One Saturday when I was 16, my dad dropped me off at the house after our weekly visit and asked if he could use the bathroom. My mom, who hated him with a vengeance since he cheated on her and asked for a divorce after 24 years of marriage, had made me swear that I would “never let that man into the house.” However, she wasn’t home, he was pressuring me to let him in, and I figured she would never know. I succumbed to his pressure, he did his business, and he left. I assumed it would be our little secret.
When my mom came home, she predictably questioned me about whether my dad came into the house. Being a good teenager, I lied, reassuring her that I followed the rules as I always did. At this point I thought I was home free. About half an hour later, she came screaming down the stairs, accusing me of lying and letting my dad into the house. As I started contemplating my next lie, she yelled that he had used her bathroom and that he had left the toilet seat up. I was snagged, and in a load of trouble.
While this story is humorous today, back then it was a painful example of the ways in which my warring parents put me in the middle of their divorce-related conflicts. I was frequently put in the position of having to choose between them which is the ultimate no-win situation for a kid. Regardless of who I chose, one of them would be angry with me. That time it was clearly my mom.
Fast forward forty-something years later and I am now a psychologist and divorce coach whose passion is helping to protect children from the emotional damage that divorce can cause. I don’t want other kids to have to experience the pain and suffering that I did because of the many mistakes that my loving, well-meaning parents made. Their parenting judgement was clearly impaired due to all the painful emotions that they were each dealing with, and I was often the victim of their bad choices.
When we think about the parenting mistakes that divorced parents most often make, they typically involve such obvious things as fighting in front of your children, bad-mouthing your (ex)spouse to your kids, or not following through on scheduled visitation times. While all these behaviors are extremely harmful to your children, there are several more subtle mistakes that parents can make, without realizing it, that have the potential to be equally harmful. Let’s detail five of them so that you can work to avoid them and best protect your children from unnecessary stress and emotional damage.
Five Mistakes That Divorced Parents Make
1. Keeping Secrets and Telling Lies
Divorced parents often put their children in the middle by asking them to keep secrets from the other parent. To the child, this is no different than explicitly asking them to lie to their mom or dad. This is a behavior that they hopefully know is unacceptable, and that would typically result in some sort of negative consequence under different circumstances. It puts them in the horrible position of either disappointing the parent who is making the request or betraying the parent that they are keeping the secret from or lying to. As you can imagine, this is a no-win situation which is incredibly stressful for your child and one that should always be avoided.
Guideline: Avoid asking your children to do something that you have always taught them is inappropriate and unacceptable.
2. Being Asked to Be a Messenger
Children of divorced parents are often asked to serve as a messenger between their parents. For example, “tell your dad that he owes me two weeks of child support,” or “be sure to let your mom know that I made an orthodontist appointment for you next Monday.” While this might seem like an innocent request, it results in unnecessary pressure on the children by imposing a sense of responsibility for things that should be handled by the parents. Effective co-parenting requires that parents can communicate with each other, and children should not be put in the role of facilitating that communication for them. They have enough to cope with right now without having to take on the burden of parental tasks that you as the adults should be managing. It is important that you work to keep your children out of the role of messenger to spare them any additional unnecessary stress.
Guideline: Avoid putting your children in the role of intermediary, even if it makes life easier for you.
3. Inconsistency Between Homes
Part of the reason that you and your ex-spouse are no longer together is that you probably had very different ways of doing things and that you struggled to effectively negotiate compromises about those things. Now that you have two homes, it makes sense that you would have different sets of rules and expectations for your children and varying ways of managing your lives. However, that can create a great deal of stress for your children. Imagine if at one home they were only allowed to play one hour of video games per day but at the other there were no limits at all. Or that bedtime at one house was at 9 and at the other it was at 11. Or that at one house they were allowed to eat dinner in front of the TV and at the other the expectation was that everyone sat together and ate at the table. Those inconsistencies can be incredibly confusing for your children. They are constantly having to readjust their behavior depending upon where they are currently residing. In addition, there will be the tendency for them to be testing the limits at the home where the rules are more restrictive, setting everyone up for a great deal of unnecessary conflict. They have already had to deal with so much change and inconsistency and this is an opportunity for you to avoid adding to that stress.
Guideline: Maintain as much consistency as possible between homes and work to negotiate a compromise position with your former spouse when your two sets of rules significantly vary.
4. Stressful Transitions
Living in two homes is inherently very stressful for children. It involves constant disruptions, packing and unpacking, saying goodbye to one parent, leaving meaningful possessions, not being near their friends, and adjusting to different rules and expectations. As a result, the actual transition times are often very emotionally challenging, even in the best of circumstances. Parents often report changes in their children’s mood and behavior both before and after these transitions occur. Unfortunately, parents often add to the stress of these transitions in several ways. They use it as an opportunity to discuss a contentious topic resulting in an argument in front of the children. They establish spiteful rules for the other parent that put the children in an uncomfortable position, such as the parent is not allowed to pull into the driveway or ring the doorbell. They refuse to allow children to bring their favorite possessions with them to their other house. All these behaviors make the transitions so much more difficult for your children and should be avoided at all costs.
Guideline: The ABCs of peaceful transitions: Avoid Conflict, Be Prepared, Create Reasonable Rules/Expectations
5. Undermining the Child’s Relationship with Their Other Parent
There are many ways in which parents can subtly give their children the message that they do not support their relationship with the other parent. These can include statements such as “Why do you always seems so excited when it’s time to visit your dad?”, “Why do you make your mom out to be such a saint?”, “It’s not such a big deal if you miss your phone call with your dad tonight,” “I had to make a doctor’s appointment during your visitation time with your mom so unfortunately you are going to have to miss it.” All these seemingly innocuous comments communicate to your child that you do not value their relationship with their other parent and, as a result, they have the potential to cause them emotional harm. It is essential that you give them explicit permission to have a close loving relationship with both of you and that your words and actions consistently reinforce that message.
Guideline: Give children permission to have a loving relationship with both parents!
It is essential that you understand the power that your subtle words and actions can have on your children during this challenging time in their lives. Most parents would never set out to intentionally hurt their child in any way. However, I know from both my personal and professional experience that sometimes parents are not even aware of the ways in which they are contributing to their children’s challenges coping with the divorce. My hope is that you will now be more sensitive to these issues so that you can actively avoid adding to their stress in unintended ways.
Dr. Erica Ellis is a licensed psychologist, best-selling author, and a leading expert on child-centered divorce. As a child of divorce herself, she is deeply passionate about helping divorcing parents avoid the mistakes her parents and so many of her patients have made. www.childcentereddivorcejourney.com.
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