Doing What It Takes
Within my Parenting Coordination and Mediation work I am grateful to come across parents who have made sacrifices to shield their children from their feelings and animosity towards the other parent. Sadly, it’s often not enough.
What I do hear frequently is “I will do absolutely anything for my kids”.
This sentence would be a great comfort if I simply left it there and didn’t ask a follow up question later. Because what follows when I ask a parent to start to let go of anger, or to not argue every minutiae in disagreements, they will say “No, I won’t do that and here’s why….”
The ‘why’, or justification, in these circumstances does not matter. You can not legitimately on one hand say you’ll do anything for your children and then caveat it with all the things that are causing the children problems that you refuse to change. Here’s a short list of some of the things I’m talking about:
- Problems at changeovers
- Resisting or refusing care of the other parent
- Elevated anxiety or anger
- Behavioural issues at school or home
These issues are all very common and are seen in almost every separated family where conflict is an ongoing and persistent presence in the child’s life.
I understand how difficult it is to co-parent with someone you dislike. I understand how hard it is to have to be nice or polite with someone who has caused you hurt, or cost you a lot of money. I know what it’s like to feel attacked and vilified. You still have to rise above it.
So What Does Your Child Know?
Your child knows you don’t like the other person that they love and that causes them a lot of upset. Imagine having two best friends who don’t like each other and you had to see them separately all the time. And if they did both spend time with you, they made you feel awful inside. They don’t feel like they can safely share the fun things they did with their other best friend.
Your child knows that you don’t want to be nice to their other parent, even though you tell them they should be nice to everyone. This also makes them feel hurt because you tell them to do one thing and then behave in the way you say is wrong. This can foster a sense of distrust and erode a child’s sense of feeling secure.
When you erode a child’s innate sense of trust, safety and security, you will end up with a child who will begin to try and find ways to get you to stop. They do this by acting out or misbehaving. These negative behaviours will likely continue to escalate unless something changes for them, that allows them to feel safe and secure again with both of you.
How Can You Change?
Parents often get stuck in old patterns because they don’t know any other way to be. The good news is, you can change if you’re willing.
One approach is to compartmentalise, or separate, your feelings for the co-parenting situation or the other parent. This means that you need to be able to separate your feelings from your words or actions.
The analogy I use with clients is to consider having a storage shelf in your brain that has a row of boxes. Each box has a different label: Co-parenting, Work, Finance, and so on.
When you’re with your children, or speaking to them, or in the presence of your co-parent, you need to put all your feelings into that box marked Co-parenting and put the lid on it. Shut it tight.
You can revisit all those emotions when you’re alone and let all your feelings come out, but you must not let yourself do that while with your children or their other parent. All you are focused on now is helping your child feel secure and free.
Smile, even if it’s not reciprocated. Say hello, even if at first it feels awkward. Ask how they are, even if you don’t really care.
It might sound difficult and even a little dishonest, but you can do this with time and practice.
I imagine many of you will be feeling that you do all these things but the other parent is still rude or ignores you. That may be true. Let’s hope they read this also. But you can still make improvements in how you feel or express things about your co-parent when the children are near.
Here’s some final tips on improving your child’s sense of security. Consider that the opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference. With this in mind, it helps children if you can do some of the following that help them feel included, valued and loved:
- Recall a positive memory of when they were small and their parents lived together
- Show them some photos of when they were a baby that they probably don’t remember
- Talk to them about past holidays
- Tell them something about their extended family (grandparents, aunties and uncles, cousins, etc.) – bonus points if you can include both sides of the family
A message I keep giving at the moment is WE CAN DO HARD THINGS. If this feels hard, keep doing it until it doesn’t.