How to Tone Down Parent Conflict During Separation and Divorce to Help Your Kids Adjust
By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.
Time and again, research suggests that parental conflict is a strong predictor of how children will do following parental separation and divorce. Parents’ ability to cooperatively co-parent without exposing their children to ongoing conflict can provide a critical foundation for healthy adjustment. Conversely, parents who remain hostile toward one another and continue to openly battle are likely to pave the way for their children’s maladjustment.
This makes sense, right? Children who must face ongoing fighting and conflict between their parents while they also endure all of the changes prompted by their parents’ separation or divorce would probably struggle more and have more anxiety and depression than those children who go through the separation or divorce but do so within a low conflict, cooperative parenting arrangement. So you may say, “Fine. I get it. But how on earth am I supposed to peacefully parent with my kids’ other parent when the very reasons that we got divorced still cut so deep and he/she continues to act like such a [insert your choice of words here]?!” The simple answer is STAY FOCUSED.
Below, I explain in more detail what I mean by staying focused. One caveat: I know that there are situations where some of these suggestions are simply not feasible. They are, by no means, have to’s but rather pieces to consider, to look at from different angles to see if maybe, just maybe, there is some way to make them happen in a way that benefits your children.
1. Seek support for yourself. Your relationship with your children’s other parent has now shifted in a dramatic way. I have never heard of an intimate relationship terminating with the involved parties feeling totally unscathed. Whether you turn to therapy, family, friends, spiritual leaders, a combination of these, or something entirely different that helps you find your way, it is critical that you reach out and allow yourself to be supported during this time of tremendous adjustment. Being able to move forward with greater inner peace can do a whole heap of good for being able to effectively parent with your ex-partner.
2. If at all possible, use a mediator to come up with and agree on a parenting plan. Do everything that you can to stay out of courtroom battles with your children’s other parent. This type of litigation can often leave both parents in a state of high conflict and that energy trickles down to your kids.
3. If you are unable to come to a good working relationship with your children’s parent and you do find yourself back in the courtroom time and again, it could be useful to use a certified parenting coordinator. Your attorney and/or local family court should be able to help you locate one. Sometimes the family court judge will even appoint one in an effort to help parents develop a less litigious and more cooperative co-parenting partnership. As with all professionals, there are good fits and bad fits. Look for a parenting coordinator that you feel really gets you and your children’s other parent and is able to remain level-headed, fair, and focused on the best interests of your children. Oftentimes, parental hostilities can cloud judgment and it can be extremely helpful to have a neutral third party assist in ironing out differences in opinion and be a sounding board that keeps you focused on your children rather than each other.
4. Look for signs of distress in each of your children. If you are thinking that your child is doing just fine in the midst of your dynamic with your ex, but you begin to notice some differences in behavior, emotion (including a lack of emotional expression), somatic complaints that can signify stress (e.g., headaches, stomachaches, sleep difficulties), or other changes, it might be time to reexamine the level of tension and conflict. (Please know that most children will be distressed as they go through this process. They’ll have ups and downs, but their overall distress should ease up over time. If it instead starts getting progressively worse, then it’s definitely something that should be explored.)
5. Maintain good boundaries when it comes to your relationship with your children’s other parent. While it is critical to come to an agreement on the big stuff, like school and health, you don’t need to agree on all of the little stuff. Each of you will need room to parent as you see fit without the meddling of the other. For example, you may have different rules about chores. One parent may want them all done on the weekend and the other may want them done daily after school with none on the weekend. Neither is right or wrong. They are simply different and each parent has the right to make that call.
And also on boundaries, remember that you and your children’s other parent are not together anymore. That means knocking before entering her/his place of residence, or remaining in the car if that is what is asked of you, when you go to pick up your children for their time with you. That means not bombarding your children with questions about their other parent. That means talking with your ex in the absence of your children when you need to work something out¸ keeping the discussion where it belongs – with the grown-ups.
6. Demonstrate as much respect toward your children’s other parent as you can possibly muster. That means using respectful language about and toward him/her, ESPECIALLY if your children are anywhere in earshot…and that means anywhere on your property because they have amazing radars that pick up on this language from long distances and when they seem immersed in activity. That means maintaining the boundaries discussed above. Remember, your children’s other parent is a part of your children. Respecting him/her is a way of respecting your children and making sure that you do not place them in a loyalty conflict, feeling the need to choose between you and their other parent.
7. Recognize unresolved feelings. If you are a couple of years out and you still find yourself feeling strong feelings like hatred toward your children’s other parent, then you have likely got some work to do to really move on with your life without him/her as your partner. Your intimate relationship is over. It is time to forge something that is more akin to a business partnership, where your children and their well-being are the focus at all times. If you are focused instead on keeping score, denying your children’s other parent’s requests because you don’t want him/her to get his/her way, or caught up in regular arguments, screaming matches, or other hostilities, go back to #1. Without superhero powers, it is nearly impossible for your children to thrive in the face of this dynamic.
A final word on staying focused as you work toward cooperative co-parenting: on a regular basis, ask yourself “Is this good for my children?” Pause and really think about that. “Is this good for my children?” It can be helpful to keep a picture of your children on hand as you contemplate this and as you work through differences with your children’s other parent.
For readers interested in learning more about what children need during different ages, I still highly recommend Gary Neuman’s Sandcastles book. Another great resource is Mom’s House, Dad’s House by Isolina Ricci. This book has a supportive approach and a lot of good information on the grown-up stuff, how to work through the multiple transitions involved in moving through separation and divorce and on to effective co-parenting. As with any recommendations that I make, please use what fits with who you are and what you need.
Stay focused. –Anita
American Psychological Association. An overview of the psychological literature on the effects of divorce on children. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/about/gr/issues/cyf/divorce.aspx
Neuman, M. G. & Romanowski, P. (1998). Helping your kids cope with divorce the Sandcastles way. New York, NY: Times Books.
Ricci, I. (1997). Mom’s house, dad’s house: A complete guide for parents who are divorced, separated, or remarried. New York, NY: Fireside.