Divorced parents can sometimes find it difficult to set aside their animosity toward their exes for the benefit of the children when problems arise over joint custody and other issues. Old habits die hard, and those same annoying personality traits in an ex that became coffin nails in the marriage — inability to follow through with a plan, chronic lateness, fiscal irresponsibility, etc. — will likely still be present and just as maddening.
Yet relaunching the War of the Roses for the umpteenth time is neither productive nor healthy for the children. Parents should be aware that kids of all ages pick up on unspoken signals between mom and dad, but the older the children, the more obvious the disharmony appears. Children can learn to navigate competently between both parents’ worlds, but it takes a bit of finesse and diplomacy, so parents should model those behaviors themselves to help their children develop emotionally and securely.
Between the Ages of 5 and 10
If the ink on your divorce judgment is still fresh and the kids are on the younger end of this age range, be prepared for some post-divorce regressive behaviors to emerge, especially when custody exchanges and visitation are taking place. The kids haven’t yet adjusted to the new normal and are testing the waters of parental limits; they are aware that there is no longer a “united front.” But this is where parents can keep the upper hand with the kids. Rules don’t have to be carbon copies in both households, but should closely mirror the standards in the other parent’s home to retain as much stability as possible. One parent should avoid getting labeled the “disciplinarian,” while the other enjoys the role of the “fun” parent.
Sometimes children balk at visiting their other parent for one reason or another. If this is the parent who moved out of the family home, the kids may feel insecure in the new apartment or house. They might find that the tree outside of their new room casts some spooky shadows, the sheets are scratchy or the windows too small. Children are creatures of habit and love the routine of family life, so when that is disrupted by divorce, they can rebel. Some may blame one parent for breaking up the family, even though this may be an unfair characterization; others blame themselves, thinking if they had only been a better kid, daddy wouldn’t have left or mommy wouldn’t always be crying.
When you are able to push aside your negative feelings and help your children explore the feelings they may not be able to freely verbalize, you facilitate healing, which is good for all parties.
Tweens and Young Teens
By the time kids get in middle school and junior high, coordinating their academic, extracurricular and social schedules with their other parent can require the negotiating skills of a diplomat and the navigating savvy of a Sherpa guide. Toss in a healthy dose of adolescent ennui and a few eye rolls, and some divorced parents might be left shaking their heads, wondering why they bother trying to spend time with kids who act like they always have better things to do.
But the ages of 11 to 14 are critical times in adolescent development where both parents have crucial roles to play in their children’s lives. Making sure that all custody exchanges go smoothly and civilly sets a fine example for the kids on the ways functional adults are able to resolve sometimes thorny issues.
When an Ex Is Disrespectful
Some co-parenting situations are better than others, or course. If yours is less than exemplary, you don’t want your children to be exposed to any disrespectful remarks or actions by your ex towards you. You may have to take steps to prevent this, at least initially until tempers cool, by arranging for custody exchanges to be handled by extended family members or in public places under supervision if there are any safety concerns. But whatever the present status of your post-divorce relationship, the goal of both you and your ex-spouse should always be to work toward harmoniously co-parenting together for your children’s best interests.