Therapy in Chester, NJ
Parenting is a roller coaster from the very beginning. No matter how many books we read, the gear we buy, or words of wisdom we gather, the moment a baby is born there is another person at the helm of our lives. It takes a village to raise a child, and thankfully some of us have at least a few trusted supporters to help us out. We generally idealize a two-parent system where couples set-up a family together to divide and conquer parenting tasks. This process is already challenging enough, so what happens when the parenting couple itself divides?
Separation and divorce are quite common these days, to the extent that diverse family models have become very normal in our society. Even so, the change in dynamics that splitting up can have on a family with children is extremely complicated. The differences in communication, personal values, or parenting styles that may have led to the divorce in the first place can continue for years to come. Many couples still harbor anger and resentment toward one another. If those feelings aren't processed in a healthy manner with appropriate supportive outlets (i.e., trusted friends, therapists, spiritually) these feelings can interfere with effective parenting and cause children emotional distress.
Jeff and Karen began to struggle in their marriage after their second daughter was born and Karen chose to stay home from work to care for the kids full-time. They had attempted couples counseling for years, but when both of their girls had completed elementary school, there seemed a natural transition period to move forward with the separation they had been considering for years. Although their eventual divorce was a mutual decision and their intention had been to part on amicable terms, there were many unforeseen obstacles that arose in their co-parenting relationship.
Karen learned that Jeff was significantly more permissible of letting their children have unsupervised internet access and much less oversight of their social lives (such as not having met the parents of other kids before agreeing to sleepovers). On the other hand, Jeff felt that Karen was uptight and called her a "helicopter mom" which in his mind was going to cause the kids to become fearful and not trust themselves or the people around them. The divorce process had been emotionally draining enough, but they continued to argue about many of the same parenting issues they had while they were married.
All parents want what is best for their children, but unfortunately the impact of having two arguing parents can be negative for kids. Many parents can find themselves in similar situations, and here are a few words of wisdom for co-parenting after separation or divorce:
- Keep the communication flowing. It's generally good to have a paper trail with email or text messaging so that you can both have something to refer to after you decide on arrangements for your children. It may help to have one designated day per week, such as a Sunday or Monday, where you always check-in with each other to solidify plans for the rest of the week. This way, you can maintain boundaries and stay organized as co-captains of your family. This can help protect your children from getting caught in the cross-hairs of miscommunications.
- Try to maintain perspective when you feel those emotions start to rise. If you become triggered by hearing about something irritating that your co-parent may have done or agreed to, consider whether you are having a reaction because it differs from your personal parenting style, or because it is a serious matter of concern regarding the well-being of your children.
- Keep your focus on what's best for the children. If this becomes your true mantra, you won't have to take it personally if your kid decides, for example, that he wants to spend extra time at your ex's house because it's closer to his best friend's. Imagine yourself in your child's situation whenever you can before you make important decisions on his or her behalf.
- Although it is necessary and beneficial to have a structured parenting agreement, allows for flexibility. For example, if your ex's night to have the kids is Wed. but he/she will be out of town for business one Wed. then it would be in your children's best interest if you agree to let him/her take them another night.
- Don't be spiteful and go tit for tat. For example, if your ex brings your kids back to your house 10 minutes late occasionally don't tell him/her that he/she gets the kids 10 minutes less next time he/she sees them. If this becomes a habit, however; and your time is disrespected, then it is important to discuss this matter with each other.
- Don't talk badly about each other in front of the kids. Your kids have the right to love both of you and they should not feel torn, guilty or pressure to take sides. Allow your kids to talk about the fun time they had with Dad or Mom picking pumpkins and validate their experience. Encourage and not discourage their relationship with the other parent. It's healthy to have both parents involved in your children's lives even if you aren't together.
- If you disagree about something do not argue where your kids can hear you. Speak to each other in private and remember to be solution-focused and not defensive. Use assertive communication and do not become aggressive by labeling each other, cursing at each other, or attacking each other's character.
- Remember to inform each other regarding your children's educational, health, or safety issues if one of you doesn't have direct access to that info. For example, if you take your child to the Dr. be sure to inform your ex about what the Dr. says. But, if you both have access to the school's portal then neither parent is responsible for informing the other when the parent-teacher conference is. You are not each other's parent and you each need to assume the responsibility for being one.
- Respect each other's parenting style even though you may not like it or agree with it. You cannot control what he/she says or does when he/she is with your children. The only exception would be if you feel your children aren't safe or at risk.
- Communicate with each other directly and not through your children. Putting them in the middle and having them taking on a responsibility that isn't theirs is unfair.
- Make the best choices for your family and don't worry so much about what others on the outside might think. There is no such thing as a perfect family or household, so you're totally off the hook on that one!
- Take time for you. Self-care is so important, especially when you are going through a difficult time. You need to take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually so that you can be there for your children.
- Be emotionally available to your children. Just because you are with them physically it doesn't mean you are present and attuned to them. Children need to feel safe and secure and it's not just with one conversation. They need to consistently be reminded that the divorce is not their fault, that they are loved by both parents and that everything will be ok.
Remember that even after divorce, you and your ex can always continue to work with a qualified therapist if you need ongoing support around communicating and making decisions for your children. We're always here for you and your family.
Call us at Modern Family Counseling at 732-742-0329 for more information about our services or to schedule an appointment with our therapists!