I’m a divorced parent. What’s the best way to talk to my kids about my ex?

By Meghan Leahy

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Q: I am divorced and have a goal of speaking positively about my children’s other parent. My co-parent is more transparent with the children when we disagree, which sometimes puts me in a tough spot if the children know they are not allowed to do something because I said so. Should I update my approach to be more transparent, while still speaking kindly? Or should I go with “less is more” in terms of communicating about adult decisions?

A: This is a really good question, and I imagine a lot of separated and divorced parents have found themselves in similar quandaries. But I am missing some crucial information that would help me immensely, especially: How old are your children? When it comes to levels of transparency, the maturity of your children matters. (This is often, but not always, correlated to age.) Explaining things to a 12-year-old is often different from explaining things to a 5-year-old. You can be honest with a child at any age, but there is an appropriateness that accompanies their age. Some parents get this; some parents don’t — or won’t.

As for honesty and transparency, does your co-parent say: “Well, I wanted to take you ice skating, but your mom/dad said no, and they always say no, because they are a killjoy, and that’s why we’re not married anymore. So I guess today is ruined.” Or does your co-parent say: “I wanted to go ice skating, but your mom/dad feels that may be too long of a day, so we have to skip it this time.” The first response contains more blame, while the second is more matter-of-fact. One could argue that the co-parent doesn’t need to mention you at all, but you can still see the difference in language and tone.

Answering your questions — “Should I update my approach to be more transparent, while still speaking kindly? Or should I go with ‘less is more’ in terms of communicating about adult decisions?” — is a bit simpler. When in doubt, you can always speak kindly. To anyone, even your ex. You aren’t speaking kindly for your spouse — or even for yourself, although you both reap the benefits. You are being kind for the sake of your children. Although they may not take note of it now, they will remember that you stayed mature, kind and measured while their other parent was maybe petty and a bit immature.

As for communicating adult decisions, I don’t see why this cannot be done kindly. Why do transparency and kindness about adult decisions have to remain in different buckets of communication? If you are kind, are you lying or bending the truth? If you are transparent, must it mean that kindness cannot be used? I don’t know how you understand this, so my homework for you is to really dig in to what these phrases mean for you. The ABCDE model from cognitive behavioral therapy and rational emotive behavior therapy is a clear and excellent exercise to check your beliefs and how those beliefs are affecting you.

The ABCDE model has you name an “activating” event, label your rational and/or irrational “beliefs,” then examine the “consequences” of the beliefs. If the belief is irrational, you develop a “dispute” to create a different belief, hence imagining a new “effect” — and therefore, a new consequence. Simply slowing down to do the ABCDE model can help you react less and respond more.

Try it over and over, and see what comes up. Your beliefs may not sync up to reality, or your co-parent could be out of line. I don’t know the answer, but this exercise could help.

No matter what you decide to say or not say, your parenting North Star is to not divide. Do your best to not split your children’s loyalties between you and your co-parent. I know this is easier said than done; it cannot be easy to feel as if you are toeing the line to show up as the responsible parent, only to have your co-parent throw you under the bus with blame. Any person would be tempted to go tit for tat; revenge and sticking it to your co-parent would feel good — for a moment. But that communication style inevitably forces your children to choose sides, and no caregiver should want that.

If you need to clarify something your co-parent has said, do so when the timing is right, when you are calm and when you know exactly what you want to say. You don’t have to feel slandered every day, but precious little needs to be addressed in the moment. Take the time to do the ABCDE model, stay clear-minded and remember that you are parenting for the long haul. Good luck.