Your marriage is ending, and you are just beginning to learn how to co-parent. The good news is that you can be superheroes to your children. Here’s the plot twist: being their superhero means accepting that your children deserve both of you being “Super”. Your Superhero status will depend on whether or not you exercise powers of positive communication with your children, about their other parent.
Yes, you read that right, we are talking about making positive comments about your co-parent, out loud where your children can hear them. Your kiddos need your permission and encouragement, demonstrated by your words and actions, to enjoy their relationship with their other parent and to feel supported in doing so.
Now is a good time to mention that we realize you can not control your co-parent’s actions. What we want you to know is that you can make a huge impact through your own.
Does this sound flat-out horrible to you! The worse it sounds, the more you probably need to hear it. Amidst the overwhelming challenges presented by your divorce, your first act of heroism is to begin thinking about one another as co-parents, and moving away from “ex-talk.” Your number one priority now is to make the healthiest possible choices–big and small–for your kids.
Please consider these four co-parent commitments which can positively impact the course of your children’s lives, and yours too.
1. Super Powers Activate
The best way to activate your superpower is to choose to complete your divorce process through mediation. Most legal battles encourage spouses to become enemies and cause harm to children. The increased intensity and duration of conflict can damage your child’s development and cause serious long-term problems. Consider how doubling-down on negative feelings about your spouse in a divorce war might hurt your children.
Your qualified neutral divorce mediator will guide you and your spouse to address property and debt division, financial support and issues of parenting. You will engage in respectful communication, and you will stay in control of your future. You will never have to go to court and you will help lower stress for your entire family. This is your first step–and an essential one–toward building a more peaceful co-parenting future and setting the stage to become superheroes to your children.
2. Be truthful–but selective in what you say
Child specialists agree that parents need to communicate honestly and in advance of the separation. Parents need to be prepared to explain their decision to divorce and what the future might look like for the family. While specific approaches vary depending on age, renowned child psychologist and pioneering custody mediator, Donald Saposnek, Ph.D. urges parents to agree upon a truthful, carefully-framed “mutual story” of their divorce.
Children need to hear “one mutual and consistent story” about why and how the divorce will happen, according to Saposnek. When telling your children a “mutual story,” in which neither parent is “bad,” you are taking joint responsibility for the divorce. It is important to spare the details to help your kid’s view the divorce as a “family re-organization” rather than a “break-up.” This will help your kids to more easily adapt to the new family structure.
For example, instead of Mom telling the children that the divorce is a result of Dad’s cheating and his lack of concern for anyone other than himself, and Dad telling the children that Mom has ignored him for years, a “mutual story” would focus on how much Mom and Dad both love the kids and how they will always be safe and cared for. Parents can explain that everything will be okay although this is a difficult time.
Parents might say:
“Mommy and Daddy tried as hard as they could to live happily together but we have grown-up problems that we just can’t fix, so we’ve both decided that we shouldn’t be married anymore. We will always love you and take good care of you and be your Mommy and Daddy. You need to know that our divorce is not your fault. You haven’t done anything wrong. We are both very proud of you. Even though Mom and Dad will live in two different houses, you will see us both and we will keep loving you, and taking care of you and will each have special time with you. We both agree that we will be happier living in separate places.”
The “tell them what they need to know” approach applies after your divorce too. Spare the details even when questions arise or your co-parenting relationship gets bumpy. Agree on how you will elaborate on the mutual story, if necessary, as time goes on.
3. Never argue with or criticize your co-parent in the presence of your children
Whether you “win or lose” an argument, the true hero is the parent who prevents an argument from occurring in front of their children. Never argue or fight with one another in front of your kids. It is an offense against their childhood. Without excuse, parents must learn to control themselves for the sake of their children. If you have a conflictual relationship with your co-parent, select a “code word” that signals: “we-must-STOP-to-avoid-hurting-our-kids” when tense moments arise. Be creative and do whatever it takes to protect your kids from the damaging effects of conflict between their parents.
Speaking negatively about or criticizing your co-parent within earshot of your kids is also extremely harmful. Many child experts refer to it as “emotional child abuse.” When you verbally attack your co-parent, you inadvertently damage your children’s sense of worth. Children view themselves as a part of both of you, and a condescending comment or angry words about your co-parent can cause stress for your children and make them feel belittled, damaging their self-esteem.
You are entitled to your feelings and to express them, but make sure your children can not hear anything you might say in this regard. Be extra cautious; children hear you talking on the phone, or when they are in the backseat of your car. Don’t be fooled, children are aware of and affected by what is happening around them.
4. Proactively support your children’s relationship with your co-parent
In addition to shielding your children from negativity, making positive statements about your co-parent to your kids will contribute to their healthy development. Likely, this will be a challenge, but it is an opportunity for you to help your kids adjust. To more easily “talk the positive talk” with your children, you can choose to “walk the positive walk” with your co-parent. Here are some simple steps you can take to make this process a bit easier.
First, get yourself in the right frame of mind. Find ways to remind yourself that the goal is not to win a popularity contest but rather to help your kids adjust as easily as possible. When you do not take the opportunity to support your co-parent positively, you miss an opportunity to help your kids. As you adjust, there will likely be times when you just “go through the motions” and practice making positive comments about your co-parents. It can be very helpful to plan ahead and to identify a few of your co-parent’s strengths that you would like your children to develop so that you can more easily formulate positive comments.
Second, find consensus with your co-parent as to how best to foster a supportive co-parenting relationship. Agree that your children come first and have an absolute right to a positive and full relationship with both of you. Agree that you will both look for ways to support your children’s relationship with the other, regardless of your personal feelings at any given moment. Agree to communicate with each other about the children’s needs continuously.
Building a foundation of mutual understanding will allow positive communication about your co-parent to happen more naturally. At The Aurit Center, our mediators help you to lay the groundwork for healthy co-parenting dynamics. Additionally, both during and after divorce, many co-parents greatly benefit from the expert advice of a therapist or social worker.