Sometimes positive co-parenting between separating/divorced parents is impossible, and in situations such as that, it’s time for damage control. In the previous article I discussed briefly how parents who are separating and maintain a functional working relationship in terms of parenting their kids are greatly benefiting the kids in terms of their emotional health and consistency of their lives.
However, this type of positive and interactive co-parenting relationship unfortunately isn’t always possible.
Separation and divorce are by their nature contentious, and emotions can frequently be overwhelming to the point that it’s impossible for the parents to work together in a productive way. Even parents who go into the process with the best of intentions can still get sidetracked into conflict and fighting that makes dealing with their ex-spouse difficult or impossible. Even when the ex-spouses are getting along reasonably well, there will still be disagreements.
It’s useful to keep the following in mind: where there is disagreement, it doesn’t need to be viewed as a failure or an impediment to effective parenting – on the contrary, it can be used as an opportunity to teach the kids an important life lesson in how to disagree respectfully – this is a skill that is valuable for everyone to learn and to see demonstrated. If the child can see that it is possible to treat someone with respect, express disagreement, and do so in a non-confrontational way it can be a great lesson. The rule of “don’t fight in front of the kids” isn’t one I always advocate – if it can be done in a respectful and goal-oriented way and the parents are able to show the child how they reach compromise and make an effort to work together, then it can be beneficial rather than harmful.
Also, while it would be great to have both parents provide a consistent message about every aspect of the kids’ lives, this isn’t practical – even among parents who remain married it’s impossible for two people to always provide a completely consistent message; for parents who are not together and have different lifestyles, belief systems, and priorities (which are often strong contributing factors to their having made the decision to separate!) it’s much less likely that they will be completely on the same page in all aspects of parenting. So it’s important that separated/divorced parents not place unrealistic expectations upon themselves; doing so can lead to feelings of frustration and giving up efforts to get along. It’s fine to have differences, the important thing is communicating about it effectively with the kids and showing respect for each others’ lifestyle.
Parents in a contentious and angry divorce can also look at this as an opportunity – if they are able to muster some degree of civil and positive communication about parenting, it can make the child feel better about the parents being apart. This is because the child sees that the parents who may fight and even hate each other are still making an effort to tone down their feelings to some degree for the sake of the child. This allows the child to recognize that he/she is still cared about by both parents, and is not at fault in any way in this situation (as children unfortunately often feel during their parents’ divorce.)
However, some situations make any type of co-parenting completely impossible; ex. one of the parents is uninvolved with the kids or there are serious mental health concerns. Even among relatively mentally healthy divorcing couples many are incapable of effective interaction, communication, and teamwork going forward in any area, including parenting. In situations such as these where no co-parenting is possible, it’s important to consider things from a damage-control point of view. The parents may not be able to provide the kids the benefits they would get if the parents worked together, but they can make efforts to prevent their situation from damaging the kids. Hare some guidelines that are universal, and should be adhered to even when the parents don’t communicate at all or even when there is active animosity between them:
- Don’t argue with the other parent in front of the kids in person or on the phone.
- Don’t ask the kids to spy for you when at the other parent’s home.
- Don’t ask the kids to keep secrets from the other parent.
- Don’t ask the kids questions about the other parent’s life.
- Don’t talk badly about the other parent, their friends, or relatives.
- Don’t talk to the kids about the divorce or other grown-up stuff, including money issues.
- Don’t make the kids feel bad when they enjoy time with the other parent.
- Don’t give the kids messages to deliver to the other parent.
Don’t tell the kids that you blame the other parent for the divorce or for things that go wrong in your life.
Every separation/divorce is unique, but the theme of effective parenting going forward is one that should be the top priority in every situation where kids are involved. To whatever degree parents are able to put aside their differences when it comes to the needs of the kids, they are doing the kids a great service, and ultimately will likely have a smoother divorce process than they would otherwise.
Dr. Winder is a Clinical Psychologist and Certified Divorce & Family Mediator; he provides Individual Psychotherapy, Couples Counseling, and Divorce/Family Mediation Services at his Cedarhurst office. He accepts many insurance plans and offers a free consultation for divorce/family mediation services. (516) 345-0456 www.drwinder.com