Is What I Believe Really True?
“Don’t believe everything you think.” Unknown
When we are in emotionally reactive states (such as feeling anger, frustration, anxiety, fear or resentment), we are rarely working toward what we really want. We actually can’t see the big picture or the future, or be wise about what we are trying to create. In emotionally reactive states, we are overcome by an uncomfortable level of distress that compels us to want to take action RIGHT NOW. We focus all of our energy on the event that triggered our emotional response and lose the ability to contemplate the impact of our actions on others or on future events. We become completely single-minded.
As we discussed earlier, it is important to clearly understand the difference between grounded and reactive desires. This is particularly critical for divorced co-parenting because in emotionally reactive states, what we are really trying to do is relieve our discomfort. But as we try to accomplish that, we often work against our own goals, and against what is best for our children. It is important to look at our misunderstandings and mistakes, and be honest with ourselves about what we are doing and why. In this chapter we will look at some common erroneous ideas held by parents in difficult co-parenting situations.
Error 1: It is important to inform children about the specifics of what has happened in the parents’ relationship. They are confused and need to know details so they can make sense of things.
Why this is an error: Children do not see or understand the world the way we do. Even teenagers, who can look and act like adults, are not fully formed adults. It is confusing and upsetting to be told about these dynamics because it puts them in the position of taking sides, whether or not that is the intention. And feeling the need to choose a side is extremely detrimental to children of any age.
Whose need is this? When we are talking to a child about adult matters, it is usually because we are hoping the child will side with us, or at least not blame us.
What do children really need? They need to know that they are safe, secure and loved, and they need to know that we know they are distressed. When they ask questions like “Why did you and Daddy get divorced?” they are not looking for the answer that a friend would be looking for. Underlying every one of these kinds of questions is the need to know that they are going to be safe, secure and loved. We need to answer those kinds of questions with these things in mind. We need to let them know we understand how they feel and that their feelings are normal, and try to elicit what is REALLY bothering them. For instance, “I know it is hard and sad for you that we got divorced, but we both love you and that’s what’s most important to us. Is there anything you’re worried about?” Respect the fact that they are “half” the other parent. If we try to convince our children that the other parent is bad, it will affect how they feel about themselves.
Therefore: Don’t involve them in discussions about adult relationship matters. Don’t try to talk them out of how they are feeling. Don’t speak negatively about the other parent.
Error 2: Children aren’t really affected by the conflict their parents are in. They don’t pay much attention. They don’t look upset. Besides, we don’t say anything in front of the kids so they don’t really know what’s going on.
Why this is an error: Kids are keenly aware of the conflict whether they show it or not. Because each parent is extremely important to a child and to a child’s feeling of security, having parents in conflict is very frightening. It is like the ground they are standing on is shaky. The conflict can be deeply disturbing because it makes them fearful about their security and the impact the conflict will have on their lives. Fear is expressed in many different ways, and therefore it might be easy to miss the signs.
Whose need is this? It is difficult and painful to be honest with ourselves about how our actions hurt our children. Convincing ourselves that they are not really affected keeps us from feeling the difficult feelings. What do children really need? They need you to learn to reduce or eliminate the conflict.
Therefore: Never underestimate what your child/ren picks up. Be aware of the conflict, and remind yourself that it is very hard on them. Don’t fool yourself. Be honest with yourself about how you contribute to the conflict. Be courageous and do the hard work to learn how to eliminate or greatly reduce the conflict.
Error 3: Talking negatively about the other parent is OK because kids need to know the truth.
Why this is an error: A child feels loyal to both parents. When we disparage the other parent, it makes children feel as though they have to take a side, which is terrible, confusing and frightening for them. Children ultimately figure out for themselves what their parents’ strengths or weaknesses are and don’t need our input. If we talk negatively about the other parent, we pull the child into the conflict. As noted before, conflict is very hard on children. If children are pulled into the conflict, it is even more frightening for them, because they feel like it is their job to make things better. It is terrifying for children to feel like they are somehow expected to make things better, because they know they are not equipped to do so.
Whose need is this? If we are talking to children negatively about the other parent, it is because we are trying to win the children over to our side. If we deny this, we are fooling ourselves. What do children really need? They need to be kept out of the conflict. On a deep level, a child feels like he is “half” of each of his parents. If we convince him that his other parent is bad, what does this mean about him? If their other parent is truly bad, he needs help making sense of that parent in a compassionate way because staying in the same angry, resentful place that we are in will not serve him in the long run.
Therefore: Do not talk negatively about the other parent to your child/ren. Cultivate a compassionate understanding of the other parent’s distress. Do not use the excuse that your ex does it so you can too. Take the high road.
Error 4: My child/ren know the divorce is not their fault, and they don’t feel responsible for it.
Why this is an error: Children feel responsible for things because they have an egocentric view of the world. They do not understand marital love, marital discord or adult issues in general, so they try to make sense of it through the lens that they have available at their stage of development. If there is conflict, and they know that the conflict has to do with them, they naturally think they are responsible for it. Even though the separation or divorce likely had nothing to do with the children, the conflict after the separation often focuses on issues about the children, so it can easily feel to them like they are to blame.
Whose need is this? Again, it is painful for us to feel the effects the separation or divorce have on our children and it is easy to convince ourselves that our children are not feeling the effects. What do children really need? They need us to reduce the conflict so that it doesn’t feel like we are fighting over them. If it feels like we are fighting over them, they will feel like they are responsible.
Therefore: Be conscious of how they are put in the middle, even subtly, and don’t do it.
Error 5: It is OK to pass messages verbally or in writing through the child.
Why this is an error: Being put in the middle is very difficult for children. It might seem benign to us but asking them to deliver messages is sending them the message that we and our ex can’t communicate with each other. This is very unsettling for children and makes them feel like it is their job to mediate. It is extremely stressful for a child to be in the position of mediator between two adults. In essence, we are asking them to be more skilled communicators than we are.
Whose need this is? Because we can be frustrated and confused about how communicate, it is easy to use our children as a go-between. What do children really need? Children need to feel like they are not being fought over. When we put them in the middle of conflict, they feel fought over. They need to be kids. They don’t need to be mediators between their parents.
Therefore: Don’t send messages, either verbally or in writing, with your child/ren.
Error 6: It is fine to make my child/ren keep the belongings that I bought at my house because I bought the belonging for them and it’s not fair that they use it at the other house. Besides, I don’t trust the other parent to care for the belonging the way I would expect it to be cared for at my house.
Why this is an error: The experience of divorce can make children feel like they are split in two. Having two homes, two sets of rules, two parents, two everything, can be very hard on children. Can you imagine having two homes that you move back and forth between, not because you want to, but because you have to? Because we are divorced or separated, we cannot avoid this reality. We can, however, avoid contributing to this split-in-two feeling.
Whose need this is: It is understandable that we want to see the clothes or toys we buy being used at our home. It is also understandable that we may fear that something will be broken or ruined, especially if that has happened in the past. Distress about these things can override our ability to see how it is affecting our children. What do children really need? Children need to feel whole. The situation they are in inherently makes them feel split. They need for us to do whatever we can to not contribute to the feeling of being “split in two.”
Therefore: Be conscious of how it feels for children to be “split in two.” Allow them to feel ownership of their own belongings. Don’t attach their belongings to one parent or the other.
Error 7: Whenever my child/ren comes back after their time with the other parent they are in a bad mood and exhibit difficult behavior. This is because they are unhappy at the other home, or because the rules are different there than they are here. I have to undo all the damage that was done over there. Therefore, it is clear that my ex is not parenting adequately. Someone needs to make him parent better, or the children need to spend less time there.
Why this is an error: Transitions are very hard for children. It is difficult to go from one environment to another. These transitions cause distress, and there are many different ways that children express distress. Acting out, withdrawing, throwing tantrums, expressing anger in a disrespectful way—these are all ways that distress is expressed.
Whose need is this? Because we are already upset about the other parent, it is easy to conclude that the other parent is to blame for this behavior. When children are distressed, it is distressing to us. When we get distressed or feel like we don’t know how to remedy the situation, it can be a natural reaction to want to blame someone. What do children really need? Children need to be understood and have a healthy way to express their feelings.
Therefore: If your child/ren seem unhappy or behave badly when they come home from their other parent’s home, or if they don’t want to go to the other parent’s home, don’t immediately assume that their other parent is doing something wrong or that it’s a bad idea for them to go there. Work at cultivating an understanding of how difficult the transitions are. Give your child/ren the opportunity to “chill out” and try not to take their behavior personally. Expecting that they are going to be distressed when they come back to you will help you avoid getting triggered by their behavior.
Error 8: I will not have compassion for my ex because doing so would send the message to my child/ren that I am condoning my ex’s behavior. I want my child/ren to know that the way my ex behaves is bad. Staying angry with my ex will communicate that to my child/ren.
Why this is an error: Staying angry or resentful does not help children. Cultivating compassion does not mean that we have to love the other parent, approve of him, or be passive or not fight for things that we know (from a grounded place) are in our children’s best interest. It does mean that we can develop some kind of understanding about why the other parent behaves the way she does. When we understand that people behave badly when they are distressed, we can have compassion for their distress. (This will be addressed more fully later.)
Whose need is this? We can stay mired in anger and resentment, refusing to work toward cultivating compassion, because we think it will send the wrong message to our children. In addition, cultivating compassion is very hard emotional work. It takes a great deal of courage and an ability to look at ourselves honestly.
What do children really need? Children will benefit immensely if we cultivate compassion for our ex. This does not mean that we will lie down, give up or give in. It simply means that we will cultivate an understanding of why our ex behaves the way he does. If our ex behaves badly, our children will need to make sense of it as well. When we cultivate compassion for our ex, it will help our children do so. As much as we think we might want our children to be angry with their other parent as well, this will not serve them emotionally. Learning to cultivate compassion for others contributes to emotional stability and happiness.
Therefore: Difficult as it is when struggling with the kinds of emotions you likely struggle with, stay open to the idea that cultivating compassion for your ex will benefit your child/ren and benefit you. Consider that cultivating compassion for your ex will actually make you and your child/ren happier.