Q: My husband and I have recently separated and are headed toward divorce. While we disagree on many things, the one thing we both want is to lessen the negative impact of the divorce on our 8-year-old daughter. Any suggestions?
A: The choices parents make as they move on with their lives and co-parent can determine whether a child builds resilience or seeks to soothe wounds that can last a lifetime. In my work at Commonwealth Parenting, I see many parents in this situation who want help in creating a co-parenting plan. I have developed a list of “ten commandments” to help parents stay mindful of how best to navigate these choppy waters.
1. Before speaking or taking any action, ask yourself, Is this truly in my child’s best interest?
2. Protect your child from parental warfare.
3. Make sure that the child is free from taking sides and is able to maintain an independent relationship with each parent. A child should have privacy when speaking by phone to the other parent.
4. Assure the child that she did nothing to cause the divorce and that she is not responsible for fixing adult relationships. The child should not be expected to take on adult responsibilities, as when a parent says, “You are the woman of the house, now.” In addition, the child should not be made the parent’s confidant and should be protected from hearing any sordid details of the divorce.
5. The child should not be used as a messenger between parents or as a spy.
6. The child should not be asked to keep secrets from the other parent, nor should she be cross-examined by one parent after spending time with the other parent.
7. The child should be able to spend time with each parent, regardless of financial support. Pick-up and drop-off of the child should be kept pleasant and polite. This is not the time to discuss child support payments or other areas of conflict. Children should never be made to feel guilty for loving the other parent and should not be asked to pick a favorite.
8. Parents will inform one another about medical, educational, and legal matters concerning the child. If possible, both parents should attend parent/teacher conferences and well visits to the doctor. Both parents should feel welcome at school or sporting events, and if possible, should sit near one another to show mutual support.
9. Parents will keep open communications and try to provide consistency about the child’s bedtime, limits on screen time, extracurricular, and social activities, homework, and chores. Children thrive in an environment that provides structure, routine, consistency, and predictability. Children are confused when the rules vary from home to home.
10. Refer to number one! Everything hinges on this point. Once you become a parent, your child’s needs must come first and foremost. Once the romantic partnership is over you must find a constructive working relationship with the other parent. If you struggle to do this on your own, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Often a third party can keep the conversation on track as you work toward your child’s best interest.
In addition to the ten points listed above, let your child know that she can always come to you with questions and you will always give her an honest answer. This must include the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth about your relationship with your former spouse.
Divorce is never easy for a child, but if parents follow these ten guidelines, they will support their child in ways that will minimize hurt and anxiety and behave with grace and dignity even during very difficult times.
Q: My sons are 5 and 7. They are very physical and love to roughhouse. My problem is that inevitably every car ride involves pushing, kicking yelling, or throwing things. I dread going anywhere with them. This behavior is literally driving me crazy!
A: This is a common problem and easy to fix, I think. The next time your boys misbehave in the car, simply pull over safely to the side of the road, turn off the engine, and sit. Within a short time, your sons will ask, “Why are we sitting here?” Your reply is, The car does not go when kids are…hitting, kicking, yelling. Fill in whatever the issue of the day might be. Tell them that you get so distracted that you take your eyes off the road and worry that you might crash the car. If you do this every time they misbehave, I can pretty much guarantee you that this will put an end to the undesirable behavior. The key, as always, is to be consistent. Every time the kids act up in the car, you respond in the same way. This is a perfect example of the use of the parenting tool known as logical consequences. It is immediate and appropriate in this situation.
In the bigger picture, you might also think about how much time your children spend sitting. Reducing screen time and finding more opportunity for large motor play will also help them to release tension after a long day at school. Boys and girls are best served by as much fresh air and free play as possible. Running, climbing, and riding in the outdoors make for happy kids – and less-stressed parents.