If you are a child of divorce, you may have some scars that make you wince when thinking about the conflict between your parents. Separating from your partner is a stressful and painful process, especially if you have children together. Navigating co-parenting after divorce or separation isn’t easy and doesn’t come naturally to most people. The separation will feel scary for your children because they don’t have control over the situation and they don’t know what to expect in their new life. There are, however, strategies you can employ to reduce the conflict in your post-separation relationship and ultimately ensure your children aren’t unnecessarily harmed because of bad communication.
- Be open and truthful with your children but know what is and isn’t appropriate to say.
You are hurting–and it’s okay for your children to know that you are sad about the separation. However, your children do NOT need to know the details of your divorce or settlement or the reasons why you are angry or hurt by your former partner. It’s okay for you to let them know that you and the other parent have some differences that prevent you from having a healthy relationship and that the best thing to do is to separate. Younger children generally need fewer details, while older children may want a little more than “Your dad and I just don’t get along.” Regardless of age, keep your explanation simple and honest, and avoid blaming the other parent. Let them know that you are sad about the loss of the relationship but make sure they know their relationships with both parents are not in jeopardy and they will not have to choose sides.
- Do not disparage the other parent or their significant others in front of your children. Period.
Regardless of how angry you are with your former partner, or how badly you feel you have been wronged, do not speak poorly about the other parent in earshot of your children. These are conversations you can have with your friends, family, and counselors but are not appropriate for your children. These comments can include statements like “It’s your mom’s fault our family fell apart because she cheated on me,” or “I have to move into an apartment because your dad wouldn’t let me keep the house.” They can also sound like “Your dad never brings you to school on time so he shouldn’t have equal custody” or “Your mom is mean to daddy.”
These kinds of statements make your children feel incredibly uncomfortable and promote feelings of guilt for loving a parent who has been mean or hurtful to the other parent. Remember, your children are made from half of the other parent. They internalize those comments and believe they are “bad.”
- Keep your written communications polite and to the point.
When you communicate in writing, whether it is by text message, email, or with a third-party communication app like OurFamilyWizard, follow the BIFF method for keeping communications short and sweet (ie: Brief, Informative, Friendly, Firm). You can even use a tone meter on OurFamilyWizard to help you reduce conflict in written communication. Do not make snarky comments or rehash the past—keep your messages about the issue at hand or a relevant update about the children.
- Do not discuss the details of your divorce or custody battle with your children.
Your children do not need to know if you and your former spouse are fighting over who is going to keep the house, or if they filed a motion with the Court alleging disparaging or false things about you. Do not make statements to your children like “Your mom doesn’t want me to have you half the time and I can’t afford to keep fighting her in court.” If your children have questions about future housing arrangements, let them know that you and the other parent are working out those details but that you will prioritize making sure they feel safe and comfortable during their time with each of you. If your children ask you about the custody arrangement, you can again let them know that you are working it out or that you have hired attorneys to help you work out the best arrangement for everyone. Make sure they know that you will keep them informed about any changes once decisions have been made. If they have opinions, listen, and provide them with reassurance that even though it will take some adjusting, you will all fall into the new routine and work out any kinks as you go. When decisions have been made, do not make statements about how it will not work or how it will make things more stressful or difficult for anyone.
- Be polite with the other parent during timesharing exchanges or anytime you are face-to-face in front of your children.
When it is time to exchange your children, be polite to the other parent. Your interactions should be brief and business-like. Making small talk can ease the tension between you. Nothing should be discussed about the ongoing custody case or divorce process during these meetings or in front of your children. Keep your communications to things about the children, i.e., information they need to know about a school project, or other relevant updates from their time with you. If you are not able to stay cordial during exchanges, you may need to have other parties do the exchanges—for example your parents or significant other—if they can remain pleasant and communicate politely with the other parent or exchanger. In high-conflict cases, exchanges can be ordered to take place at a neutral location with professional supervisors, such as Neutral Corner, to remove interaction between the parents.
Your children need to see that their parents can be in the same room without tension or a nuclear explosion. That kind of toxicity will stay with your children into their adulthood. Let’s face it, there will be many occasions that you need to jointly show up for your children after your separation—whether it’s at a school performance, baseball game, or their wedding. Putting your children’s needs first means ensuring they don’t feel anxiety about having the two of you in the same room during the most important moments of their lives.
- Present a united front to your children.
Unless something is outlandish or unreasonable, support decisions that the other parent has made and don’t create an environment where your child feels they can get away with things in your household that they wouldn’t in the other parent’s. Even though you are separated, you will still need to make joint decisions about your children, like when they should get a cell phone. Undermining the authority of the other parent by making statements like “Your dad shouldn’t have taken away your X-Box just for forgetting to do your chores” leads to instability for your kids by encouraging them to adopt different behaviors and personalities while in each household. This happens because they are attuning to the needs of the parents instead of identifying their own feelings and needs. It’s important for children to be the same people in each home as it relates to their sense of self and character development.
- Other tips.
Make sure your children know that the divorce or separation had nothing to do with them and it is not their fault. Children often internalize a separation and feel somehow responsible—or rather that if they do certain things or are good enough, their parents might stay together. It is important that you relieve them of that emotional burden.
Divorce affects different kids in different ways. You may have one child who seems to bounce back quickly and one child who doesn’t. Know that your children have to go through their own grieving process, and they need your support and reassurance along the way.
Enroll yourself and your children in therapy (separately). This is a big one. Even if you think you and your children are handling the separation just fine, you will greatly benefit from speaking to a trained professional and having safe, private spaces for you and your children to voice your feelings. These professionals will be able to help your children process the situation with age-appropriate techniques, allow them to create a trusted relationship with someone that is not directly involved in the conflict, and will give you an appropriate place to air your grievances and receive support.
Kelly Squires, Managing Director of Terry & deGraauw, P.C. June 2023