Many people stay in marriages that are no longer working for them for the sake of their children. And it’s not just that parents want to minimize harm to their children (though that’s an important consideration as well!) it’s that they want to minimize the risk of harm to their relationship with their children.
Parents who live with their children worry that their children will blame them for the divorce and the absence of the other parent. Parents who do not live with their children worry that they’ll lose contact and become strangers to their own children.
And it’s true that divorce is hard on children, and may cause some distance between parents and children, at least temporarily. But it doesn’t have to permanently ruin parent-child relationships. Take a look at some tips that can help divorcing parents maintain their relationships with their kids.
Maintain Regular Contact With Your Kids
If you’re the non-custodial parent, or if you share custody but have significantly less time with your children than the other parent, losing regular contact is the biggest threat to your relationship. You’re no longer there when they wake up in the morning or come home from school, so you’re missing out on day-to-day happenings.
Don’t wait and hope that you’ll hear about all of these things on your regularly scheduled visitation day, make contact before that. Even smaller children can talk on the phone or in a video chat app like Skype. Older children who have their own smartphones, laptops, or tablets can communicate through text messages and instant messenger apps as well.
Reach out – don’t wait for them to initiate contact. Show interest in the mundane daily events of their lives, not just special events. A big part of maintaining your relationship with your kids is frequent contact and interest in their daily lives.
Facilitate Contact With the Other Parent
For divorced parents, it can sometimes seem as if whenever your kids are with you, they want the other parent. And they probably do! Kids naturally want and need both parents in their lives, and will naturally miss the one who isn’t available.
For custodial parents, this means facilitating contact between your child and their other parent. This is especially true when your children are younger. You may need to answer the phone when your ex calls and call your child to the phone, or set up the webcam for a video call.
As long as it’s safe for you to do so, you should be gracious about allowing this type of contact between your ex and your child outside of scheduled visitation times. This will help your child understand that you’re not the bad guy and not keeping them away from their other parent.
Noncustodial parents may feel slighted when they have visitation time with their child and the child wants to call the custodial parent to say good night or talk about what they did that day. Try not to let these feelings influence your actions.
It’s natural for your child to miss the parent who is their primary caregiver. Let them call or communicate during your visitation time without comment, and facilitate the communication if your child needs help. Remember, it’s about making sure that your child knows that their needs matter to you and that you’ll do what you can to meet those needs.
Don’t Use Your Kids as Messengers or Therapists
One of the problems with staying together for the kids is that hearing parents argue and fight is unhealthy. It’s miserable to be a child stuck in the middle of two adults who can’t get along. It’s bad enough for that dynamic to exist in the first place and lead to a divorce. Don’t bring that same dynamic into your relationship with your children post-divorce.
Don’t use your children to relay messages to your ex (especially angry, emotional, or snarky messages). Speak to your ex directly if you have something that you need to tell them. If in-person or over-the-phone conversations go badly, use email or text. Leave your kids out of it.
And don’t use your children as a sounding board to work out your issues with your ex. Don’t badmouth your ex to your children. Don’t ask questions that are intended to get your child to “tell on” your ex for some trivial thing, like how much money they spend on something you think is frivolous.
And don’t vent your frustrations about single parenting, money troubles, or divorce proceedings to your children, and definitely don’t vent about those things and blame them on your ex. Your feelings about your ex and about divorce and parenting generally are yours, and you’re allowed to feel whatever you feel.
But save the discussion about those feelings for your friends or your therapist, and address important issues with your ex directly. Your children are not the appropriate people to carry messages or to vent to, and they’ll resent being expected to do so.
Be Present With Your Kids
If you’re a noncustodial parent, your time with your children is more limited, so make arrangements to spend that time with them. Don’t take calls from work when you’re taking your kids out to dinner. When your children are coming to spend the night, don’t arrange a date for that night and leave them with a babysitter. Minimize distractions and focus your attention on your kids.
Custodial parents will definitely have times when they can’t be focused 100% on their children – you still need to cook dinner, run errands, and take care of your other responsibilities. But it’s still important to set aside some regular time with your child to just focus on them.
You no longer have another parent in the house to pick up the slack when you’re busy with other things, and your child needs to know that they’re a priority. You don’t have to neglect your other responsibilities, but be mindful of your child’s need for focused, one-on-one time with you.
Divorce isn’t the end of the world or the end of your relationship with your children, but it may mean that you’ll need to make some changes to ensure that the relationship remains healthy. Just make your child’s needs your top priority, and that will help you make the right decisions.