Divorce is a painful process no matter how gracefully it is handled. And if you and your ex are co-parenting, the process often gets more challenging. Two Eastside-based counselors shared some insights on how to co-parent with an ex and avoid as much conflict and damage to your children as possible.
Respect is key
Leslie Johannes is a Bellevue based Jungian-oriented Therapist. She has over 15 years of experience working with individual adults, couples, children and teen girls and their parents. Johannes says one of the best practices of co-parenting with an ex spouse is to keep the divorce, including the management of difficult and intense emotional states, between the two parents.
“Parents act wisely when they take care to keep children free of: delivering parental messages, unresolved or ongoing arguments or clearly and regularly putting-down the child’s other parent,” she said.
She said that children suffer when they are drawn into their parents’ conversations and arguments. Let children know these are adult matters and too complex for children to have to deal with and keep it between the adults.
“Children often feel isolated and alienated when one parent undermines the other; pressured to take sides, they ‘lose’ one parent to secure the other parent’s approval. Children can be pressed into over- responsible patterns of behavior, functionally reversing the parent-child roles to the child’s detriment,” she said.
Parents must “maintain positive regard for everyone your child holds dear, whether you yourself hold that person dear or not,” she said.
Counselor Stephen Chick of Snoqualmie’s Mt. Si Counseling Services, agrees. A significant percentage of his clients are families with parents who are in the process of separation or already divorced who are struggling with the challenges of co-parenting.
Chick is himself a divorced father co-parenting a teenage daughter. He said that in addition to being respectful to an ex’s face, be mindful of how you talk about your ex to friends and family, even on the phone, with your kids nearby.
“Kids are smart and even little kids can read your body language and tone,” he said.
Two separate households
Chick also says that unless a child is endangered, a parent must accept that he or she can’t dictate to his or her ex’s routines with their child – bedtimes, meals, when homework gets done etc.
He advises not getting drawn into a battle with exes by over different parenting styles and household routines.
“You can only control what goes on at your house,” he said.
“Often parents have different parenting styles that clash, which may be one of the reasons that they are getting a divorce. One parent may be stricter or more passive than the other and a child can learn how to pit one parent against the other.”
In all co-parenting situations, Chick says, “it is important that parents support each other. Explain these different parenting styles to your child, and then explain what is expected: ‘Your dad does it his way at his house and that is OK, and I do it this way at my house, and when you are here, you’ll do it this way.’ ”
Johannes had similar advice.
“Establish clear boundaries around mom’s house and dad’s house. Parents need to each manage their own households, establishing rules, schedules and consequences within those separate domains. Parents and children nearly always run into frustrating difficulties when these boundaries are not observed,” she said.
Chick says that parents going through divorce should also notice the signs that a child might need some extra professional support.
Signs include loss longtime friends or suddenly acquiring new friends, changes in academic performance, withdraws, crying more frequently or becoming easily angered and prone to outbursts, he said.
Teenagers may become rebellious toward a parent, promiscuous, using drugs or alcohol, hanging out with the wrong crowd, engaging in cutting and other forms of self-mutilation or battling an eating disorder, he said.
Ideally, says Chick, the child should have their own counselor, separate from the parents’, though it is not unusual that counselors end up treating both the child and the parent going through the divorce.
Avoiding common mistakes
“One of the biggest mistakes divorced parents make is using the children for revenge, power over the other parent or to win an argument, legal or otherwise,” Johannes said. “Children can see when parents are not acting in their children’s best interests and the damage from such situations can be quite devastating to a child’s wellbeing far into their own adulthood.”
She says that there are support systems that parents can enlist to avoid common mistakes and help a child better navigate his or her new and challenging circumstances.
She suggested co-parenting therapy, parenting classes, a divorced parents support group and conversations with friends.
“An open system of honest communication between parents and children about family functioning helps in creating workable solutions. Weekly family meetings in each household can be useful in ameliorating family conflicts and dilemmas,” she said.
Another minefield is new relationships.
One of the biggest mistakes Chick said he observes is that some divorced parents expect a child to get to know and trust a person in a new romantic relationship, only to see that person replaced or gone after a short time.
“You should not be introducing anyone to your kids while you are dating, unless you are ready to make a commitment to that person,” Chick said.
New romantic partners should not be attempting to parent your child, he added.
“It is inappropriate for your girlfriend or boyfriend to discipline your child,” he said.
That person, says Chick, should be working on building “trust and friendship with your child, before developing any greater role in his or her life”.
There is More Support On the Eastside If You Need It
Chick says that in addition to many excellent counselors, there are several resources on the eastside to parents who are going through a divorce and need additional support for themselves and their children including in Bellevue and in Redmond.