This guest post is written by Carolyn Grona, founder of www.thegrownupchild.ca. A child of divorce since the age of three, she writes about a variety of divorce issues from the viewpoint of a grown up child of divorce.
Experts are fairly unanimous in their support of co-parenting for children of divorce. Both parents continuing to work closely together raising their children despite no longer being a couple. Children are best served by having both parents be active participants in their life. But co-parenting is hard. And divorce is often messy. Sometimes one parent wants to try co-parenting but the other parent doesn’t. Often times the lack of communication which may have contributed to the breakdown of a marriage extends to the co-parenting relationship after divorce; making it impossible to achieve it’s success.
But what is the child of divorce to do in the midst of a co-parenting break down? How can they walk the line between the two people they love most? Here are some strategies divorced parents and kids of divorce can use to cope with these difficult circumstances:
Set boundaries: If one or both parents are trying to make their children ‘side’ with them either by bribes or talking rudely about their ex spouse, the child of divorce needs to set some boundaries. If they are very young, it will be up to one of their parents or another close family member or friend to try and do this on their behalf. If they are older, they can do this for themselves but realize it takes a lot of courage. If your child tells you they are dealing with this from their other parent, discuss what boundaries they would like to set and then role play so they can practice what they will say when they encounter the situation again.
Let them know their feelings are okay: Tell them that you understand and expect that they will always love both you and their other parent. No matter how horrendous the circumstances are. Your ex might have abandoned you, left you bankrupt, stole your pet and vandalized your car and your child will still love them. And they need to know that they don’t have to feel bad about that. Also, if your child starts a conversation with you venting about their other parent, fight the urge to join in. You only need to participate in that conversation on the level of active listening (head nods and uh-huh’s), telling them that their feelings are normal and letting them know that whey won’t always feel that way. Allow them to express their feelings. But don’t chime in with all the reasons you agree. This will only make them feel like they can’t share their good feelings about your ex with you too.
Communication is key: There is so much communication required with co-parenting. When it all breaks down, it can make the child feel like the ‘go between’ or ‘messenger’, constantly liaising between their two parents. Don’t advise your child to simply to say to their parent ‘you’ll have to ask mom/dad’, because chances are if that was going to happen, it would have. But when asked to relay a message over to mom or dad, a child of divorce could ask for the message to be emailed to them. They can then simply hit the ‘forward’ button, passing the message along. They could also suggest for their parent to write it down for them so they don’t forget and then simply pass on the note. Although neither of these suggestions are ideal as they treat the child more like a carrier pigeon than a beloved daughter or son, there are really no ideal solutions here.
Help them stay out of the conflicts: You can only control what you yourself do, but it’s really important that your child doesn’t feel caught in the middle of the conflicts between you and your ex. Even if your ex isn’t playing fair and is telling them what a terrible person you are. Don’t go down to the same level, telling them how terrible your ex is or even counter every point that has been said. Ask them if they have any questions for you instead. Show your child the kind of person you really are. They will see, and be thankful that you didn’t partake in the ‘tug of war’ for their affection.
Ask questions: Children of divorce often feel like they need to internalize things that will upset their parents. Make sure you’re asking questions like ‘how are you feeling about the divorce and the custody arrangement and your relationship with me’. Make sure you tell them that you won’t be angry or hurt by anything they say. This will set the stage for your child to be able to express themselves and their feelings. Perhaps clear up any confusion created by the other parent as well as help them feel like they have some input in the whole situation. Children of divorce are helpless in their circumstances and although talking about it may not change anything, simply being free to express themselves can help them feel empowered.
Honesty really is the best policy: If the other parent isn’t holding up their end on the parenting side of things (missing visits, missing phone calls, etc) resist the urge to make excuses for them. I know it may feel like you are protecting your child’s feelings, but really what it can translate to for your child is that you agree that work or whatever came up is more important than them. Again, don’t go on the offensive, berating the other parent to your child. But if your child expresses anger or sadness at their other parent, let them express it. Give their feelings a voice if they aren’t able to. Then suggest an alternate activity.
Without successful co-parenting, it’s pretty difficult for the child of divorce to come through this all unscathed. But by using these strategies, your child of divorce can feel more confident and comfortable during the time they have with both parents. And considering the circumstances, that’s a pretty good outcome for everyone.