How can you minimize the anxiety and fear your children will experience from your divorce? Watch your words! As a parenting educator having worked with so many well-meaning, loving parents for so many years, I believe it's a divorced parent's single biggest responsibility.
No matter how much anger and disdain you may feel toward each other as a couple, kids can't divorce their parents. And while you probably know that it's never good to badmouth your ex in front of your child, here's something you may not realize: When you direct anything negative toward your former spouse — including snide comments, eye rolling and any other disapproving signals — your kid is put in an impossible position.
Your child suffers from a stream of emotions too powerful and contradictory for a young mind to process. A child wants — and deserves — the freedom to love her two parents. When your child receives mixed signals from either of you, it forces her to question her very identity. Here, the most common feelings kids face when they witness negative interactions between their parents and practical tips to help you avoid hurting them:
Fear and confusion: When you bicker with one another in front of your child, he feels overwhelmed with emotion. And the younger the child, the more he feels as though he is the cause of your fights. When children watch their parents fight they feel helpless and blame themselves. They want to stop their parents from fighting but are powerless to do it.
Try this: If your child is in earshot of a heated exchange between you and your ex, it's not easy — but it's essential — to put a stop to it. Tell your ex this isn't the time or place. Then acknowledge your child's feelings by saying: "It must've been frightening to see mommy and daddy fight. Sometimes grown ups lose their temper and say things they shouldn't. It's not your fault. We both love you very much..."
Guilt: Even when you avoid referring to your ex with a stream of raged-laced profanity, it's still easy to make your child feel conflicted. It's not just your words; your tone of voice and body language are also at play, giving your child this message: "If Mommy hates Daddy then I'm doing something wrong by loving him."
Try this: Need help keeping your tone and body language in check? Remind yourself that, even if you don't think your ex is worth two cents, your child definitely deserves a loving relationship with both her parents. A parent told me that even though she thinks her ex-husband is the most immature, irresponsible person she knows, she says to her daughters: "I love my Daddy and I want you to love your Daddy. He loves you and can't wait to see you."
Divided loyalties: One mother in my workshop reported that she and her ex thought they should let their 10-year-old decide with whom he'd spend the holidays. When she asked, her son said in an anguished voice: "Mom, please don't make me choose!"
Try this: Instead of putting your child in the middle, broker a solution on your own. Then tell your child something like, "We both want the joy of spending time with you. This is what we've worked out..."
When you keep your feelings of hostility toward your ex away from the kids, you're giving them a timeless gift.
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