You've heard it all before: Divorce hits the kids hardest. Parents and experts agree that kids suffer less when both parents remain active in their children's lives.
Here are some tricks and tips to ensure that each family member stays sane and happy.
Call time-out on conflict.
From the paperwork to the lawyers, courts, and custody battles, divorce can be one drawn-out battle that lasts for years. When it comes to co-parenting, however, it's time to lay down your metaphorical weapons for the kids' sakes.
"One of the biggest struggles is when the conflict between the parents continues after the divorce," says Lauren Behrman, Ph.D., a Westchester-based clinical psychologist who works to help families as a neutral process facilitator, child specialist, and parent coach on interdisciplinary divorce teams. These conflicts can occur at a child's birthday party, during the holiday season, or at the visitation exchange. Dr. Behrman suggests making these occasions less awkward by handling the situation in the same way one would handle running a business with someone you didn't particularly like. Drop-offs and pick-ups are a part of the business of parenting.
If the situation is too tense to put aside hurt feelings, Kristin Perry, Psy.D., co-founder of Manhattan's InParentis, suggests relying on a neutral third party to take the kids to and from the ex-spouse's house. If you plan on working out such a house-to-house transition to avoid parental contact, Dr. Perry recommends not leaving kids to their own devices in concocting an explanation for why this happens. When you opt to remain silent about the situation, the kids may fill in the blanks with the idea that Mom or Dad doesn't want them to see the other parent. Both doctors agree that this puts unnecessary feelings of guilt on the children, who ultimately want to feel that it is okay for them to love each parent.
Structure salutations and send-offs.
How the children say hello and goodbye to their parents during transition trips can set the tone for each visit. According to both Dr. Perry and Dr. Behrman, body language reveals tons to children even if parents themselves are unaware of it. Any sort of tension, anxiety, or sadness demonstrates to the children that you are not okay with the situation. This may then cause your child to anticipate and reflect your feelings instead of her own.
Dr. Behrman also cautions against using negative or overly emotional language. "Saying 'I missed you so much. I hate when you go,' makes a child feel guilty about leaving," she says. "Have upbeat conversations, and show excitement. Talk about what things the kids will do there and when they come back." When the kids return, Dr. Behrman advises against immediately bombarding them with questions. "Be respectful. Have a couple of minutes where the kids can breathe easy."
So what happens if you get a call from an upset child while he's with the other parent? The best thing to do is just listen. "One of the things that is so useful is the idea that, depending on the different developmental stages, children are going to have different needs," Dr. Perry says. "Listen for the underlying cause. Go through what could be going on emotionally, and figure out the real problem. Is it comfort-seeking? Is it about the parents and the divorce, or something else?"
Dr. Perry also notes that there are a variety of reasons a child might be seeking the other parent, such as the child doesn't like that when she goes, her mom spends time with a new boyfriend, or she hates Dad's rules on television watching. The child may be reaching out to the other parent to help her solve a problem.
Sometimes there is a quick fix to alleviate your child's stress, Dr. Perry notes, but other times, the parent needs to encourage the child to advocate for him or herself. "Teach them to have other methods of coping. Support the fact that the child may have to approach a parent he or she may not feel comfortable with. It can be tough, but the payoff is great for the child," she says.
Rediscover the pre-parenting world.
Now that both parents have worked to ensure that the children can transition to and from each parent's house without a boatload of emotional baggage, it's time for the parents to become comfortable with the transition as well. Both doctors recommend taking time to focus on being an adult outside of the parenting role. "Parents should look at the time apart as a time to recharge their batteries and get mentally prepared so they can be present in the moment when the kids return. Parenting is rewarding but exhausting," Dr. Behrman says.
Dr. Perry adds that often after a divorce, a parent relies more heavily on the children for love and intimacy now missing from the former spouse, but parents need to try to fulfill their adult needs elsewhere. She suggests joining a club or group or going out with friends. "Figure out how to tolerate not being in your kids' life during the time when they are away with the other parent. You want them to have their own experiences and to give them privacy. It's about balance. Find ways to be fulfilled personally. Don't make it about you," she says.
Be okay with not being okay.
Despite a parent's best efforts, there are bound to be slip-ups. Whether it be an ill-advised insult directed at your ex or crying while dropping off the kids, Dr. Perry reminds us that it is okay not to be the poster-child for successful co-parenting. "It's okay not to be okay, even though you aren't being the gold standard," she says. "Ask for help if you need it."
Dr. Behrman also reminds parents to "remain a team when it comes to what the kids need" by sharing information, trusting you are giving your kids the gift of having a relationship with the other parent, and realizing that the children have their own unique bond with each parent.
Parents should also never share adult problems, lose sight of shared goals, or fight or compete with the other parent in front of the child. "Give the children permission to love both parents," Dr. Behrman says.