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How to make the transition to separate households less disruptive, stressful for kids

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- After a divorce, it is possible — and vitally important for your kids’ well-being — to put aside your differences and develop a positive working relationship with your ex-spouse, said a therapist with The Village Family Service Center, Grand Forks.

Parents going through divorce should try to shift their focus from their conflicts to “what can I do to make this less disruptive and stressful for the kids?” said Talia Tweten, in-home therapist.

“Taking the emotion out of co-parenting is the most difficult, but the most important thing parents can do,” she said.

Arguments that escalate to verbal fighting “can be very scary to kids,” she said. “Parents don’t realize the impact that can have on children.”    

Tweten’s experience as a family mediation counselor and therapist provides insight.   

“So much of what we do comes down to parenting,” Tweten said. “Kids are acting out (in response to) conflict between the parents.

“Parents are so wrapped up in their own conflicts, stressors and emotions that they are not realizing that kids are aware of things. They assume kids are not paying attention,” she said. “They forget that children are listening.”

Hearing their parents squabble, even from another room, “would be alarming to kids — especially if they hear the word ‘divorce’ or talk about something the kid did,” she said. “The kids are in the next room feeling helpless.”

Even a change of voice tone or a facial expression tells a child that the parent is angry or unhappy.

“Kids are very sensitive to tone,” she said. “It’s not so much what parents say, it’s the way they say things. They may not understand the content of the message, but they know by her expression that Mom’s not happy.”

Don’t use child as messenger

In an effort to keep distance between them, it’s common to see parents make their child “the messenger,” Tweten said. But that ploy involves kids in issues that are best left to the adults, and “creates confusion.”  

Parents need to understand that their relationship with each other “is separate from how kids view Mom and Dad.” she said.

“Kids are not developmentally equipped to understand the issues and emotional stress” that are troubling their parents.

Requiring your kids to pass on messages “puts them directly in the middle of adult conflict,” she said. “It makes them feel they have to choose sides.”

“If they have to relay information that may be negative, you’re making them the target of the stress or the upsetting reaction that Dad will have to the message,” she said.

“Keep kids separate from adult issues and adult conflict.”  

Kids often feel that divorce is their fault, she said. “They think, ‘because I was bad, that’s why Mom and Dad are splitting up.’ By having them convey messages, it reiterates that feeling that it’s all their fault.”

Parents should continually remind their kids that they are not responsible for the divorce, she said.

Communicate facts only

For the sake of their children, parents need to agree on “some form of communication, whether it’s text or email, and strictly use those vehicles” to relay medical or other updates on the kids, she said.  

In the early stage of transitioning to separate households, Tweten recommends using electronic devices, because they encourage short, factual messages (“I’m dropping the kids off at my sister’s; you can pick them up there at 4.”) and discourage emotional outbursts.  

“Emotional messages take more typing,” she said.

She suggests keeping some distance from the ex-spouse and seeking out individual counseling if you’re repeatedly “stuck” on the same problem or the same emotion is triggered every time you meet your ex.

Women benefit by reaching out to an understanding friend or family member, because “when a marriage breaks up women, especially, take on a lot of guilt,” she said.

“Venting is good, for a time,” she said, but not in the kids’ presence.

Focus on the positive        

Parents should focus on the reasons why their spouse was a good partner, at least while the relationship was working, Tweten said.

“Remember that your kid is half that other person,” she said. “Kids realize that. They say things like, ‘I look like my mom’ or they notice traits they have in common with their dad. They associate with Mom and Dad at different levels.

“They are attached to (each parent) equally. Criticizing the spouse is criticizing the kid.”

Tweten also recommends being upfront about the divorce with your kids.

“Let them know what’s happening. State the facts only, no bashing” of the other parent, she said. “Be very vague with them; there’s no need to explain in detail” the reasons for divorce.

“Use ‘strength-based’ language such as, ‘Daddy and I won’t fight as much if we are apart. We’ll be happier if we live in separate houses.’”

When divorce happens, “kids get lost in all of that,” she said. “In their world, their parents’ world should be them.

“They forget that Mom and Dad are human. They need to know that this is part of life but it doesn’t have to be scary …

“It’s not that you hate that person, but ‘we just disagree; we’re individuals and we make decisions, and sometimes that means you decide not to parent together anymore.’”

Consistent rules

Divorcing parents are often riddled with anxiety, she said. “They worry, if the child is spending more time with Mom, for instance, that the child will take on Mom’s perspective. They fear that alienation.

“So they may overcompensate and compromise their standards. Where once they were strict, now they’re more lax. They want the kid to like them.”  

Initially, it’s “very natural” for parents to be fearful, she said. But, in the long run, that impulse to “be the better parent” by indulging kids in favorite foods or relaxing the rules “is not good for kids,” Tweten said.

“It may be okay for while, maybe a month or so after divorce, but it’s important to maintain consistency, to return, as much as you can, to what life was like before divorce.”

If parents have different rules in their respective households, it can best be handled by saying, ‘there are going to be differences — there will be some things that won’t take place at Mom’s that will take place at Dad’s.’

“Kids will learn, ‘this is how mom handles it,’ and they’ll adapt.”

Children are adept at pitting one parent against the other (“Mom lets me do this; why won’t you?”), Tweten said.   

“Kids will tell you ‘til the cows come home that they don’t like rules, but structure equals security in the mind of a child. They make for a confident and happy child.

“Rules convey the message: ‘you’re important and I care for you.’”  

Tips for co-parenting after divorce

Here are some tips to help parents develop a positive working relationship after a divorce:

  •  Don’t involve your children in conflicts between you and your ex-spouse , and don’t use them as a messenger between the two of you.
  •  Allow your children to love their other parent and refrain from bashing them in front of the kids.
  •  Allow your children to have access to their other parent when needed, regardless of visitation agreements.
  •  Allow children to have belongings that go back and forth between households.
  •  Remove emotions from your co-parenting decisions -- always focus on what is best for your children.  
  •  Compromise. You will come across situations that will require you both to give a little.
  •  Have a game plan regarding how you will resolve major parenting conflicts between you and your ex-spouse (such as mediation or therapy)
  •  Use strategies such as co-parenting websites, texting, and other forms of communication to keep each other notified of changes with your child.
  •  Involve your child’s other parent in any major events and decisions in your child’s life (such as school changes, religion and medical intervention).
  •  Plan how you will disengage if conflict arises. Take a break? Use a code word?
  •  Work together. Children will become savvy in splitting you as parents, and these are not good lessons for children to learn.
  •  Seek individual counseling if necessary. Resolving issues from the marriage may assist you in keeping emotions out of any parenting conversations you have with your ex.
  •  Try to be consistent about rules and discipline between the two homes.
  •  Practice letting go. Choose your battles.
  •  Remind yourself or your ex-spouse’s strengths and try to appreciate them.

Source: The Village Family Service Center.