Although I’m just pregnant with my first child, I’ve been through four divorces and five marriages…thankfully, they aren’t all my own but each had their own dynamics and their own challenges. I was a child through my parents’ divorce, and both of their re-marriages. I was married previously with a step-daughter who is now 18 and my current marriage with a step-son of nine and a new babe on the way.
While I wouldn’t say anyone could truly be an expert on divorce and parenting, there are patterns and things to watch out for when you’re parenting children through and following a divorce. Most parenting and divorce documents will tell you the major initial issues around custody and reducing conflict, like down-talking the other parent in front of the child. Those are key initial steps but I’ve found that there are two major traps that aren’t talked about as often but are very common when parenting through a divorce:
1. “I need to be the fun parent/house”
You’ve “lost” your traditional family, you’ve lost some stability, and you’re worried about your future. This is an upheaval for everyone. You’re processing your own guilt from the divorce and can easily project that onto how your child is feeling. Your child will process the divorce differently than you will. They only get part of the picture, and although they are losing a family entity as it once was they typically will still have access to both of their parents and more one on one time with each, which can be a good positive for them too. It is possible, in fact, that your child is coping better than you are. Especially if your home life was filled with a lot of fighting or anger prior to the divorce. After a divorce, the relatively calm & quite in the home can sometimes be a relief for the child. In my experience, the younger a child is, the easier the transition can be. It is natural to respond during and following a divorce by trying to make up for any “bad times” by making your child as happy as possible when they are with you – giving them their favourite food/treats, taking them to their favourite places and trying to be a parent they can`t wait to see. This is a particular trap for those parents who have less custodial time versus the one who still has to balance the “fun times” with the homework, chores, etc.
The hard part about trying to be the “fun parent” is that it can create a competition between parents, which can unfairly put the child in the middle. You also end up creating a false environment that doesn’t have some of the realities of a regular home life…and it is hard to come down from those initial fun times into reality once your home life begins to settle down and even out.
By no means am I trying to say you aren’t allowed to have fun with your child – that’s ludicrous. However, temper your plans as best you can. Be aware of your motives and try to find balance with your child and their needs. As any parent can attest, you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to keep your child happy; you need to spend time with them. That can be as easy as spending a games night together with no tv or computer time.
If you think your child is having a difficult time talk to them about their feelings and let them ask questions – they don’t need to know all the details around exactly what happened, but allow them time and space to process all the changes with you. Listen to their concerns, be clear about what you can help them with (and what you can’t), and let them know you’re always there for them. It can take time and as they get older they’ll ask different questions and you may be able to, in the decades to come, explain in more detail without the emotional pressures you may have now. This difficult process, as scary and difficult as it can be, is one of the most important ways to build a relationship with your child as you traverse the stresses of divorce. If your child is having a particularly difficult time, please seek counselling for them.
2. Don’t push them to talk about “what happens at your dad’s/mom’s house”
Your children will begin to develop essentially two different home routines – one at their mom’s and one at their dad’s. They need that space and shouldn’t be pushed to report back on the happenings at either home to the other parent. There is a distinct difference between a curious discussion point saying “what did you do this weekend?” and “tell me what your dad said” or “did your mom do XYZ and when?”. Obviously, if there are any safety concerns about a child’s welfare with one parent or another, you’ll have to develop a completely different approach to ensure your child is safe, but in the case of two generally healthy parents; there is no need to put the child in the middle. Much to your surprise, your ex may change his/her behaviours and offer a somewhat different home with different rules than you knew with them. Luckily, children are very adaptable. They know what they can get away with in one home versus another. If the houses have very different rules, it can take a while to adapt back and forth, but don’t let that affect how you might want to set up the rules of your house. It’s ok to be different in each home and your child will learn quickly.
My rule as a step-parent has always been to listen to the child. If they bring up something from the other house, respond and talk about it but just take their lead – it shouldn’t be a taboo topic as they should be free to talk about their lives. There just isn’t a need to pry into something that happens in the other house. You’re focus is what happens in your house and how that child is with you.
If there is a major issue, you will need to go directly to your ex. Maybe you’ll agree to develop a parenting plan and talk about big decisions together, ideally without your child around. If you need more support from another adult, see if your ex-in-laws can be of assistance or even your child’s teacher to be sure you’re supporting your child as best as you can through the adults in his/her life. Do your best to allow that child to remain in his/her role as your child and loved by both parents.
Divorce can be scary and ugly but it can also be about new beginnings. Focus on what you can control and help your child to adapt to their new life with you helping them with a strong foundation of how to move forward. Good luck!