Keeping Kids Out of the Middle When Parents Divorce

Every day we tell our kids to stop.  Stop arguing, stop being loud, stop touching each other… you know the drill.

Just stop.

And we expect them to do it.

When parent split up kids have their own list of “stops” for us too. Stop fighting, stop being angry, stop saying mean things about each other and stop putting them in the middle.

Just stop.

And they really wish we would do it.

When you and the other parent aren’t seeing eye-to-eye, take care not to lose sight of how things feel for your children. Seeing the two people they love the most no longer get along creates a huge dilemma for kids.  The question weighing on their hearts and minds becomes “How can I love one parent without disappointing or betraying the other?”

Parents who are constantly at odds with each other create a lot of stress for children.  Many kids live day-to-day treading lightly, afraid they might make things worse.

When this happens, children might:

  • Keep quiet about how they really feel.
  • Tell each parent what they think the parent wants to hear.
  • Try to be a peacemaker or negotiator between parents.
  • Feel responsible for the conflict.
  • Get drawn into adult issues.

While you may not be fighting in front of your children, be aware that kids pick up on unspoken tension too. When parents ignore each other at events, refuse to communicate, openly criticize a parent’s choices or don’t treat each other with respect, children notice.

To keep kids from feeling stuck in the middle or walking on eggshells, do your best to:

  • Separate your hurt and disappointment from your Ex’s ability to be a good parent.
  • See divorce through your children’s eyes.
  • Send kids a clear message that they don’t have to pick or choose.
  • Shield kids from disagreements or arguments

Pointers for Parents

Be business like  

No matter how long you’ve been divorced, you have a history together. You have a way of talking and behaving with each other. You know each other’s likes and dislikes, as well as, habits and pet peeves. Although your relationship as a couple has ended, your roles as parents will last a lifetime.  Breaking free of that history and finding a new way to move forward is essential.

What does it take?

Imagine you had a lifetime investment in the success of a company yet you had to work with someone you didn’t like very much.  What would it take to make that situation work?

Much like a successful business relationship, co-parenting well involves:

  • Staying focused on the business (kids)
  • Steering clear of personal issues
  • Being respectful
  • Learning to compromise
  • Biting your tongue
  • Agreeing to disagree when necessary

Respond don’t react

Sharing parenting responsibilities doesn’t mean you have to be available to your Ex 24/7. Aside from emergencies, very few situations require an immediate response.  When a demanding email from your Ex pops into your inbox, resist the urge to fire one back.

Instead, give yourself some time to consider the issue.  Ask yourself:  Is this something that I need to respond to right now or can it wait?  If it truly requires a response, then keep it short and to the point.  Think of your reply as a Tweet or quick Facebook comment. Stay focused on the issue and leave the emotions out of it.

Don’t swing at every pitch

When your Ex tosses an argument your way, remember you have a choice. While you can’t control what your Ex does or doesn’t do, you can minimize the tension for kids by avoiding knee-jerk reactions when disagreements crop up.

Instead of swinging back, you can:

  • Give yourself time to think – When things get tough, give yourself some time to step back from the situation and weigh out your options before responding.
  • Prepare – If you need to raise a sensitive issue with your Ex spend time thinking through how you can bypass an argument or at least shield kids from a fall out. Avoid discussing sensitive issues during drop off or pickups.  Instead plan ahead and arrange to meet up at a neutral location (i.e. coffee shop, restaurant) to hash things out that might spark a fight. To stay on task consider writing out points you want to talk about before meeting.
  • Try to see both sides – While it’s tempting to dig in your heels, do your best to hear the other parent out.  Although you may feel the urge to defend your point of view, asking a few questions and getting curious about why they feel or think the way they do, could help deescalate the fight.
  • Step away – When things become heated or tense, do your best to calmly end the conversation.  You could say something like “This is an issue we both seem to have a strong opinion about, I think we both need to cool down before we talk any further.”
  • Get another view – It’s hard to solve problems when you’re angry or frustrated.  To get some perspective when things get tough find someone you can trust to help you sort things out and brainstorm possible solutions.

Keep it to yourself

When anger flares, words often fly right out of our mouths and into our children’s hearts. Kids literally think of themselves as half Mom and half Dad.  When you say negative, critical or damaging things about your Ex, it’s no different than saying them to your child.  If Dad pops off with, “Your Mom is such a gold digger, she took everything,” Victoria has to wonder, “Am I that way too?” When Mom rants about what a loser Dad is, Caden may question, “Will Mom  think of me the same way when I grow up?”

Whether your opinion of your Ex is true or not doesn’t matter.  What matters is what you say in front of your kids.  Don’t expect your truth to be your children’s reality.

While you may be keeping your opinion to yourself, your Ex may not.  Even though it may be tempting to give what you get, remember when you fight fire with fire, your kids are the ones that end up getting burned.

Have you had an Ah-ha parenting moment on managing conflict?  Lessons learned you’d like to share with other parents?  Please chime in below!