Groups » When Kids Play Both Sides: Creating Consistent Co-Parenting After Divorce

Despite best intentions, few divorces ever manage to conclude on amicable terms. Whether one or both spouses desired the divorce, the process involves hurt feelings, disappointment, social stigma, stress, and financial concerns that complicate emotions for divorcing adults. The process is so administratively and emotionally difficult that it often leads to serious conflict between the divorcing spouses, which reverberates to impact the children in the household.

When you consider how many divorces mature and proceed, it's not hard to imagine how kids start to feel as though they are torn between two warring factions: Mom and dad. On mom's side there are typically her family members, parents, siblings, and friends who rally the same way that the father will have support from those closest in his social circle. Kids begin to sustain emotional damage, because they are camped squarely in the middle of the conflict.

Understanding When Kids "Act Out" and What It Looks Like

Parents who are intuitive and observant of their child's normal behaviors will notice odd actions, obsessions, or activities that do not fit within the norm for the personality of their child or children. However, many parents are not experienced with behaviors that can be directly linked to emotional angst, rather than normal personality changes due to growth and development.

Some activities that are frequently missed by parents, which signify emotional duress from children, include:

  • Children that cut their own hair.
  • Angry verbal outbursts.
  • Frustration with activities of daily living, or during the execution of skills they had already mastered.
  • Nail biting.
  • Poor grades and inattention or acting out at school.
  • Appetite changes (over eating or low appetite), combined with abnormal weight gain or weight loss.
  • Self-injury including biting themselves, cutting, or scratching their own bodies – or inflicting pain or discomfort on other similar aged friends or siblings.
  • Chronic fatigue or disrupted quality of sleep and healthy sleep habits.

Depending on the age of the child, manipulation is also another significant indicator of emotional duress in children. This is more common with tweens and teens, who desperately wish to get the attention of their parents through any means. Playing one parent against the other can manifest as lying and dishonesty, sharing information about one parent's activities to the other, or by indicating a desire to live with the other parent, should the primary custodial parent apply discipline.

Parents can easily find themselves the victim of a head game which is not geared toward getting things, but more motivated by a desire to feel valued and important to parents. This behavior can also complicate the relationship between divorcing parents, and exacerbate conflict and feelings of discord.

What Parents Can Do to Address Emotional Needs for Children

Going through a divorce and emerging on the other side is a traumatic experience for both adults and children. However, there are several ways in which caring parents can limit some of the emotional angst experienced by kids by creating stability, confidence, and a buffer between the child and any disagreements or verbal discord between parents.

1. Do Not Disparage the Other Parent

Hurt feelings should stay between adults; children should never be exposed to a negative narrative about any parent, because it places them in an intellectual and emotional conflict where they feel they need to choose a side. Never point out your former spouse's flaws to your son or daughter. Keep the conversation positive and neutral for the sake of the child who loves both parents equally. Indianapolis family law attorneys agree that it is important to always protect children from parental conflicts as a priority, to facilitate understanding and emotional healing.

2. Acknowledge Hurt Feelings and Displacement

Talking about the divorce can be healthy, if it is done from a perspective of healing and moving forward, both for parents and for kids. Some parents make the mistake of avoiding the topic altogether, as it is painful for adults to discuss it. However, by burying the topic, what adults do is give children less information and more room to worry, or "fill in the blanks" with guesses, rather than facts from their mother or father.

Talk to your child or children about the divorce. Minimize details that they are too young to process, but help them understand the strategy for co-parenting, and how both parents are attempting a "do over" that will make them both happier people. When children understand that there is a "plan" behind every bewildering change that is coming at them, it is easier for them to feel they are an important part of the process. And they can be assured that they will be cared for in the same way under the new household arrangement.

3.Involve Children in the Planning of Family Events with Both Parents

When parents dictate all activities and access to the non-custodial parent, it can make a child feel powerless and cause additional anxiety and stress. Remember, children are used to having unequivocal access to parents, and governing their time (or limiting it) feels both unnatural and unfair to children.

During or immediately after a divorce, parents can help children develop confidence with their weekly schedule by creating a formal calendar that the child can access. This calendar can be online if the child is older (for example, a shared one in Google Docs) or a printed calendar that is placed in the child's bedroom that marks when he or she will be spending time with each parent. By formalizing a schedule, it gives children a sense of predictability and assurance.

Divorce is difficult on parents and children, and finding the emotional energy and resources to navigate children successfully through separation and divorce can challenge parent's resources and bandwidth. However, when you consider that the damage and trauma incurred because of a badly managed divorce can create reverberating repercussions for children well into adulthood, it is worth making the extra effort (and seeking counseling) to ensure that you help your child process the change and transition successfully.

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