If you’re one of
those divorced persons who has a contentious relationship with your ex
be ever so careful that you don’t let it impact the mental well being of
the children you are parenting together.
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, or 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 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 effect 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 and 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 allegiance 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 what 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, less reminders to stir up negative feelings.
I’m certain, 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!
A frequent contributor to Divorce Magazine and a member of Divorce Magazine’s Advisory Board, Ms. Phillips is a seasoned family law attorney whose practice has run the gamut from high profile clients to representing the interests of women and men in the political arena both on a local and federal level. View her Divorce Magazine Profile online.