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Helping your child cope with divorce: Part 2

Published on: June 24, 2010

Arguing coupleRead part 1 of this series. Read about "collaborative divorce."

You’d never know that Ginger and Jerry once lived together as a happy, harmonious married couple, simpatico on most matters life tossed their way. Who knew that parenthood could change all that?

When Ginger looks back, she realizes she should have seen trouble coming as soon as Jerry began dictating which prenatal vitamins she should take — and when. “Turns out he has control issues,” says Ginger, who’s now divorced. “Sometimes you don’t know how you are going to be as parents until it’s too late.”

Now, like many divorced couples, Ginger and Jerry find themselves deeply entrenched in opposite corners when it comes to raising their two kids, ages 3 and 7. They disagree on pretty much everything: activities (he micro-manages the kids; she lets them make their own decisions); education (he wants private; she wants public); discipline (she’s hard-line; he’s permissive); and playtime (he’s involved and engaged; she’ll say, “Go find something to do”). And there’s more. “When the kids don’t feel well, he’ll race to get them on antibiotics,” says Ginger. “I’ll just offer them lemon juice and honey.”

Which one’s practicing picture-perfect parenting? Probably neither; Ginger and Jerry simply do things differently. “There’s often an ongoing competition among parents, whether married or divorced, as to who is being a better parent,” says Dr. Cora Breuner, associate professor of adolescent medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “The problem is, divorced parents can’t have that end-of-the-day ‘pillow talk,’ where they rehash what happened and how they can be on the same page.”

Each feels his or her way is the best way, says Seattle psychologist Wendy Hutchins-Cook, Ph.D. “Dads worry moms are hovering and coddling, and moms worry the kids’ emotions and activities won’t be attended to as well as they have been in the past.”

Both worry about what’s going on in the other household. Their window into that household — and the one who ends up being reporter/watchdog/spy — is the child. But don’t count on that child for reliable information, says Hutchins-Cook. “A 12-year-old might say, ‘Mom wasn’t home after we got back from school.’ What you don’t realize is that mom has alerted the neighbor, who’s keeping an eye on things.”

The kids — always caught in the middle — often report negative news about one parent to the other, because that’s what they think the parent wants to hear. “They’re trying to prove their love and loyalty,” says Hutchins-Cook. “So while your kid’s not a liar, chances are he’s not giving you the fly-on-the-wall truth when he tells you that at Dad’s, he gets to watch TV all the time and stay up late.”

Different styles
Differences in parenting style often come into sharp focus when the kids bounce between two residences. Connie Curlett, a Seattle mother of three — now 20, 19 and 16 — became a divorce and parenting counselor after her own divorce 14 years ago.

“My ex was Disneyland Dad,” she says. “My children would come home from a weekend of total freedom and fun, and face rules.” Curlett let them know the “no restrictions” concept wouldn’t fly in her house. “I’d say, ‘Do you need some time in your room to remember where you are?’”

Tracy, a Bellevue mom who’s been divorced for four years, found that her ex-husband parented in a laid-back, unstructured fashion (no regular bedtime, little attention to schoolwork), while she favored a take-charge, always-on-top-of-things style. “I’m type A, he’s type Z,” she says.

After a while, both Tracy and Curlett came to the same conclusion: Things work better for everyone when both parents let go, just a little. “You have to figure out what’s within your control and what’s not,” Curlett says. “It comes down to, how much do you want to argue? And how do you want your kids to view all this?”

Tracy claims she’s learned to live with the small stuff. “I decided my ex-husband has a right to establish his own rules at his house,” she says. “If we don’t let go of things, the kids are the losers.”

Adam, a divorced dad who lives in Kirkland, says kids want to see their parents get along — whether they’re married or not. “When you have differences — when you’re continually negotiating and arguing — the child knows it,” says Adam, whose two teenage daughters alternate between his home and their mother’s. “I’ve learned that you and your ex-spouse can’t always feel the same way about things, and that sometimes both points of view have validity.”

Often, kids blame themselves for the turmoil. “Kids are self-focused, so they automatically think the problem has something to do with them,” says Jessica Arango, a Seattle family therapist. “They think, if only they’d done all their homework or worked harder,” the problem wouldn’t exist, says Arango. And when they’re the focus of the fights, their anxiety increases. “When you’re pitted against each other, you are tearing your child in different directions.”

Navigating differences
What’s the best way to negotiate parenting differences with an ex while preserving your child’s well being and, with any luck, your own?

Talk things over, says Breuner. “Parents will be in a relationship with each other forever and they need to come to grips with that,” she says. “They should be able to call the other parent and say, ‘We need to discuss these issues.’”

If that effort fails, seek help from a therapist or family counselor. What works best? Schedule a session or two with the counselor at the beginning of the divorce process. “Parents give the message to their kids ‘We can manage this’ when they work as a team,” says Hutchins-Cook. “They provide a tone and mindset for themselves and their children that they’re in this together.”

If parents can’t find common ground on an issue — and the problem is a big one or involves the child’s safety — it may be time to get social service agencies or the courts to intervene, writes Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D., in his book The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children and Divorce.

But before bringing in the big guns, try to work things out. “Kids won’t learn to resolve conflicts if their parents can’t,” says Breuner.

Finally, remember that kids are smart and resilient. They can accept that dad and mom — and their parenting styles — are different, says Arango. When things go well, they learn that issues and disagreements can be resolved, and that parents can move forward and work through problems. “When parents see their children’s needs are bigger than their own emotional pain and are able to manage their children’s lives together, it’s a wonderful gift to their kids,” says Hutchins-Cook.

Linda Morgan is ParentMap’s associate editor and the author of Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emotional and Academic Potential.

Read part 3 of this series.

Learn about collaborative divorce.

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