The sullen 12-year-old girl who is curled up in the corner of my office couch is on a roll:
“My parents’ divorce ruined everything. They make me do things they would never do. I mean, I have to change where I live every other week. If I forget something at one house, they tell me it’s my problem to go get it. As if I have a car or something. They wouldn’t like it if they had to change where they live. They probably wouldn’t remember everything they need for a week either. And my dad? He keeps telling me that my mom is clueless and then he actually wants me to tell her about stuff that needs to be done. Like yesterday? He wanted me to tell her to deal with the insurance company about my dentist bill. I don’t know anything about bills and insurance and stuff. But since he doesn’t want to deal with my “clueless mom,” I’m supposed to get her to figure it out.
Not that my mom is a whole lot better. She had a fit when my dad wanted to come to my 6th grade graduation last year. They ended up sitting way far from each other and I had to go back and forth all the time during the party after. My grade in math is awful. If I’m at Dad’s house, he says he already did math and he isn’t going to do it again. But Mom is making me do it every night I’m at her place until we end up yelling. She’s mad he doesn’t help me. He’s mad that she wants him to. And now my dad is dating this woman that I don’t even like and I’m supposed to listen to her!”
And on and on it goes. Having found a listener, Annie spends the next 15 minutes venting. When the torrent or words winds down, she is exhausted. Mad has moved to sad. She shrugs. She’s given up on the grownups. She doesn’t think I can do anything to help her.
Annie’s parents married and had kids much too young and were ill-prepared for the realities of married life. They somehow hung on for 8 years but by the time Annie was seven, they had little left to say to each other that was positive and fighting was the norm. Divorce seemed like the only option. Neither parent is an awful person. Neither one was abusive to the kids or to each other. Neither one needs to shield the kids from something about the other parent. Theirs is a story of insurmountable differences and bitter disappointment, not escape from mistreatment.
These good people need to learn how to be good co-parents even though they never found a way to be good for each other. If they are going to help Annie and her younger brother successfully negotiate the teen years, they need to finally reach some closure on a failed early marriage and learn to work as a parenting team. If they’ll let me, I’ll work with them on some basic ground rules. The rules won’t solve all the problems. They won’t necessarily help them forgive themselves and each other. But they will get the kids out of the middle and reduce the amount of stress between them. I think they love their kids enough to give it a shot.
Seven Basic Don’ts and Dos for Divorced Parents
1. Don’t expect the other household to run like your own. Do agree on some values that will be consistent in both households. Yes, rules and standards can be different in your two homes. In fact, one of the positives of the mom’s house – dad’s house arrangement is that children learn that people can and do live differently. However, it is important to decide on a few core values. Consistency in these areas provides stability for the kids and helps give them a sense of family identity. Basics might include such things as being courteous to all family members, participating in something that keeps them physically active, and doing homework every night. It simplifies things immeasurably if you agree on a code for personal cleanliness and set consistent rules for the use and amount of time on computers and in front of the TV.
2. Don’t ever say anything negative about the other parent. Do show respect. There is nothing to be gained by criticizing the other parent to the children. They need to feel safe and loved by worthwhile people in both houses. They don’t need to feel that liking either parent costs them the love of the other. Frustrated by your ex? Furious about an interaction? Vent to your friends, not your kids. When they are grown they will make up their own minds about the flaws in each of you.
3. Don’t ever make children the bearer of news, positive or negative. Do share important information directly with each other. This keeps the kids out of the middle. It may seem more expedient at times to just say, “Tell your mother . . .” or “be sure to let your dad know . . .” But what if they forget? The information doesn’t get where it needs to go and the kid is blamed. The kids have enough to deal with going back and forth. Send notes or make a phone call if there is information that needs to be shared.
4. Don’t leave important decisions to one or the other. Do attend parent-teacher conferences, major medical and dental consultations, and any legal involvement together. Neither parent should feel responsible for taking care of such things on their own. Both of you need the information. Both of you need to take responsibility for decisions that affect health and welfare. Both of you will probably have to follow through on whatever comes of these types of events. Neither one of you needs to feel blamed for not making the right decision or ashamed for not being there when it counted.
5. Don’t celebrate holidays and birthdays together. Do include everyone at important milestone events and recognitions. It confuses kids when every holiday is celebrated as if the family were not divorced. Come up with a schedule that sets up who gets the kids on birthdays and annual events. Major developmental milestones and successes, however, need to be witnessed and supported by both parents. Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, awards ceremonies, graduations, weddings, and christenings, for example, are turning points in a growing child’s life. Kids deserve to have the people who love them most recognize any major life event or accomplishment.
6. Don’t expect the kids to be happy about shifting between houses. Do expect to go out of your way to be helpful. Annie was right. You probably wouldn’t like to have to move every other week or every other weekend. With all your adult maturity, you would still forget things now and then or just want to stay put. You can ease the situation for the kids at least a little by helping them make sure they’ve got what they need when they leave your home and by being willing to get what was left at the other house if they find they really have to have it.
7. Don’t expect children to love parents’ new partners. Do model respect and accept that adults in both households do have some authority. This often is the hardest one. You didn’t choose the person who is now helping to parent your child. You may not particularly like him or her. You may disagree with how he or she interacts with the kids. Nonetheless, as long as we’re talking about differences, not abuse, your children need you to resist the temptation to join in with them when they complain about dad’s or mom’s new love. The best case scenario is when all the adults can exchange needed information freely and support each other’s decisions.
The problem with divorce when there are children involved is that it’s impossible to completely divorce and walk away. When two reasonable parents love and care for their children, they have to deal regularly with each other – despite the differences that drove them apart. Establishing these basic rules that both agree to keep as priorities can help everyone manage the situation with more cooperation and respect. Someday (probably when they’re 30) the kids will thank you for it.