Some Do’s and Don’ts that Sound Easy, but they Aren’t!
Honestly, most of us think we are doing pretty well when it comes to protecting our kids from divorce and separation trauma. Its hard to know how well we did, or did not, do until our kids get older, process the divorce themselves and are ready to have a conversation about what we did well and, most likely, not so well.
Here are some basic guidelines for what you should do, and should not do, when communicating with your children during your divorce, regardless of the level of conflict.
DO—discuss how your child feels after witnessing or experiencing a conflict. Rather than discussing details and getting into “he said, she said”, ask your child how he or she feels. Talk about the emotions that are coming up from a conflict, focusing on easing your child’s fears, anxieties, sadness, or anger. By focusing on emotions, you can show your children that they are safe despite the conflict, and give them the emotional outlet they need.
DONT—repeat conflict discussions, emails, phone calls, or conversations to your child. What we mean by this is that although conflict might be difficult to avoid, repeating, re-hashing, and re-visiting conflict issues over and over with your child or children is best avoided. Relaying what your ex said to you to your child is especially detrimental. Your children can know about conflict, that doesn’t mean you can drag them into it, or make them a part of the argument you had with your ex. The conflict between you and whomever is between you and whomever. Your child doesn’t need details.
DO—find people in your life who you can talk about conflict responses with. It’s very important that we discuss how we are feeling with a friend, therapist, counselor, mediator, or other trusted confidante. When we take time to discuss arguments with someone we trust, we can start to respond to aggressive statements from our spouses, rather than react. Responding, with a clear head and a genuine desire to protect ourselves, will not necessarily fix the fight. It will, however, allow us to make conscious responses that aim as best as possible at resolution and self-protection. Reacting, on the other hand, is all about fighting back. Best case scenario, the argument continues. Worst case scenario it significantly amplifies, and we are pulled even further into the destructive conflict pattern.
DON’T—ask your child’s opinion on discussions, texts, emails, or phone calls between you and your ex. They do not need to know the nitty gritty (see above) nor should they feel obliged to give an opinion on what your ex said, what your ex did, or what they think you should respond back. Asking for assistance from your child, no matter his or her age, is for your benefit, not theirs. It may feel useful to talk to them, and to rehearse your responses with them, but it will not help your child. Hearing about the terrible things you or your spouse said to each other hurts them more than you realize, even when the argument may seem relatively trivial to you.
DO—help your child to deal with the difficulties of your ex-spouse.
Here are some example challenges you might face, and how to help your child cope with them:
Example 1: Your ex-spouse is speaking poorly about you, one of your family members, one of your friends, or your new partner, criticizing, rejecting, and insulting one of the above, directly to your child.
- Take this as an opportunity to help your child or children cope with hearing terrible things about someone they love. Put yourself in your child’s shoes—how would it feel to hear negative messages about someone you care for and love?—so you can appropriately respond, instead of fighting back through your child. Comfort your child, reminding them that people say mean things when they are angry or upset.
- Remember that it’s only adding to their stress and confusion if you pile on more insults. You DO NOT have to agree with what your spouse is saying. You DO have to choose the best way to have a conversation with your child. Be honest, and open.
- Example: your ex tells your child that you’ve been cheating on him or her, which you know is not true.
- Think about ways to acknowledge the truth (you did not cheat) without putting down your ex. As angry as hearing a lie being told to your child might make you, focus on how to honestly explain the truth to your child without insulting your spouse in the process.
Example 2: A spouse is being verbally or physically abusive or aggressive with your child.
- DO your absolute best to remove your child as quickly as possible from the toxic environment.
- In the meantime, or if this is not possible immediately, remember that as difficult as this is for you to witness, it’s extremely difficult for your child.
- Seek out resources for your child—counseling, support groups, and videos, books, or pamphlets are a good start for building up your toolbox to help your child, while also helping you to find resources that they might want to try, too.
- For reference, see these:
DON’T—speak negatively of your spouse in response to a child’s pain and suffering in dealing with their parent. Remember, this is someone you might deeply dislike, or maybe even hate, but that is not the same experience your child is having. Your child is torn between two (possibly more, if friends and family members have “taken sides”) people who he or she loves and believes are his or her caretakers. For this reason, it is imperative you do not lie about, say cruel things, or wish ill upon your ex-spouse. Save those for your counselor, attorney, or therapist.
DO—provide your child with as much love and kindness as possible throughout this process. Remind him or her that they are the priority, that no matter how the divorce plays you, you support and love them. Spend your time with them doing enjoyable activities, asking about their days, and cultivating your relationship with them. Make them feel safe, protected, and comfortable.
DON’T—use love as leverage against your child. If your child misses your spouse, acknowledge that sadness. Don’t take it personally.
DON’T make statements like:
- Obviously, you love (other parent) more than me.
- If you loved me, you would want to spend more time with me.
- You don’t love me as much as (other parent).
- Maybe you’d spend more time with me if I was like (other parent).
This will do nothing but confuse your child and get you responses from your children that will either:
- make you feel better about yourself at the cost of your child’s wellbeing
- push your child to take sides he or she does not want to take
- make your child feel that love must be earned or is conditional
Or all of the above. Don’t push your child to take sides. She or he does not want to take them, will feel the need to lie to make you feel better, or will feel more polarized. The time you spend with your child or children is your time to spend with them, not to hash out your own issues with your ex. Think about how you really want to spend time with your child—do you really want to spend it comparing yourself to your ex?
We hope some of these DOs and DONTs will be helpful for you while going through this difficult process. It is our aim to help you in supporting yourself and your children in a positive and constructive way. No one is perfect, and you might slip into some of these DONTs as tensions rise and tempers flare. This doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you human. Keep this guide as a reference, remembering that your highest aim is NOT to be a perfect parent, but to be a supportive and loving one.