Three years ago, I wrote an article called, “Keeping Kids Out of the Middle” with tips for navigating divorce with children. I still stand by these tips and decided there are things to add after going through every phase of early childhood and up to graduating two seniors this year.
The first article elaborated on the following basic tips:
• Do not speak badly about your ex in front of your children
• Do not make the children responsible for any form of communication between you and your ex
• Never discuss money with your children as it relates to your ex
• Accept the fact that you do not control what goes on at the other parent’s house
• Do not ever make your children feel guilty for being away from you
I have been remarried for almost four years, and between us, we have five children. When we married, they were 14 (two of them), 12, 10, and 6. Now, they are 18 (two of them) 16, 14, and 10. We have spent our marriage making sure that we keep all of the kids out of the middle of our divorces. As you can imagine, dealing with a blended family and with 2 exes who are parents of five children is no easy feat. But we have both managed to develop good relationships with all of our children.
I think most of us imagine that things will get easier over time. But as kids grow and develop, they begin to develop their own thoughts, feelings and perspectives of their situations. They may have opinions based on information someone gave them that may or may not be accurate. They may question their realities as they begin to see things for themselves. This complicates the ability to keep them out of the middle because they can have difficult questions about why and how things have occurred or been handled.
Here are some things we have learned further along the way:
• Answer your children’s questions from the perspective of who you are not who your ex is. When children have questions about a divorce or a situation between you and your ex, it is a difficult conversation to navigate. Answer their questions from your own perspective of who you are and why you are that way. Leave your perspective of your ex out of it. When your children understand your values, they can better understand your decisions.
• When and if your children complain about the behavior of their other parent to you, stay out of it. The correct response to this complaint is, “I am sorry you feel that way (or I am sorry that happened to you). Have you discussed that with your mother/father?” You want to avoid one parent being pitted against the other. Even if your relationship with your ex is not good, this is not something for you to solve for your child. Your child needs to learn to voice these concerns to the one who can change it. If they are very young, I would let the other parent know that this was brought up to you, that you plan to stay out of it, and that he/she may want to address this with the child. This exception, of course, is if the child is in danger.
• Encourage your children to find and use their voices. One of the saddest things that can happen to children of divorce is that they can feel the need to please or the need not to make waves. It is never a child’s job to keep the peace, and children should be encouraged to express their feelings in an appropriate way. Encourage your children to let you know when they are confused, angry, upset or unhappy. And encourage them to tell their other parent. Part of having healthy relationships is being able to articulate what you need. This is especially important to children in a divorce situation.
• Encourage your children to set healthy boundaries. As a child gets older, they need to learn when to say when. If a parent is doing something harmful to the child (speaking badly about the other parent, etc.) a child should be able to say, “I do not like it when you talk about my mother/father” or “It hurts me when you say that.” They should be able to say these things to both parents, you included. And when they do get up the courage to set a boundary, respect it. If you don’t, they will begin to set more and more distant boundaries.
• Trust your children to find their own truths. This is the hardest thing to do, but when you live your life honestly and openly, your children will know who you are. It is not your job to bash the other parent, prove a point or make a case - that will backfire every time. Live a good life, treat your child with respect and honesty and trust the truth.
Nothing about raising kids in a divorce situation is easy, but when they can trust that you will talk to them in an open, objective and non-threatening way - to them and about their other parent - they will trust that they can come to you and be heard. That is the strength of any good relationship.