For most divorcing parents, breaking the news to their kids is one the most upsetting parts of the experience. What, when and how to tell them? How to ease their pain? What if you and your future ex can’t agree on a message? Take a breath, relax. You need some guidance and a plan. In this episode of her podcast, Kate offers “10 Tips for Doing a Good Job with the Scariest Conversation of Your Life”. Listen to it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or under the “Podcasts” tab on this site.
Divorcing parents want to support their kids and minimize pain. But being a good parent sometimes means taking unpopular positions. And what if you don’t have a cooperative co-parent who supports your philosophy? In this episode of their podcast, Kate and Jane offer practical and empathic advice for handling even the most complex and emotionally fraught divorce discipline challenges.
“Now that we’re splitting up, should I be softer on the kids or keep doing things the old way?” “Should my ex and I try to have the same rules?” “What if my ex undermines me with the kids?” Deciding how and when to discipline our kids during the emotional maelstrom of divorce is tough. But you can learn to navigate even the thorniest challenges if you start with a solid understanding of what constitutes effective discipline for kids of various ages- divorcing parents or no. In this episode, Kate and Jane discuss their ideas about how best to think about and implement discipline. They explore the difference between punishment and consequence (and why it matters), and offer a list of “11 Things to Keep in Mind When Imposing Consequences.”
Although I discourage all forms of corporal punishment, I know plenty of thoughtful parents who still believe it can be a useful form of discipline. But here’s something to consider: When we are stressed and emotionally overwhelmed, we are at increased risk of lashing out at those we love (including our kids) in ways that are atypically hurtful and out of control. If your child is coping with divorce, they’re already feeling scared and unsafe. I’m not suggesting your child should get a free pass for bad behavior, ever. But even if you have found spanking to be effective in the past, perhaps now is a time to consider alternatives.
Here’s a thoughtful article on the potential harmful effects of physical discipline on kids. Give it a read. See what you think.
“I want to co-parent with my ex, but his emails are out of control! Last week he sent a ten-pager — ten words of which were about the kids. How can I make him understand I don’t want to talk about ‘us’ anymore?”
“My ex hates that I’m dating. She calls incessantly to “check in.” If she can’t reach me, she leaves messages telling me what a bad father I am!”
“Last night my ex texted to ask what I was feeding the kids for dinner. Before I knew it I’d fired back: ‘None of your damn business!’”
It might not make logical sense, but it’s true: If your ex pounces on every opportunity to lure you into a fraught exchange, they’re having a hard time letting go. After all, if they can keep you emotionally engaged — even against your will — they can avoid the painful awareness that you’re no longer a couple.
Fighting is an intimate act.
The fact that we now have so many ways to be “in touch” is a double-edged sword for divorcing parents.
On the one hand, electronic communications (voicemail, text, email) offer a more controlled alternative to in-person contact — helpful if you can’t be civil in each other’s presence. On the other hand, they’re loaded with potential problems. Electronic communications:
- Allow a needy spouse to be in too-frequent contact
- Allow an angry spouse a forum for unfettered verbal attack
- Are notoriously easy to misinterpret
- Establish an unhelpful expectation of immediate response (“It’s been a full hour of radio silence!”)
- Allow for impulsive, destructive responses without offering the possibility of quick repair (ever wish you had a magic “I take it back” button on your keyboard?)
If you’re co-parenting with an ex who’s hell-bent on pulling you into unproductive, upsetting communications, you’re facing a challenge.
It’s tough, but with practice you can learn to avoid being sucked into the vortex.
You need some New Rules:
New Rule #1: Know Thyself
We all have pesky vulnerabilities in our characters which, when activated, throw our emotion into overdrive and our judgment into idle. And no one knows your soft spots better than your ex. If you’re someone who craves approval, a zinger like “Everyone knows what a terrible person you are for leaving this family!” will send your heart rate through the roof. If your sense of guilt is over-developed, a well-aimed “I hope you can live with yourself — our kids will never be able to trust anyone again!” may plunge you into depression. Learn your trigger points, so you can resist rising to the bait.
New Rule #2: Adopt “The Boundaried Response”
When it comes to communicating with an over-emotional ex, most of us err in one of two directions:
Mistake #1: The Defensive Response
The recipient responds with irrelevant, wordy rationalizations that invite further attacks.
Watch out for this if you’re insecure or conflict averse.
Mistake #2: The Retaliatory Response
The recipient responds with sarcasm and/or counter-accusations, thus upping the ante.
Watch out for this if you’re quick-tempered or still hurt and angry.
What we are aiming for is:
#3: The Boundaried Response
The recipient ignores all emotional content and responds only to relevant child-related issues — using few words and a neutral, business-like tone.
This response establishes appropriate limits and sets the stage for healthier communication in the future.
To give you the idea, here’s an example of a provocative email followed by Defensive, Retaliatory, and (finally) Boundaried responses:
The Provocative Email:
“When I picked Tommy up from school today he had a fever. I took him to the doctor — he has strep. Apparently he told you this morning that he didn’t feel well. What kind of mother takes a sick child to school just so she can get to work on time?”
The Defensive Response:
“Last night Tommy had a cough and a slight sniffle. I asked him how he felt and he said ‘fine.’ I took his temperature and it was one hundred degrees. I told myself I’d wait until morning to decide what to do. This morning his temperature was normal. I considered calling the doctor, but Tommy said he didn’t want to miss his science presentation today. I resent your insinuation that I’m not a good mother because I made a different judgment call than you would!”
The Retaliatory Response:
“Sorry you had to take time off from watching ESPN to take your son to the doctor, but someone has to make a living.”
The Boundaried Response:
“Tommy seemed fine this morning, slight sniffle. Sorry about the strep. I’ll give him a call later to check in. Tomorrow’s my day, so let me know if you’re keeping him home from school so we can coordinate pick-up. I’ll assume you’re sending him with meds unless I hear otherwise.”
New Rule #3: Don’t answer the phone
If your ex’s number shows up on caller ID, let it go to voicemail every time. Then check the message right away. If it’s your kids (or a true emergency), call back. If it’s a rant, ignore it.
New Rule #4: If every call is a rant, tell your ex you’ll only respond to written communications.
New Rule #5: Set a communication protocol
Ask your ex if he/she prefers email or text (don’t offer telephone), and stick to that format. Tell him or her you’ll respond to child-related communications within twenty-four hours, then do.
New Rule #6: Ignore petty communications
A text such as: “Sally arrived home with filthy hair. There’s this new product called ‘shampoo,’ ever heard of it?” requires no response.
New Rule #7: Impose a mandatory waiting period
When replying to a provocative email, wait at least one hour before pressing “send.” After you’ve calmed down (assuming you still want to reply), edit aggressively — using The Boundaried Response as your guide. If your second draft is one-tenth the length of the original, you’re in the zone.
New Rule #8: Give yourself a break
Divorce is rough, and you’re only human — you will get pulled into old dynamics once in a while. When you find yourself in a fruitless tug of war with your ex, breathe — then let go of the rope.
“Will I be able to protect my children? Can I ease their pain?” If you’re a divorcing parent, these primal anxieties dominate your daily thoughts and inhabit your dreams. Especially if you’re the product of a badly handled divorce or have seen others flounder in the wake of family upheaval, you’re desperate to get this right.
But you’re only human.
At its best, parenting is a series of educated guesses and course corrections. Parenting during divorce? It’s like trying to paint a still life in a sandstorm. Delicate business amidst pain and chaos.
Keeping your children’s needs front and center while your own feelings roil is a tough emotional balancing act. Especially early on while you’re still shaky, it won’t take much to throw you off kilter. One nasty email from your ex can land you on your butt.
It makes sense that the most common post-split parenting errors happen when we’re in the most common kinds of post-split distress. I’ve grouped the list below with that in mind — some classic “Awful Feelings” along with the “Botch-Ups” they often engender:
Awful Feeling #1: Anxiety About Separation From Your Kids
- The clingy goodbye: Your kids need to feel they have your blessing to go, and your confidence that they (and their other parent) can manage the time away. Lingering hugs, plaintive “I’ll miss you’s,” hyperbolic expressions of affection (“I love you to the moon and back again!”) and excessive reassurance (“Call me whenever you want, even in the middle of the night!”) can turn an otherwise steady child into a nail-biting mess.
- Too many phone calls/texts/emails: Especially if your kids are still little or you’ve never spent much time apart, you’ll want to be in touch. And maybe you should be; for some children regular check-ins create a helpful emotional bridge. But when your dialing finger tingles, ask yourself: “Who needs this call, me or them?” Lots of kids deal with separations by temporarily putting thoughts of the “away” parent on the back burner and focusing on their here-and-now. Consider whether frequent communication will disrupt a helpful coping strategy.
Awful Feeling #2: Loneliness
- Leaning on older kids: You lost your go-to companion and confidant when your marriage ended. A concerned teenager is a tempting substitute, and may want to shore you up (“I was gonna go to a party, but it’ll be lame. I’ll hang here.”) or be excited to play what feels like a grown-up role. But a teen’s focus should be outward (school, activities, friends), and they’ll suffer if the parent/child boundary is blurred. Find adult sources of comfort, and encourage your kids to choose the lame party over the lamer evening at home with you.
- Babying the little ones: I’m all for physical affection; your kids need reassurance now more than ever. But post-separation (while you’re craving contact and painfully nostalgic), “just right” can easily slide into “over-the-top.” Excessive hugs and kisses, lap-sitting when a child is ready for their own chair, bed-sharing at any age (I get it, they’re really cuddly)… These behaviors are driven by and infused with your emotional needs. Unlike run-of-the-mill expressions of parental love, they have a confusing intensity that can make your kids anxious and regressed.
Awful Feeling #3: Anger at Your Ex
- Subtle disparagement in front of the kids: I don’t know one separated parent who hasn’t, say, muttered “Since when are chicken nuggets a food group?” upon hearing a recitation of the dinner specials at Bistro d’Ex. Try to check yourself. Kids have emotional satellite dishes on their heads—no eyeball roll or disdainful groan escapes detection.
- Trash talking your ex: From time to time, you’ll need to vent. But when shopping for sympathetic ears, don’t buy in bulk. Rushing to ensure that everyone in your social circle knows your side of things generates nasty gossip that reflects badly on you and finds its way back to your kids. Regardless of their merit, divorce stories always sound like the ravings of a bitter lunatic when delivered on the sidelines of a little league game.
Awful Feeling #4: You’re Losing Control Over Your Kids’ Lives
- The interrogation: You gave up knowledge of the totality of our kids’ life experiences the first time you dropped them at day care. It felt weird then, and it feels weirder now. But I don’t need to explain the difference between asking your son or daughter if they had a nice weekend and asking if they watched “crappy television” the whole time.
- The post drop-off freak out: From time to time your kids will return with upsetting news. Even if it sends your blood pressure sky-high (“Guess what! Mom let us ride in the convertible without car seats or seat belts… again!”), don’t have a conniption and run to the phone. Manage things later, when you’re calmer (and alone).
As a therapist, I’m not big on self-disclosure — and this is about as public as it gets. But it’s important, so here goes: It’s been awhile, but there is no blooper, blunder, or boo-boo described above that I haven’t committed. Not one. And it’s not even a comprehensive list; it’s really more of a sampling.
Any newly-divorced parent who won’t admit to screwing up on a regular basis is either ashamed or out to lunch.
Here’s the good news:
- If you want to improve your post-split parenting skills, you will, and…
- The fact that you want to improve means you’re already doing a lot right. The ongoing act of trying to separate your own emotional needs from those of your children (so you can stay kid-focused) earns more parenting points than hitting the perfect note in any given moment.
In the meantime, the occasional “I’m sorry I behaved that way, I’ll work on doing better” goes a long way. Take it from me.