your daily life will improve it.
You can get information to the other parent without asking the kids to carry it. Today, there are a number of effective ways to communicate with your ex, including websites and numerous coparenting apps that allow divorced parents to jointly manage custody and parenting time schedules, including holidays and extracurricular activities and even child support issues. Whatever you use, don’t involve the kids. And never ask your children to tell you anything about the other parent’s life. Your children will feel trapped and confused about the “right” thing to say. If they volunteer information, respond as neutrally (or positively) as you can.
“Don’t mention to your mother that we had ice cream before dinner” might seem harmless, but it will stress your kids out to have to think about what they can and can’t say in each household. You might think that certain things, like whether your new love interest spent the night at your house, is your business alone—but while your kids are young, you are still sharing your life with your ex-spouse. The only way to keep events in your personal life private is to make sure you do them when you’re not with the kids.
These days, many kids have constant access not only to a phone, but to texting and email—all good ways for them to be in touch with their other parent. Feel free to monitor your kids’ use of electronic devices in general, but don’t interfere with their regular, reasonable contact with the other parent. If your kids are young and have to rely on you to make contact with the other parent, don’t be stingy. It will only backfire on you when you find them ever more anxious to speak to your ex.
Transitions between households can be hard—either because the kids want to go or because they don’t. Most kids do look forward to spending time with their other parent and in their other household. Let them have their anticipation and their appreciation of the other parent. It’s possible they might not have the best dental hygiene when they’re there, or that they are allowed to stay up later than you think is appropriate. But no matter how frustrating you may find the other parent, there is absolutely nothing you can do about that. Unless there’s something truly dangerous or abusive going on, let it go. Acknowledge that the kids have a relationship with their other parent that is separate from their relationship with you, and also separate from your relationship with your ex-spouse.
If you’re children don’t want to go, that can be normal as well. However, if they are exhibiting stress, crying, fear, and/or anger for more than a few weeks when going to your ex’s home, you may need to get some help through your child’s pediatrician and a therapist.