Ever wonder why some children with parents who have divorced fare better than others? Respecting these ten rules of post-divorce parenting can be a powerful contributing factor to your child's success after a divorce. Keeping these rules will not only help the children, it will help you too.
1. Give your child the gift of not having to choose between their parents.
Asking children to cut off from extended family compounds the loss that divorce creates. Allowing children to maintain regular access to both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins can contribute to a child's self-esteem, as well as their sense of security and belonging.
When children return from a visit, either with the other parent or with relatives, refrain from asking competitive questions. Everyone has something different to offer and children need all of it. They need the parent with more money, as well as the parent with more love. They need the parent who is better at helping with homework as well as the one that makes the best spaghetti and meatballs.
Asking your children to choose one parent over another, whether overtly or through subtle messages, can create anxiety and guilt. Not knowing who to choose creates anxiety. So does fear of reprisal by the scorned parent. Being "unfaithful" to a parent can create tremendous feelings of guilt. This can lead to hurt and anger in the child for having being asked to make that difficult choice. Some children will disconnect emotionally from both parents as a way of coping with having to make a decision. Everyone loses in that scenario.
- Accept that your child benefits from having a relationship with both parents. (This obviously does not apply in cases where there is any risk of danger or abuse to the child. For the sake of this article, it is assumed that if such protection is needed it was obtained in court.)
- Allow your child to enjoy what each parent has to offer without making them feel guilty.
2. Refrain from speaking poorly of your ex to your children.
It's tempting. Your marriage did not work out as you had hoped. You may be hurt, disappointed and angry. But remember, you're the adult. Children need to respect their parents. It helps them to respect authority in general, and to grow up to be self-respecting. When you are critical of your former spouse you are teaching your child to be critical and judgmental. Even if sarcasm, bitterness and hurtful statements were a trademark of your marriage, lose it in your post-divorce reality.
Even if your spouse bad-mouths you, don't respond, don't retort. It only lowers your child's respect for you. You might feel that if you do not "defend" yourself, your children will think less of you. In reality, it is the on-going fighting that will lead to an erosion of respect for you.
Negative speech undermines your child's trust in both parents.
There is another selfish reason to not speak poorly of your former spouse. If someone speaks poorly of someone you love, what do you do? Usually you run to defend them, even if you suspect that they are wrong. When you attack your ex, you are forcing your child to come to your ex's defense, even if it is only in the child's mind.
Negative speech undermines your child's trust in the speaker, as well as the person who is being spoken about. It can even affect their ability to trust adults in general. Be careful not to send your child the message that all members of your former spouse's gender are bad, particularly not to your children of that gender.
- Proactively protect your child from having to listen to harmful speech.
- Commit to respecting the best interests of your children regardless of what your former spouse does.
3. Spare your children the details.
Sharing too much information about how hard your life has become only confuses and burdens children. Giving your child too much information might be a subtle (or not so subtle) way of asking them to help you. Rather than going into the details of how little money is in your account, stick to a simple "we need to be smart about how we spend our money now." As the adult, you will need to find the best way to pay your bills. Even if it means getting a job, taking a loan, or asking someone to help out financially until you can make necessary changes. That is not your child's responsibility.
Remember that all the changes and issues that are troubling you are probably troubling them, too. If you make them feel that you are unable to handle it, they lose their sense of security. They need you to be there for them; don't make them feel that in addition to everything they're going through, they need to be there for the adults in their life.
Make your calls to your lawyer or your friends to vent about your ex at a time and place where your children are not in earshot.
- Spare your children the details of the difficulties your divorce has created. They have their own difficulties to deal with.
- Do all of your venting out of your children's earshot.
4. Don't make your child your messenger.
There are numerous ways for former spouses to communicate. Some people choose to speak on the phone, others send text messages or e-mails to one another. Others might continue to communicate through their attorneys. All of these ways work. Using children as the "mailman" between the two parents does not work.
Your role ais to protect your child, not to put him in the middle of two warring factions.
"Tell your father we have nothing to eat!" "Tell your mother that I also don't!" Such exchanges communicate a strong message of insecurity and vulnerability to a child. It leaves them wondering, "If both of the people who I would turn to for the basics don't have, what will happen to me?" Your role as a parent is to protect your child, not to put him in the middle of two warring factions. Children have a hard time separating the words and facial expressions that are spoken to them, and the fact that they were not meant for them, especially if they were meant for someone else who that they love.
- Choose a healthy method of communication with your former spouse that keeps your child out of the middle.
- Hurting your spouse "through" your child is nothing more that hurting your child.
5. Let go of your former spouse.
It seems so obvious. You got divorced. The marriage is over. Some people who can't live together in love try to continue the relationship through hatred. One or both of you have given up on the marriage. If you feel that you were not given a choice about the divorce, ask yourself one question: "Would you really want to be in a committed relationship with someone who does not appreciate and value you?" The sooner you accept that the relationship is over, the sooner you can let go of the need to suffer. Some people mistakenly believe that if they suffer enough their ex will come back (and save them.) It is a painful fantasy to have to live with. Even if your ex did return, it is not the foundation for a healthy relationship.
Rather than interrogating your children about what your ex is up to, focus on what is going on in your house. If you really want to "get even," let it be by moving on and having a good life in spite of the divorce. When you put your energy into punishing or getting back at your former spouse, you are really only punishing yourself and your children.
- Accept your divorce, let go of the need to "get back" at your ex.
- Focus on rebuilding your own life in a healthy and positive way.
6. Set boundaries and expectations for your children.
Set healthy boundaries for behavior in your home. If you are not sure what they should be under your particular circumstances, seek guidance from a someone who is a competent authority on child-rearing. Don't be afraid that if you set boundaries your children will prefer to be at your ex's house. Some children are quite adept at playing one parent against the other. Don't fall prey to that game. Share your expectations for your children regarding getting up, going to school, homework, chores, curfews, bedtime. Make your expectations clear and reasonable.
The rules for your home may differ from those at your ex's home. That's okay. "That's how your Mom/Dad chooses to do things. Here, we do things differently." If you are comfortable with the rules that you are setting, you increase the chances that your children will be, too. Explain that you are interested in what is good for them, and that you are only doing this because you care.
Strive for balance. On the one hand, you want your children to be responsible and functional. At the same time, you want to encourage your children to continue to enjoy their childhood. If your child seems to be unable to enjoy him or herself, or if you find yourself feeling sorry for your children, speak to a qualified therapist.
- Don't be afraid to set boundaries that reflect the values of your home.
- Encourage your children to enjoy their childhood.
7. Keep the lines of communication to your children open.
Be there to listen. Don't judge or tell your child how to feel. Validate how they are feeling now, while pointing out to them that they may not always feel that way. Time has a way of changing things. Let your child know that you are always there for them. Don't ask questions that will require your child to point a finger at your former spouse. Ask your child if he or she would prefer to talk about those difficulties with an impartial adult, such as a therapist or an adult family friend.
Many times as a marriage is unraveling, children develop the belief that if only they could be "good" then their parents would stay married. For those children, the marriage's failure is confirmation that they just weren't "good" enough. Communicate to your child that the divorce was not his or her fault. Even if your child says that they never thought that it was, it will be reassuring to hear that you don't think so.
Communicate that the divorce was not the child's fault.
Your child might be quiet and may not want to share any feelings. Respect that. If you think that it might be related to a lack of emotional vocabulary, help your child develop one. As you read to your child, ask him or her what he thinks the character is feeling at different points in the book. Inject your own thoughts, "Well, if I were Winnie the Pooh, I would be sad that Tigger didn't invite me to his birthday party." Then talk about the choices available to Winnie the Pooh.
- Be there to listen to your children's emotions without judgment.
- Make sure your child know the divorce was not their fault.
8. Become a Bigger person.
Proactively choose who you want to be after a divorce. Set short term, medium and long term goals for your yourself and for your family. Divorce creates the possibility for a new beginning. Let go of the past, and of blaming or complaining. It is over. Only today is significant. Decide who you want to be, starting today. What will it take for you to get there?
Get your own therapist so that you are not tempted to have your children fill that role. A good therapist can help you to process what has happened in your marriage and afterwards. Divorce is a loss that needs to be mourned. Respect that your loss is different from your child's. Model that it is okay to get help to talk out problems. By dealing with your difficult feelings and getting through them you can become a bigger person from the experience.
Being a bigger person means letting go of competition. The competing game is one where everyone loses. What will be etched in your children's memory for life is not who bought them the most toys, but who had values that they could respect. Care enough about your children to guide them onto the path of success in life. Your children need you – your time, your attention, your understanding and your encouragement. Understand that anything that you do that hurts your child's other parent, will hurt your child. Limit what you are willing to do to acquire their love and allegiance.
- Decide who you want to be in your post-divorce reality. Create a map of out how to get there.
- Let go of competition. Model becoming a bigger person.
9. Create safety.
Regardless of how often you see your children, make your home a place of safety. Your home should be a place where children are respected, cared for, shown love and acceptance and taught responsibility. It does not matter what is going on at your ex's house. In fact, if you feel that there is not enough safety at your ex's house, the safety you create only becomes that much more important.
Be responsible. Be there when you say you are going to be there. Do what you say you are going to do. Apologize when you let your child down. It is better not to commit to something that you will not be able to do, for this erodes trust.
It is the parent's responsibility to make sure that there is food in the house. A child who doesn't have what to eat cannot concentrate in school. Parents have the job of creating a structure for cleanliness and order in the home. A child that can't find their shoes in the mess, will have a hard time getting to school on time. A child with no bedtime routine will struggle through the next day's activities.
- Safety means showing your child respect, love and acceptance. Say what you will do, and do what you say.
- A safe home means providing food, shelter and structure for your child.
10. Teach resilience.
Resilience is one of the most valuable gifts a parent can give a child. Show your child that even when things get hard you and your children can get through the difficulties without falling apart. Teach your child that everything happens for a reason. There is a silver lining to every cloud. Develop your and their ability to access the good in everything that happens. Believe that this experience, like any test, is an opportunity for growth. Show through your example how to use a tough time as a stepping stool, rather than an obstacle. Model patience, flexibility and acceptance for your children. Encourage them to take little steps towards growth.
Help children to build resilience by staying connected to family and friends. Find "big brothers" or "big sisters" to be there for your children. Encourage your children to do things that help them feel accomplished. Encourage them to look for and develop their strengths. Use hopeful language, talk about meaning. When you believe that you can do something, you can. When you believe that you can't, you won't. Speak the language of positivity. Your belief in a brighter future can help you and your children to really have one.
- Help your child develop resilience skills to take with them through life.
- Look for meaning. Speak the language of hope and possibility.