If you are getting a divorce and you have a child, one of your primary concerns is how to best meet his or her needs while managing the financial and emotional toll that your divorce will be taking on you. You’ll need to learn how to keep your child emotionally and physically healthy, how to manage the costs of caring for him or her, and how to handle co-parenting with your ex-spouse. While there is no one pat answer for all divorcing couples, there are several steps you can take that can help you put your child first when getting a divorce. Read on to see how you can best help your kids get through the process.
Do Not Badmouth Your Ex
The number one rule when it comes to putting kids first during a divorce is to speak well of your ex. Remember that this is your child’s other parent; ideally, he or she will continue to have a big part in your child’s life. Your child does not need to know that they betrayed you, lied to you, fell out of love with you, stole money out of the checking account, or anything else that went on between you and your ex-spouse.
If your ex is not paying child support on time or is withholding visitation, this is something to bring up with your legal advocate, not your child. No matter how old your child is, it is important that you follow the adage, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Parent alienation is a real consequence of one parent badmouthing the other, and it is so serious that some judges will change a custody agreement to favor the parent who was badmouthed. Yes, you’ll probably be tempted, but don’t do it.
Create a Parenting Schedule
Whether your child is a baby or a teenager, a parenting schedule is a must, assuming you will share custody of your child. Be aware that even shared custody does not have to work out to exactly 50/50 in terms of time spent in each home. Think about what is reasonable and what works: An infant might not be able to handle overnights with the parent who is not the primary caregiver, particularly if the primary caregiver is a nursing mother. A school-aged child might not be able to switch homes midweek, especially if one parent lives far from the school. Your parenting schedule will have to be somewhat flexible to accommodate activities, school holidays, and other events. This is something to decide upon out of the earshot of your child.
Maintain Routines in Both Homes
Young children need routines to prevent meltdowns, confusion, and frustration. Older kids also do well with routines. It is best to keep the morning and bedtime routines as consistent as possible between both homes. If the child usually wakes up at 7:00 am at mom’s house, he or she should get up at roughly the same time at dad’s. Bedtimes should be fairly consistent, too.
It is natural that both houses might have some differences, and it will matter less as the children get older and can understand that different routines apply to different houses. While the child is young, however, it will be easier for everyone, including the child, if you can stick to the same routines as much as possible.
Talk to Your Ex About Consistent Rules
Just as routines should be consistent, it is best if there is consistency in the rules, too. Children often learn how to play one parent against the other. For example, if you allow your elementary school-aged child to use a smartphone in bed and your ex doesn’t, your ex will surely hear about it. Similarly, if the curfew is 11:00 pm at your house and your teen has no curfew at their other parent’s house, this can cause some strife. If bad grades cause one parent to remove privileges but the other parent doesn’t think any consequences are warranted, this is another potential sticking point.
While not every rule will be the same, you might want to sit down with your ex to determine which rules are important to each of you and see if the other will agree to follow the same rules (or similar rules) at their house. This shows your child that although you are divorced, you are still working together to parent them and that you both care about your child enough to put your differences aside and work toward what is best.
Create New Traditions
It is common for children to grieve the holidays that they have to split between their parents. Try to think of some ways that you can create traditions to ease this difficulty. For example, if your child is spending Thanksgiving with his or her other parent this year, maybe you can have your big turkey dinner the Sunday before or after Thanksgiving. Or perhaps you don’t feel up to cooking a big meal and the two of you can serve meals at a local soup kitchen or the Ronald McDonald house.
If you and your ex are amicable, you might even agree to spend a portion of the holiday together with your child. For example, on Christmas morning, you might go to your ex’s home for breakfast with your child. This takes some thought, however; children might get the mistaken idea that the two of you will get back together, so be sure to make it clear that that is not the case.
Seek Adult Support for Yourself
Finally, you won’t be able to meet your child’s needs if you are not meeting your own needs. Divorce is often emotional and painful and it’s common to neglect self-care. Be sure that you are taking care of not only your physical needs but also your emotional needs. Find friends or join a support group to avoid unloading on your child; he or she does not need that adult responsibility.
Whether or not you have an amicable divorce, you and your ex can put your differences aside to do what is best for your child. Talk to your legal advocacy group if you need services such as a psychologist or a parent evaluation to make the process run more smoothly.