When lawyers think about the parenting mistakes that their divorce clients most often make, they typically involve such obvious things as arguing or fighting in front of the children, bad-mouthing the other parent to their children, or not following through on scheduled physical custody time. While all these bad behaviors are very harmful to a child, there are several less obvious parenting mistakes that divorced parents can make – without realizing they are doing it – that are potentially more harmful. Below are five mistakes that divorced parents make and you should avoid them to best protect your children from unnecessary stress and emotional damage.
1. Asking your child to keep secrets from the other parent.
Divorced parents frequently put their children in the middle of adult problems by asking them to keep secrets from the other parent. What you are really doing when you ask your children to keep a secret from the other parent is asking them to lie to either their mom or their dad. Normally, parents teach their children not to lie and to tell the truth. Children learn that lying to a parent is wrong and that a negative consequence will occur from that behavior. However, by asking your child to keep a secret from the other parent, you are rewarding bad behavior. Worse, you are placing your child(ren) in the untenable position of either disappointing the parent who is making the request or betraying the parent that they lying to by keeping the secret. This behavior is not in a child’s best interests, causes a child to have stress and anxiety, is a no-win situation that is incredibly stressful for your child and one that should always be avoided.
2. Asking your child to be a messenger.
Children of divorced parents are often asked to serve as a messenger between their parents. Sometimes this can be an innocent request such as tell your mother that I will pick you up from school tomorrow. Oftentimes, this can be a financial message such as tell your father that he still owes me a child support check this month. The message puts the child in the middle and makes the child responsible for a situation that should only be handled by the parents. This behavior is the opposite of coparenting as parents are avoiding communication. Avoid asking your children to be your messenger and taking on the responsibility of any parental communication that should be your responsibility. This behavior is not in a child’s best interests, and although it may make life easier for you to not have to communicate with your former spouse, it makes your child’s life unnecessarily stressful.
3. Having different rules at your house.
It is in your child’s best interests to maintain as much consistency as possible between each parent’s home. Although you and your former spouse are no longer together, you need to work together to avoid having two sets of rules for your child. There is nothing wrong with each parent having very different ways of doing things but there is harm to your child when you fail to communicate what the expectations and responsibilities are for your child at your house to your former spouse. Now that you are a two-home family, it makes sense that you would work together to have a similar set of rules and expectations for your child to avoid any potential problems. If mom only allows the children to play on their phones for one hour per day after homework is finished but dad has no restrictions on phone use at his house, which parent would the children prefer to be with? If dad had a strict bedtime of 10:00 pm with phones to be turned in before that time but mom has no set bedtime and no requirement that phones be turned in to her before bedtime, which parent would the children prefer to be with? Those inconsistencies between houses can be incredibly damaging and confusing for your children as they will adjust their behavior depending upon where they are currently residing. This can cause the children to have problems with the more restrictive parent and to have problems in school on those days they stay with the less restrictive parent. Ultimately, this can cause conflicts between the parents and between the children and the more restrictive parent. Try to remember that your children have already had to cope with a lot of change during the divorce and this is an opportunity for parents to work together to avoid adding to an already stressful situation.
4. Difficult custody exchanges.
You should always avoid conflict during a custody exchange with the other parent. Arrive on time. Be prepared for the exchange. Demonstrate to your children that you and your former spouse can get along in front of the children. Why is this important? As stressful as the divorce was for you, it continues to be stressful for the children as they now must live in two homes. This is a constant disruption, compounded by packing a bag, saying goodbye to a parent a few times per week, forgetting items at one parent’s house, not always living near school friends, and (as stated in 3 above) adjusting to different rules and expectations. As a result, the actual custody exchange can be emotionally challenging for a child. Parents often complain of changes in their children’s mood and behavior both before and after these custody exchanges occur. Unfortunately, parents often add to the stress of these exchanges by using it as an opportunity to discuss a contentious issue resulting in an argument in front of the children. This makes custody exchanges much more difficult for your children and should be avoided.
5. Not encouraging your child to have a loving relationship with the other parent.
You should tell your children that you support them having a happy and loving relationship with their other parent. Unfortunately, there are parents who do the opposite to alienate the child from the other parent so they can win the custody battle. Don’t put your children in the middle of your unhappiness by asking “Why do you always seem so excited when it’s time to leave and be with your mother?” or “Why do you look forward to speaking with your dad when you are at my house?” or “I had to cancel your playdate with your school friend as she was only available during the time you are with your dad.” All these example comments communicate to your child that you do not value their relationship with their other parent. Instead of causing your child stress and anxiety, support your children having a close and loving relationship with both parents and make sure your words (and actions around the other parent) reinforce that message.
Should you need the advice of an experienced divorce and child custody attorney or have questions or concerns about your child custody situation, know that we are here to help and ready to discuss those issues with you.