5 sure-fire tips for raising healthy kids who don’t become pawns, messengers, or casualties of divorce wars.
In a perfect world, your children would only know that life is more peaceful with two homes, and that they miss the parent they are not with. That’s it.
Co-parenting with your former partner needs to be all about the children, and not about your relationship with your ex. Not always easy, but absolutely necessary.
Children need to know—and feel—that they are more important than the conflict that is—or, hopefully, was—between their parents. Maintaining that is what effective, conscious co-parenting is all about.
Co-parenting with a chronically difficult ex can be one of the most trying experiences of your life. It’s tension-ridden, anxiety-producing, and “I-can’t-believe-you-did-that” territory. And, it never ends.
In my latest book, Escaping the Hijackal Trap: Loving Someone Who SHOVES You Away Yet DEMANDS That You Stay, I coined the term, Hijackals™, for chronically difficult people. Hijackals are “people who hijack relationships for their own purposes and scavenge them for power, status, and control.” No matter what happens, s/he has to be right. Therefore, no matter what, you are wrong! Is your ex a Hijackal?
Oh, yes, and the emails, texts, and angry phone calls? They just keep coming, too. And, just when you think it can’t get worse, you are hit with an ex parte hearing for some alleged infraction that didn’t happen! Drama, drama, drama!
Co-parenting with a Hijackal is an exercise in tenacity. How long can you hang on and hang in? You’re pushed to the edge of reason, and then, pushed again. The Hijackal specializes in catching you off-guard and keeping you out of the loop. Then, when you think there is a lull, and you’re hoping for peace, another emotional storm erupts and you become the devil in disguise!
The children are terribly caught. Whom do they please? Whom do they believe? Where is their allegiance? Where are they safe? Big questions for little people.
In a Hijackal-free relationship, you both realize that it is unnecessary and unkind to expose the children to adult relationship issues. When you co-parent well, you eliminate exposing the children to them. They know mom and dad are not together and choose to live apart. They will see and feel the difficulties as they experience the changes. Your job is to reassure them that you both love them and will do all you can to keep their lives as normal as possible.
No details required. Not only do they not need details about the split-up, you risk jeopardizing their relationship with their other parent when you share them. And, that’s not fair to the kids!
Hijackals, however, fail to see the risk involved in bad-mouthing the other parent. In fact, they see it as an opportunity to win. That’s what is most important to them at all times. Unfortunately, they happily paint you as the villain, the saboteur, the useless, thoughtless, selfish person they know themselves to be! The children are caught. They love their parents and they often learn to tell each parent what they think they want to hear. Unhealthy for children, for sure.
Children will have questions. Answer them in the most age-appropriate—their ages, not yours—ways for them to understand the most general issues. No specifics. And, particularly, no blaming, shaming, or defaming your partner in the hearing of your children!
Sadly, in a Hijackal situation, it is all about involving the kids in the war. Hijackals have to win … every moment. That’s the problem. In order to win, someone has to lose. In fact, for Hijackals, the more people who lose, the better. So, you are going to lose because you, after all, are the devil’s spawn. The children are going to lose because they clearly understand that their mission is to make the Hijackal happy—and that is impossible. Catch-22!
Children have enough upset to contend with when parents separate. It’s enough to be moving, losing time with their friends, missing the non-custodial parent, feeling uncertain about what’s going on, and not having the right things at the right house. These are kid concerns.
Children need not and should not be hearing about adult issues. They should never hear one parent say anything negative about the other, directly or within their hearing. In California law, every divorce settlement states that clearly. And, lawyers hearing that this has happened can and will interpret this as parental alienation. And that’s not good for anyone!
Hijackals, however, are masters of parental alienation, while calling it “in the best interest of the children. Their M.O. is to use what I call “emotional facts” and spread them liberally in court as well as with everyone who will listen. Emotional facts are statements generated from the emotional reasoning of a Hijackal: they feel true to the Hijackal and s/he wants others to accept them as true. All too often these emotional facts are not see through in court, and courts move too quickly to question them. Often, this will produce sad consequences for you and the children.
An example of using emotional facts:
Your ex feels that you want to keep the children from her. She then proceeds to tell everyone that everything you do is to keep the children from her. There is no evidence in reality that you ever have intended to keep the children away, but the strength and power of her emotional reasoning becomes her story. And, she’s sticking with it. She’ll tell anyone who will listen, will embellish the story in whatever ways gets her more attention. And, in court, she will cry, pout, rage, or seek pity to support her emotional facts!
Whether or not divorcing was a shared decision or something that happened to you, it has happened. It’s the reality. Not engaging your child or children in the ongoing details of the conflict, the disappointments, or, the anger is important. It’s not easy, but you’re an adult and that’s what a wise adult who deeply cares about the well-being of the children would do.
I want to give you the five clear guidelines I share with my clients to help you through this. Read these often to help you stay focused on what is important:
- I am the model I want my children to follow. Therefore, everything I do and say demonstrates whom I want my children to become.
- I communicate with my ex in the way I want to be communicated with. I choose collaboration and conversation over conflict and acrimony.
- I focus on my children and what keeps them healthy, physically, mentally, and emotionally. That includes doing what is in their best interests first.
- I turn my attention from what I don’t like about my ex to what s/he does well for the children. It’s about the kids, not about my personal issues with my ex.
- My children have the right to be children, concerned only with age-appropriate thoughts, feelings, and actions. I protect them from being pawns, messengers, or, casualties of my divorce.
It can be difficult to rise up and be your best self when everything in you wants to blame, shame, and complain. I know. I’ve been divorced with children, too.
You may have deep resentments after years of a rocky marriage, or, fresh scars that the divorce brought on. And, it feels like your ex should pay dearly for it, and for a long time. Leave that to the court. You have to get your head on straight and do what is best for your kids. Get help to get a healthy perspective on this right away.
No matter how difficult, or how frequently you have to remind yourself, put the health and well-being of your children first. That means your love for your children is stronger than your loathing of your partner and the divorce process. When you keep that top-of-mind, you will be able to master successful co-parenting, and give your children the best emotional environment in which to thrive. They deserve that. They didn’t ask for a divorce!