When my son was six, my marriage went south — and I was terrified that the cooperative approach that my ex and I had taken to parenting would go out the window. I didn’t know many divorced couples, but those I did know were terrible co-parents — they just couldn’t seem to get on the same page for the sake of their kids.
That’s because divorce itself is usually pretty rough on the whole family, says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and relationship expert in Southern California. “Everyone feels wounded afterward,” she says. “The parents are going through feelings of failure, rejection, abandonment and loss. And they can lead to competitiveness, recriminations and drama when it comes to co-parenting.”
Tessina has seen divorced parents do such nasty things to each other as making visitation difficult, trash talking the other parent, and sending mean messages through the kids — things like “Mommy says you didn’t dress us right.”
But I didn’t want it to be that way for my family, and I bet you don’t want it for yours either. You love your kids, you want to do right by them — and you’ve read the research that says that it isn’t the divorce itself, but the conflict between parents, that harms kids. These eight rules can put you on the path to peace.
1. Quit being negative.
We know, we know. Your divorce was awful. But if you keep reliving every ugly detail of the breakup and all the events leading up to it, the constant negativity will keep you two from playing on the same team, which is what co-parenting is all about. “Obviously your relationship didn’t work out,” says Tessina. “But you need to get over it and move toward the future, which includes taking care of your kids together.”
2. Spill your guts to safe people only.
You’re entitled to let off steam when your ex balks at the cost of ballet lessons or introduces the kids to his girlfriend before you think he should. But don’t blab about it to the woman behind you in the supermarket checkout line, the other parents on the soccer sidelines, or your fellow members of the PTA. “Maybe your ex really used poor judgment,” Tessina says. “But don’t talk about it to anyone you don’t know or completely trust. You can create a whole lot of damage by wagging your tongue.” You don’t need us to tell you that people love gossip, so you can pretty much bet on it getting back to your ex and maybe even your kids, making the balancing act you’re all trying to achieve even more difficult.
*3. Don’t badmouth your ex in front of your kids
*This is the #1 sin of divorcing couples — complaining about the other parent directly to the kids. You’ve heard you shouldn’t do this, but here’s why it’s so terrible: “They see themselves as half of each parent, and if you make their father or mother sound evil, then they feel you’re making half of them sound evil,” says Tessina. They’ll start to have negative thoughts about themselves — and eventually, she says, they’ll realize what you’re doing and turn against you for it.
4. Say nice things about your ex around the kids
Once you’ve mastered the art of not badmouthing, take it to the next level: When your ex does something awesome, like take your kids to the zoo or sign up to coach their sports teams, don’t look at it as a competition. Instead, go ahead and — dare we say it — praise him. Just say, “I’m glad you had a great time” or “It was really nice of Daddy to do that.” This might be the last thing you want to do right now, but it only takes a second, and it will mean a lot to your kids, who love seeing their parents getting along and hate feeling caught in the middle.
5. Don’t flip out — until you get all the info
Your ex picked the kids up from day care late again? You have a right to be annoyed, but take time to cool down before reacting, instead of immediately jumping down his throat. After all, maybe his train was late or his boss called him into a last-minute meeting. Try getting his side of the story before you throw emotions into the mix. And when you do respond, offer a solution — maybe next time he could call you or a friend or neighbor to pick up the kids on time so they’re not left waiting. “Focus on the problem only long enough to understand what it is, then switch the focus of your discussion to a solution both of you can live with,” says Tessina.
6. Experiment with his way
Your ex wants you to pick up the kids at his house, but you want him to drop them off at yours. “Try doing things the way the other parent wants it, to see if it works better,” Tessina suggests. You might not be getting “your way,” but you might end up making things easier on your kids — and next time, your ex might follow your lead and do what you want.
7. Let the kids have a say
The kids are supposed to be with you on the Fourth of July, but your ex’s cousins are having a big pool party that day. If the kids are old enough to understand the options and have an opinion, ask them what they’d like to do. “Don’t try to persuade them to either side, but present the options as objectively as you can and find out what they think about it,” says Tessina. And whatever they decide, don’t make them feel guilty, even if you’re feeling a little jealous.
8. Do things together as a family
Newsflash: Most kids whose parents aren’t together wish they were. Spending time with both of you at the same time, even if it’s only once in a while, makes a child feel on top of the world. Some ex-spouses have a family dinner once a month. Others co-host their kids’ birthday parties or spend Christmas morning together. Think you can’t possibly manage this? Suck it up. “You can be as distant and pleasant as you would be with a stranger if you have to,” says Tessina. “Your kids still need and want to belong to a family.”
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