Separation and divorce can be devastating on couples as they grieve the loss of their partnership or marriage, but the loss of a family unit can be even harder for the children involved. Many times, parents can’t see past their own anger, hurt or sadness to put the emotional needs of their children first. While the adult relationship may end, the family as a whole doesn’t.
Studies have shown that those children whose parents had a more intense post, break-up conflict may have a harder time adjusting to the change and may have more long-term emotional consequences of the separation and divorce.
In her book “The Parenting Workbook,” Karen Bonnell highlights the Don’ts of co-parenting practices.
The following communication patterns or expectations can be especially destructive for kids:
Sabotaging the Child’s Relationship with the Other Parent - Children thrive when there are two “good enough” parents and the children are free to love both parents freely. Putting down the other parent in front of the child, or using the child as a pawn in the divorce, can be devastating for the children and can actually cause disconnection with the sabotaging parent rather than a perceived alliance.
Putting the Kids in the Middle — Bonnell indicates there are a number of ways kids can be made to feel put in the middle — asking the child to keep secrets from the other parent; interrogating or asking questions of the child to gain information for personal gain, and involving the child in an argument about the other parent.
Involving the Kids in Fights or Feuds with the Other Parent - Engaging children in fights or feuds between the parents that lean toward shame, blame, and judgment toward the other can cause emotional harm. Positive co-parenting means not including kids in these hostile conflicts to reduce worry and not involving kids in “adult” situations for which they may not have the emotional intelligence to process.
Requiring them to be the “Adult” in the Family — Understandably parents can be emotionally affected by separation and divorce, and expressing emotion sets a good example for your kids. However, putting your child in a position to be your emotional support system and “a shoulder to cry on” can put a lot of pressure on a child. Also, requiring a child to take care of younger siblings and “parent” them can be overwhelming for a child who doesn’t have the emotional capacity to handle the responsibility.
Putting Restrictions on their Belongings – Parents who put conditions on their belongings, with messages such as “I will buy you those shoes, but they have to stay at my house,” or requiring them to keep their security blanket or stuffed animal at one parent’s house and not allowing the belonging to go to the other parent's house, can also be a destructive co-parenting practice.
Divorce is hard on everyone in the family but can be made tougher by unhealthy co-parenting practices. Kids look to their parents for emotional security and structure and setting a good example on positive communication, cooperation and child-centered decisions are key for their mental and emotional health.
Erin Swinson, LMHC, NCC
Bonnell, K. (2017). The Parenting Plan Workbook. A comprehensive guide to building a strong-child-center parenting plan. Seattle. Sasquatch Books.