Many single parents are sharing custody of their children with angry, bitter or wounded exes. Below are some practical and easily implemented strategies that require no cooperation from your ex and will make life much easier for you and your children.
1) Be available. Save your shopping, errands, and visits with friends for the times the kids are not with you. When they first arrive at your house, just sit down, away from your phone and computer. Consider sharing a snack at the kitchen table for about an hour, during which kids can unload their stories, complaints, news updates, school projects, etc.
Be still, and make yourself available for them to physically and emotionally reconnect with you. Give them time to re-calibrate to the rhythm of your home before you expect them to jump into chores or homework.
Of course, in order to be truly available for your kids, you need to:
2) Take good care of yourself. Get regular exercise. Spend time with a good friend or therapist who can listen without judgment to all your feelings. Write in a journal. Work through your anger and pain. Eat well. Don’t sacrifice your health or sanity thinking it’s noble or necessary for the good of the kids.
Just like they say on the airplane regarding the oxygen masks, secure your own lifeline before helping your child. You don’t have much to offer if your own basic needs aren’t being met.
3) Do not judge the other parent within earshot of your children. This may sound impossible, but let me assure you, it can be done. Your ex lives forever inside your children’s DNA. If you speak condescendingly about their other parent in any way, your child feels insulted. We may see the distinction and separation between parent and child, but our children do not. Keep your judgments to yourself until you can safely vent them with your supportive listener from tidbit number 2.
It is imperative that you accept that there is more than one way to do things. Maintain a ‘no comment’ policy on what happens at their other house. Don’t ask them why it’s that way, or why their mom said this or their dad did that. Simply acknowledge their communication in a neutral way, and reflect back whatever feelings they might be having. ‘Hmmm, sounds like you might be feeling disappointed about that situation.’ This way kids can stay in their own experience and move through it, without feeling like they need to defend the other parent from your attack.
And prepare ahead of time for when your kids get old enough to become curious about why you got divorced. You’ll need a neutral and nonjudgmental answer. Here’s one I read somewhere that I liked: Get out some pots and lids of various sizes. Show the kids how even when there’s nothing wrong with either the pot or the lid, not all of them fit together. “Mommy and Daddy just didn’t fit together anymore.”
4) Do not judge your children’s feelings. Just listen. If your kids come home extremely angry about something that had happened at their other house, follow the ‘no comment’ policy. Don't make their feelings right or wrong, but simply reflect them back to them. Within a few minutes, the emotional storm typically will have passed. Your kids will suddenly seem fine -- they may give a deep sigh of relief, ask a totally non-emotional or non-related question, or simply move on to do something else.
There does not need to be a resolution to the situation that frustrates them -- no problem solving is necessary, and nothing at all may change in the situation. But kids do need opportunities to vent their frustration, and to feel love and acceptance while doing so.
Telling kids not to feel that way, refusing to allow them to speak of their other parent in your home, making excuses for their other parent, or jumping on the blaming bandwagon with them will only inhibit the clearing of their emotional energy. Just listen.
5) Teach your child to solve his/her own problems. In that idyllic world of healthy co-parenting, you can hold a family meeting with all of you present to address any problems. For those of us in the adequate but not ideal world of parallel parenting, that’s not an option.
Instead, help your kids to learn effective communication and problem solving strategies, and practice them in your own home.
Do not intervene in any problems they are having with their other family. After reflecting back their feelings, you might encourage them to speak directly to their other parent. But don't worry if they decide not to.
This can be hard to do, but it's important to let them take full responsibility for their actions and choices regarding their other parent. Your job is to keep your own lines of communication clear and available for them.
6) Buy doubles. It’s embarrassing how long it took me to figure this one out—we had far too much stress about boots or snow pants being at the wrong house at the wrong time.
I finally went to the thrift store and spent just a few dollars on extra clothing. Now there's always a backup pair of boots or winter coat available at my house if they forget to bring back what they wore to their dad's or the weather takes us by surprise.
7) Don’t use your kids as messengers, or ask them to speak for you or their other parent. And don’t think you can fool them, either. They know when you are plying them for the scoop on the other parent, no matter how subtle you think you’re being. And they hate it.
Unless you suspect abuse or neglect, what happens at the other home is not your business, so don’t ask for details. Of course you can listen if the kids want to tell you something, but don’t pry.
Don’t wonder out loud what Dad was thinking when he fed them fast food for both breakfast and lunch. Don’t ask if Mom’s boyfriend went to the carnival with them last weekend. If you really MUST know, ask your ex and leave your child out of it. Kids hate being asked to spy for you. They may feel that giving these answers is a kind of betrayal, or fear that they will be punished for something that was not under their control.
(a little sidenote here: don’t ask your kids to keep secrets from the other parent. This puts them in a terrible position. If there’s something you don’t want the other parent to know about your life, simply do not tell the children about it.)
Develop a direct channel of communication between the parents. Email is excellent for this, because it can be referenced later if you forget what was decided, and it does not intrude like a text or phone call. Sometimes there's a back door option on voice mail to send each other messages without ringing the phone. Some parents send a communication notebook or folder back and forth in one of the kids’ backpacks.
8) and the corollary: Don’t speak for the other parent. Sometimes kids will ask why Daddy won’t let them spend their allowance the way they want to, or why Mommy won't let them play video games, or the like.
It usually takes more will power not to speak for your ex soon after the divorce, when you still know him or her well enough to have an idea about the reasons why they do things. But it might not take long for you to honestly have no clue what he or she is thinking, at which point it becomes easier to refer the kids directly to the other parent for the answers to this type of question.
It’s important that you give the other parent the opportunity and responsibility to speak for themselves with their children. Don’t run interference. Don’t defend or protect the other parent from the true consequences of their actions. Let them explain to your child why they were late, rather than covering for them. The sooner your child faces the reality of who their parent is, the sooner they can get about their business of forgiving them and making whatever adjustments need to be made.
9) Free your children to love both of you without reservation or fear. And any new partners, as well. Please, do whatever internal and emotional work you need to do so that you are not threatened by your child’s love for your ex or stepparent. This might the most important tidbit of them all.
Show your child how a candle can share its flame to ignite other fires without losing any of its own light. Love is infinite—it cannot be diminished by sharing it with others. Let your child know that it’s OK for her to love both mommy and daddy, regardless of how they feel about each other, and that you are confident that she has so much love inside her that it can never run dry.
10) Be a storehouse of happy family history. If it is true, your child will love hearing that she was conceived in love, or that Mommy and Daddy were so happy when he was born. Kids with co-parents usually get to see them engaging in peaceful and productive, sometimes even warm, interactions. Many kids hardly ever see their divorced parents in the same place at the same time, and even less frequently do they witness an actual interaction.
My daughter was only three when we divorced, and has no memory of her dad and I being happy together. So I gathered some pictures of good times that included various permutations of her family forest (it’s bigger than a tree) and I hung them in a big collage frame in her room. She beamed, and told me that her favorite was the one of me and her dad holding her when she was a baby.
And when she asks, I tell her stories about her birth, and how we loved her so much, and how we would take her on walks around the neighborhood together. Little, everyday kinds of stories, to fill in the blank places in her memory with joy.
That should be enough to give you a good start. Oh, wait, just one more:
On the hard days, when you’re tired or frazzled or overextended and you slip up, please forgive yourself and just start again. Be gentle with yourself ... parenting after a divorce can challenge us to the core, and you’re doing the best you can in any given moment.