When your child comes home from the other parent’s do they start talking and talking about everything they did, expressing a range of emotions? Or are they reserved and quiet – afraid that they will upset you or make you angry or sad? When talking about their other parent’s house or your Ex’s new partner, do your kids say anything and everything or do they tell you what you want to hear?
Are they expected to keep their life with each parent separate and apart – do you have an agreement of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell?’ Do they betray your confidence if they tell their other parent about what is happening in your household?
Kids become a mess when they think they have to live two separate lives.
Sometimes there’s no way for a child to please both parents at the same time. One parent may want their child to play football, the other is adamantly opposed. One parent may think a cell phone is important for their kid’s safety, the other may think a cell phone will ruin their childhood. One may think dating is okay and the other thinks it is off the table completely. With intact families, these kinds of conflicts are resolved between the parents. One may say, “don’t tell mom” or “don’t tell dad” but they never say, “we can’t decide on what is right so you pick.”
If these conflicts are resolved by the child, then your kid always has to be thinking about, and worried about, who is going to be mad. They have to always be hiding things, hoping the other parent doesn’t find out about what they are doing with the other parent’s blessing, and they learn to keep secrets from you. A situation has been created where they ARE cheating on you! Your kids experience feelings of guilt, worry and begin to develop two different ways of being so they can fit in with each separate household.
Even more subtle, kids are put in this situation when their parents are always fighting. Imagine that your child knows that both you and your Ex will attend an upcoming performance at school but you both act angry and distant when you are in the same place at the same time. Will your child be able to focus on preparing for their performance? Will they be able to relax and enjoy themselves on stage? No. Instead, they’ll be worrying about how to please both you and your Ex, and dreading what will happen if they somehow slight one of you.
Children of divorce tell these stories about their birthdays, their graduations and even their marriages! Your conflict with your Ex can potentially ruin big events for your kids. When children experience this sort of undue stress, they may develop headaches, stomachaches, tension, lack of energy, and other physical symptoms. They may also experience emotional problems such as anxiety or depression, and develop behavioral problems, such as social withdrawal or disobedience. Of course you know the conflict is just between you and your Ex and doesn’t involve your kids, but that’s not the way the reality of it.
Kids need to believe both parents love them and that both parents are good people.
Children want to believe that they are enough to keep their parents together. Children have been told since the beginning that their mother and father loved each other and because of that love, they were born. Adults understand the difference between loving a romantic partner and loving a child, but even teenagers struggle with the concept of why that powerful love which created them, doesn’t last. Smaller children can’t help but feel insecure because they have no concept of ‘romantic’ love – they just know that if parents can stop loving each other, that love might not be permanent – where does that put them?
If kids are faced with the reality that love doesn’t last and then they are told that they must stop loving a parent, that completely disrupts their perception of reality. You may think your Ex is not a great parent and you don’t want them to hurt your child by disappointing them, or exposing them to harmful values or letting your child face let-downs because of broken promises, but nothing hits at the child’s fundamental core as having to believe that the parent-child bond not only can be broken but should be broken. Kids need constant reminding that the love a parent has for their child can survive divorce.
Kids actually do better in the long-term when they lose a parent to death than when they are caught in a high-conflict divorce. This is true because of how each affects their identity and the unity of their family. When a parent passes, the parent and child grieve the passing together in the same way. The missing parent is talked about fondly, their strengths are remembered and their faults are forgotten. The child is encouraged to embrace their parent as part of their identity and see that part of them as something that lives on and should be revered. If a child isn’t given the option to value the absent parent then the child either must hide that love for the parent or see themselves in the same negative light being cast on that parent.
Children of divorce do best in the short-term and the long-run when they feel loved and cared for by both parents. Kids feel safer and better about themselves when they think both parents want to be involved in their lives and both parents are good people.
Loving the other parent isn’t cheating, it’s what is normal for every child.
Children of divorce are always missing someone. When they are with their mothers, they miss their fathers. When they are with their fathers, they miss their mothers. When children of divorce make a wish and blow out their birthday candles, often they are wishing for their parents to get back together. This is true, even if they don’t have perfect parents. You most certainly have unconditional love for your child, and they also have unconditional love for you and their other parent.
If the other parent isn’t perfect, your first reaction will be to protect your child from that harm. You may want to help your child understand that the other parent has flaws and make them see the ‘truth’ about your Ex so your child won’t be disappointed, let down or upset. But allowing your children to engage in a little bit of fantasy may be the nicest thing you can do for them. Letting them think that the other parent is good may do more for their overall self-esteem than letting them be confronted by reality.
Children need to believe that both of their parents love them. If there’s any idea in their head that a parent doesn’t love them, they will think it is because they are not good enough. Blaming themselves is one way that children can feel in control of a difficult situation, even it if leads to bad feelings about themselves.
Sometimes you do your child a tremendous favor by defending the other parent and making a few excuses for them. In the long-term, children will always know who was there for them and who was not. Kids grow up and become adults and learn about life and see who their parents are as people. Protecting your child may mean protecting their feeling that they came from two people who love them and who are proud of them.