When a couple with children decide to separate or divorce, it’s a painful, stressful time for all concerned. The relationship between the two marital partners may be coming to an end, but what about the children? It’s all too easy for the separating parents to get caught up in their own vortex of emotions without fully considering the anxiety and distress their kids may be feeling in all this.
Remember that it’s the children who are the innocent parties in any divorce – no-one wants their family home to break up, or for the two most important persons in their life to be at each other’s throat, worse still having to choose allegiances.
Your marriage may be over but as co-parents it is crucial that you learn to put your personal views of each other aside and help make the transition process easier, for the sake of the children. As the recently published The Co-Parenting Handbook recommends, “in order to co-parent, you’ll need to know how to take care of yourself and your emotions, and have the tools to build and maintain a respectful, cooperative co-parenting relationship.”
Here are 9 strategies that may be helpful.
1. Whatever you may think of your ex-partner, your children have a right to maintain a good relationship with both of their parents. If you no longer co-parent under the same roof, it’s important to recognise that the relationship with the other parent is separate, and different, to your own relationship with your kids. It’s not fair to influence what goes on at the other parent’s house, dictate how they should parent.
2. Prepare your children emotionally and actively encourage them to spend time at the other parent’s home. If they are reluctant to visit, do your best to counteract this by expressing positive views about ‘daddy’s new home’ so that they are able to engage fully and wholeheartedly with the new domestic set-up and without negative feelings of guilt or resentment.
3. “If you are co-parenting children as separated parents, planning is key to enjoying a successful relationship, not only with your children but the other parent too,” advises Tina Day, Head of Family at George Ide Solicitors. Make sure the kids are ready on time to be picked up, and be punctual and reliable with pre-agreed contact arrangements. Short notice changes or ‘no shows’ can cause anxiety in children who are already vulnerable, and may exacerbate any existing friction between ex-partners.
4. Ensure that time spent with your children is quality time. Give them your attention and do things they want to do, particularly in the early days of your separation when they may need your reassurance most. Especially if you are the non-resident parent, it’s important not to leave children with other family members or friends. Instead, use the time constructively and positively to focus and building your (new) relationship with the children.
5. When it comes to parenting, children need to feel that their parents present a united front, whether or not they are together. It’s not in the kids’ best interest for you to play one parent off against the other or undermine the primary carer’s authority. If you have a problem with the other parent’s approach, you should discuss it with them direct and without the children being present.
6. Find a constructive way to communicate with your ex-partner about the children without triggering an emotional response about the failed relationship in the other person. Whether you are able to have a brief chat when you hand over the children, or prefer to communicate via text or email as and when the need arises, do make a real effort to keep your interactions factual and non-critical.
7. It cannot be overstated how damaging it can be for the children to be involved, or even aware of, arguments or negotiations between you and your ex-spouse. There’s no reason for them to know the details of your divorce petition or financial arrangements, and not healthy for them to hear one parent constantly criticising the other. “When you force a child to choose which parent to love, or love more, you are causing your children harm, regardless of your motivation.” (Psychology Today)
8. It is equally important to resist the temptation to quiz the children about their experience at the other parent’s house, effectively turning them into your ‘spies’. “Let your children share what’s important to them without actively digging for gossip about whether daddy has a girlfriend or how mommy is spending her money,” says Carolyn Ellis in her book The 7 Pitfalls of Single Parenting: What to Avoid so your Children thrive after Divorce. However negatively you may be feeling about your ex, using your children as pawns to punish them is going to backfire in the long run, potentially leading to difficult relationships when they grow up.
9. Finally, if the children don’t live with you, there are lots of ways you can keep in touch with them, in addition to your regular contact time together. How about sending surprise letters or parcels to let them know that you’re thinking of them? And if your kids are old enough, regular phone calls, emails or text messages can help maintain and strengthen the loving bond between you, and add a new dynamic to your relationship.