If you’re one of those divorced persons who have a contentious relationship with their exes, be ever so careful that you don’t let it have an impact on the mental well being of the children you are parenting together.
Unfortunately, children are almost always victims when it comes to divorce — helpless victims who love both parents — and the last thing they need is to feel the tension and acrimony between the two people they love the most. Nor do they need to feel they must choose one parent over the other. But I find that couples are so caught up in their anger, need for control, or bitterness that they don’t fully realize how their behavior (their unkind words and actions toward one another) can affect their children, who are often left feeling they must pit one parent against the other.
Whenever I find myself talking to the children of parents who are involved in a custody battle, for example, or simply caught between Mom and Dad as they fight over visitation matters, I feel a tremendous sadness. I often wish that parents could simply walk around in their children’s shoes during just one of those inappropriate incidents. Then they could feel the stress and discomfort their children experience.
I have a checklist of what I think are appropriate boundaries for parents who simply don’t agree and who don’t get along with one another. I take special care and as much time as necessary with my clients to help them with a plan to handle difficult moments with their ex — especially situations that directly affect the children.
The following are my suggestions for sparing the children any more grief than necessary:
- Never, and I mean never, bad-mouth your ex in front of the children. Despite what a louse you may think your ex is, that person is still your child’s parent. As such, it’s traumatic each time a child hears one parent berate the other. Psychologists and marriage/family counselors tell us that the children tend to instinctively feel that if something is wrong with one or the other parent, then something must be wrong with them. Save your angry remarks for your therapist, or vent your feelings and opinions to a trusted friend.
- Never argue in front of the children. They tend to feel anxious and embarrassed and will be left to feel torn between their allegiances to each parent.
- Work out schedules and important arrangements ahead of time. That is, well in advance so there is no confusion or uncertainty for the children. Make sure agreed-upon visitation times — and I mean specific times — are in writing. This way, you can justifiably take your complaints to your attorney, a court mediator, or a judge. Better to take your grievances there than to display them to your ex in front of the children. If your ex is tough to deal with, he or she may not be the type with whom you can have an open-ended relationship when it comes to matters that involve the children. So then, plan ahead carefully so both you and the children can feel a sense of what to reasonably expect.
- Actions speak louder than words. If you think you and your children are being treated disrespectfully by your ex-spouse, try to set a positive example by not reacting negatively to such behavior. Take satisfaction in knowing that your children will eventually figure out which parent is the good guy and who is not. Children are smart. They know what is and is not appropriate behavior. In the long run, your children will have tremendous respect for the parent who takes the “high road”.
- Pay close attention to how your children are feeling. This is especially true when they see the two of you together. Your body language, your tone of voice, your overall demeanor can give you away if you’re feeling hostile or resentful. Focus on the children, not on your ex. And if you notice that the children feel noticeably uncomfortable when you encounter your ex, encourage them to talk about their feelings and offer them the support of a therapist. Often, children need an outside advocate to help them deal with their polarized or uncomfortable feelings about Mom and Dad.
- If tensions are really high between you and your ex-spouse, seek assistance. See if you can arrange to have the children dropped off and picked up at the home or office of a neutral party when the need arises. Sometimes it’s better for the children not to be in the company of both parents if the vibe is bad. This solution gives the children and, quite possibly, you and your ex, fewer reminders to stir up negative feelings.
I’m certain that, as a loving parent, you always want to protect the peace of mind and well being of your children. Just know that being the bigger person — whether it means being more flexible with the visitation schedule or biting your tongue when you just want to sound off at what you think is unfair in front of your ex and the children — will pay more dividends in the long run. For starters, you’ll take great pride in showing your ex that he or she can no longer push your buttons!
Stacy D. Phillips is a co-founder of Blank Rome LLP, which specializes in high-profile family law matters. She is a Certified Family Law Specialist by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization.