What would you do to ensure the safety and well-being of your children? If they were facing a significant health crisis, would you drive to the hospital every day? Would you drive to Edmonton every weekend for treatment? Would you sacrifice your career? Would you risk you own life for them?
When I ask co-parents these questions, invariably the instant answer is “of course!”. But interestingly, when I ask, “Will you be consistently cooperative and kind to your ex-spouse?”, often there is a pause… and a grimace.
I do not criticize parents for this response. Co-parenting is difficult especially considering that your children are the most precious part of your life and now you have to coordinate their care with someone with whom you likely have a long history of conflict, and often hatred.
What is imperative for parents to understand is that, it is clear, from years of research, that conflict between parents after separation often has significant negative effects on children’s mental health, academic success, and self-esteem, in the short and long term. You may be winning the parent of the year award, but at the same time unknowingly sentencing your child to a life of struggle and pain by continuing the conflict with your ex-spouse.
Even with this information and with the best intentions, many parents struggle to reduce conflict. Depending on the circumstances, parents may need the assistance of a legal or mental health professional, but if the struggles are not significant the following tips may be helpful:
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. “He is constantly 15 minutes late”. “She brings the kids back in dirty clothes.” “He kept the children up past their bedtime”. These are frustrations for sure. But knowing that conflict is harmful to your children, can you bite your tongue and let it go?
- Read the book “BIFF for CoParent Communication” by Bill Eddy, et al. This is a short and easy read, with practical advice. If you are faced with rude and criticizing emails/texts, or non-responsive communication, this book is for you.
- Set up a weekly email to share information about your children. This can include things like achievements, funny stories, medical concerns, behavior changes, etc. Among many other benefits, it can help clear up misunderstandings. For example, it may change “Jack came home sullen because he had a poor visit with mom”, to “this week’s email said that Jack may be sad this week because his friend is moving to another school.”
- Never send messages through your children. This puts your children directly into the middle of the conflict. Something as simple as “Tell your dad that I will be 15 minutes late on Saturday” can invoke a response to the child such as “that is unacceptable, she knows that I have to get to work!”. Now the child feels responsible for making dad upset and feels guilty that they did not deliver mom’s message correctly.
- Practice the 24-hour rule. If angered, wait and calm down before responding. And remember…your love for your children is greater than your conflict with your ex-spouse.
The following list of additional resources was kindly provided by Donald J. Saposnek, Ph.D. from his informative workshop “How Does Divorce Affect Kids? Four Decades of Research”:
Best Research Books (Long-Term Studies) on Children in Divorce
- Hetherington, E.M. and Kelly, J. (2002). For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered. N.Y.: Norton. Ahrons, C. R. (2004). We’re Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say about Their Parents’ Divorce. New York: HarperCollins.
- Johnston, J. & Roseby, V. (1997). In The Name of the Child. A Developmental Approach to Understanding and Helping Children of Conflict and Violent Divorce. NY: Free Press.
- Marquardt, E. (2005). Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. N.Y.: Three Rivers Press.
- Wallerstein, J., Lewis, J.M., and Blakeslee, S. (2001). The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study. N.Y.: Hyperion.
Selected Popular Books on Children in Divorce
- Ahrons, C. (1994). The Good Divorce: Keeping Your Family Together When Your Marriage Comes Apart. New York: Harper Collins.
- Emery, R.E. (2006) The Truth About Children and Divorce. N.Y. Penguin.
- Kalter, N. (1989). Growing Up with Divorce: Helping Your Child Avoid Immediate and Later Emotional Problems. N.Y.: Free Press.
- Krasny-Brown, L. and Brown, M. (1989). Dinosaurs Divorce: N.Y: Little-Brown.
- Lansky, V. (1996). Vicki Lansky’s Divorce Book for Parents: Helping Your Children Cope with Divorce and Its Aftermath. MN: Book Peddlers Publisher.
- Lansky, V. (1997). It’s Not Your Fault, Koko Bear: A Read-Together Book for Parents and Young Children During Divorce. MN: Book Peddlers Publisher.
- Ricci, I. (1997). Mom’s House, Dad’s House (Rev.). N.Y.: Fireside.
- Ricci, I. (2006). Mom’s House, Dad’s House for Kids. N.Y.: Fireside.
- Warshak, R.A. (2010). Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-Mouthing and Brainwashing. N.Y.: Harper.
Written by Wanda Dawson