Do not speak negatively about the other parent, or about the other parent’s family. You have to remember that your children are half their mother and half their father. They will hear from people throughout their lives how much they resemble one or both of their parents. If they get a negative message about one of their parents, they will begin to believe that those negative things are true about themselves as well. There are enough things in this world that will make your children feel bad about themselves as they grow up. Please don’t be another thing on that list. Also, children don’t always differentiate between the kind of love that exists between adults and the kind of love that exists between parents and children. After seeing their parents married and happy for most of their lives, it is deeply unsettling for children when they realize that love disappears. When they see their parents go from a relationship where they love each other to a relationship where they hate each other, children begin to wonder when their parents will simply stop loving them and start hating them. Please don’t set up that expectation for your children. Show them that even if love changes, people can still be respectful to each other.
Please don’t say ugly things about the other parent’s new partner. The more people who love your children, the better off they will be. Obviously, if you have safety concerns about the new person, address those with your attorney. Otherwise, as difficult as it is to see your ex moving on, you have a responsibility to set an example for your children. If you show them that it is okay to be mean and aggressive anytime they are unhappy, then please don’t be surprised when they begin to display behavioral and relational problems in school, and later in life at work and in relationships.
Please don’t put your children in a position where they feel like they need to make a choice about which parent they want to live until your child is 18, it is not up to them. At the age of 12, the court will consider the opinion of the child along with a number of other factors in order to determine what is best. Telling your child that they can pick where they live may seem like it is empowering the child. In reality, however, it puts an unnecessary stress on the child and causes them to feel like they have to choose between their parents. Even if they could actually choose, it is an unfair choice to ask them to make. Asking them to make that choice when they really have only a limited legal say in the matter is simply cruel.
Please don’t grill your children with questions when they come back to your Ask them about what they’re doing in school, ask them about extracurricular activities, ask them the best and the worst thing that’s happened since they’ve seen you last. But don’t ask them about the other parent, the other parent’s partner, or the other parent’s family. Children often tell me that they feel afraid in situations where parents ask a great deal of questions, because they are worried that they will answer a question incorrectly or say something that will make someone angry or hurt someone’s feelings. Additionally; children sometimes begin to feel like the only reason one parent interacts with them is to find out about the other parent. Show your children that you are interested in them, by limiting your questions to things pertaining only to them.
Encourage your children to talk. Encourage them to stand up for themselves. Encourage them not to keep secrets. Many children I talk to are unhappy with aspects of their life with either or both parents, but are reluctant to bring this to the parents’ attention. Make sure your children know that it is always okay for them to come to you if there is something that they would like you to do differently. Obviously, this is not a promise to actually do anything differently, and does not apply to things like wanting to have ice cream before dinner or go to the big party that everyone will be at this weekend. However, there may be simple things that you can do differently that would make life better and less stressful, but that your children have been reluctant to bring up with you. Ask them for their thoughts.
Never ask your children to keep secrets. Make sure that you talk with them about the difference between a surprise and a secret. A birthday party or holiday gift is a surprise. Secrets between friends of the same age are okay, as long as the secret is not about anyone getting hurt. An adult asking a child to keep a secret is never okay. Not ever. If you teach your children that keeping secrets is okay, you make them more vulnerable to sexual predators. Please don’t set them up to be victims.
Do not share information with your children that they are not ready to understand. In particular, do not share information about the reason for the divorce, the financial aspects of the divorce, or details about the attempts to work out a parenting plan. While it may be true that the divorce occurred because your spouse was unfaithful and broke your heart, your child does not need to know that. Remember that people can be terrible spouses and still be good parents. Children do not need to worry about money, outside of understanding the value of money and of working to earn what you want. Talking about who is or is not paying child support, medical bills, house payments, etc., only serves to cause anxiety in the children and to further polarize the parents, which causes the children to feel more conflicted and stuck in the middle than they did before.
Avoid doing anything that will make your children feel like they need to take care of you. If they think that you are always sad, having trouble sleeping, worried, etc, they will feel like they need to do something to fix the problem. It’s ok for them to know that you’re sad or worried, but if you give them that information, also tell them what you are doing to fix it. For example, “I’m just a little sad right now, sweetheart, but I’m going to listen to my favorite music because that helps me feel better”.
Please understand that everyone perceives events through their own lens, and people’s recollection of the events is often inaccurate. If we assume that children are telling THE TRUTH about events at one house, we must also assume that they are telling THE TRUTH about events at the other house.
The above Coparenting Guidelines was written by:
K. SHANNON WILSON, PH.D. LICENSED CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST/HSP