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The Essentials of
If our job as co-parents is to create an emotional safety net beneath our kids, these are the conceptual threads―the warp and weft―with which we weave:
1. -Health and safety are always our first priority. As often as we are forced to choose between that which makes our kids happy and that which makes our kids healthy, we always choose health first. Choices that compromise our children's health to make them happy are self-serving and short-lived. Choices that help our children become healthy allow them to discover their own happiness.
2. -Our love for our children is forever and no matter what. We know that our kids will test our limits, defy our rules, damage our possessions, and maybe even lash out in rage. Their specific behaviors may not be acceptable, but our love for our children is unbreakable. This is especially important when parents separate. While it appears that love can stop, your love for your child will not.
3. -We always promote our children's relationship with our co-parents. We do this by speaking to and about one another with respect. We never allow our adult feelings for one another (or any other adult's words or actions) to hinder the quality of our kids' relationships with each of us.
4. -We know that every person needs to feel loved and accepted. As adults, we do everything we can to make sure that our emotional needs are met by other adults. As parents, we expect and accept that we will provide love and acceptance for our children without any expectation in return.
5. -We know that our own health and calm, firm presence reassure our children. We take every reasonable step to remain physically and emotionally healthy and to learn to be the best caregivers we can. In doing so, we are not only giving our kids a solid foundation upon which they can grow, but we are also giving them permission through our example to take good care of themselves.
Living Together in Conflict
The goal is not to live without conflict.
Conflict is an expectable part of any caring relationship. The anger, fear, and sadness that fuel conflict are as necessary and natural as the happiness, hopes, and dreams that create the unique fabric of each relationship.
Because conflict happens, the goal is to manage it in healthy ways so that it becomes an opportunity for growth rather than a weapon of destruction. It's far easier to reach this goal when the relationship affects no one but you and your intimate adult partner. Once a child enters the equation, managing conflict in healthy ways can become at least as difficult as it is important.
What we know with certainty is that our kids are the barometers of our adult relationships. When we feel content, loved, and accepted, the emotional pressure in our lives diminishes, and our kids feel safe, confident, and secure. When conflict erupts in our adult relationships, the emotional pressure increases, and our kids feel anxious and fearful. Their behavior becomes less mature (a process known as regression), their emotions become erratic, and, over time, their sense of themselves and their ability to develop their own healthy relationships can be damaged.
'My daughter's too young to understand.'
'My son has learning and attention difficulties. When we argue, it goes right over his head.'
'My teenager is off in his own little world. He doesn't know.'
These are among the excuses that conflicted co-parents commonly make in the interest of comforting themselves. Unfortunately, all three are wrong. We know, for example, that newborn infants respond differently to the emotional tone of the voices that surround them and to the different physical experiences of being held by a calm parent or by an angry parent. Long before words are understood, the visual, audible, and tactile experiences of emotional pressure can cause a child to become tense herself, to cry and refuse food, or become unable to hold it down. When the pressure persists, physical development can be impacted and emotional development thrown off course. The child can become overly clingy or begin to reject caregiving altogether. In the long term, exposure to continuous emotional pressure can cause an infant or a toddler to shut down in something known as conservation-withdrawal.
We know as well that kids who struggle with math and English and science in school, those who are diagnosed with attention problems or with learning differences (including nonverbal learning disabilities), and even those on the autistic spectrum (Asperger's syndrome, for example) read and respond to their caregiver's emotions as much as their age mates, even if they are less able to put their experience into words.
And your teenager with his face buried in a video screen and his ears submersed in rap 'n' roll? Yep, he's listening, too. In fact, you have to wonder how much of some kids' escape into digital media, sports, drugs and alcohol, peer groups, and gangs are a response to the tension they live with at home.
The simple fact is that you cannot hide your feelings from your kids. They get it. They feel the conflict in your intimate adult relationship even if they don't see or hear it, and it affects them. Whether their experience of your adult conflict teaches them healthy strategies for coping with their own inevitable conflicts or leaves them scared, needy, angry, and confused depends on many factors, not the least of which is your success in keeping them out of the middle.
All in the Family
Kids become drawn into their parents' conflicts in a million subtle ways. The dramatic examples are easy to identify: the divorced mom who asks her son to collect the support check from his dad, the bitter partners who try to recruit their daughter into their hatred for each other, or the depressed dad who enlists his son to care for the younger kids―even the well-intentioned divorced couple who give their children the freedom to come and go at will between their two neighboring homes.
The most common ways that co-parents draw their kids into the middle are no less harmful, but they are much harder to see. These are the subtle, quiet, and usually well-intentioned ways in which that safety net woven between two caregivers is slowly torn to shreds. They can be classified into five types.
When was the last time you made one of these mistakes?
1. -Arguing about consequences in front of the kids. Perhaps the most common trap that co-parents fall into sounds like this:
- 'Billy,' one caregiver says, 'that behavior is unacceptable! You're grounded for a month!'
- 'Just a minute,' the other caregiver replies, right there in front of the child. 'That's way too harsh. I think he should only be grounded for a week!'
- Suddenly, the conflict has shifted from the child and one parent to the two co-parents, leaving Billy on the sidelines, stirred up with feelings about the unacceptable behavior, and now amplified by the fact that he's caused (yet another) fight between his parents. This is a recipe for disaster.
- 'I already gave him a consequence!'
- 'And I'm changing it! I'm his father, and I'm in charge. Billy, it's only a week!
- Father, in this instance, may have changed Billy's punishment, but much more significantly, he undermined Mother's authority. What will happen next time Mom tries to punish Billy? Right: Billy will run to Dad. Mom has lost respect and control. A subtle alliance between Billy and Dad has been built against Mom.
- In a healthier interaction, Mom would have enforced an existing consequence. Last time Billy did something similar, an expectation had been set: 'If it happens again, then . . .' This not only makes the world predictable for Billy, but makes it much more likely that the parent-on-duty will be supported by the other parent later.
- Even without the benefit of this prior structure to fall back on, Dad could have questioned Mom later, away from Billy. If that discussion helps Mom to change her mind, she has time to go back to Billy to correct herself: 'I think I was too harsh, Billy. Here's what we're going to do . . .'
- Or there is another choice. As long as everyone is safe, the POD (Mom, in this instance) could simply have said, 'You're grounded until your father and I can talk it through. We'll let you know what the long-term consequence will be.'
- But if Dad felt compelled to take a stand there and then in front of Billy, at least he could have done so in a respectful way:
- 'Hold on a second, Martha. Do you think that might be a little too much?'
- 'Hmmm . . . I hear you, George. Maybe I am overreacting a bit. What do you think would work better?'
- This process has the benefit of modeling healthy compromise and negotiation, even though it still risks casting one parent as the good guy and the other as the bad guy in front of the child. The result, formulated on the spot by mutually respectful, child-centered co-parents, sounds like, 'Okay, Billy. Your dad and I agree. You're grounded for ten days.'
2. -Undoing your co-parent's consequences. Consistency calls for co-parents to communicate in the interest of enforcing similar limits and consequences between homes when the co-parents live apart. Stability and predictability call for follow-through over time. When communication fails and consistency is poor, co-parents can become pitted against one another in the good-guy and bad-guy roles, a schism that leaves their child stuck in the middle.
- Let's change the story of Billy's grounding just a little. In this version, the parents live apart. Dad wasn't present when Mom and Billy argued. It's only the next day, after Billy transitions between homes that the situation comes to Dad's attention:
- 'Your mom grounded you for a month? Nah, don't listen to her. You know how she gets all emotional. Let's make it three days instead.'
- Dad has undermined Mom's authority. He's created an alliance with his son against his co-parent, very likely for selfish reasons. He's also put Billy in the middle of their argument by not even communicating the fact directly to his parenting partner that he commuted the child's sentence!
3. -'The cat's away, so the mice will play.' Consistency among caregivers means that co-parents work to maintain similar expectations and consequences. Consistency is one form of structure that helps to decrease anxiety and defuse conflict.
- 'The cat's away, so the mice will play' refers to one parent's knowing wink to the child that says about another parent, 'Okay, the bad guy's gone. Go ahead . . .'
- To some people, this is the stereotyped overindulgent grandparent. Dad spends twenty minutes filling his own mother in on the structure in the home before he leaves for a business trip, but loving, doting Grandma thinks that Dad's too tough. She never gets to see her grandkids anyway, and she has no intention of wasting a few precious days alone with them enforcing his silly rules. Rather than say anything, however, she pretends to listen carefully, taking every opportunity to share that knowing wink with the kids.
- This story doesn't have to be about Grandma coming to visit for three days each year. It could just as easily be about one of a pair of parents who share the children full time. There's something cute and endearing about the idea of a mom or dad saying something like, 'Daddy's gone. Now we can have fun.' But in this case, cute and endearing mask selfish and destructive. The message here is, 'He's the bad guy. He interferes with our fun!' The opportunity to giggle and laugh and break the rules while the cat's away is enticing, but a wedge has been driven between the co-parents.
4. -Keeping secrets and secret alliances. Secrets are destructive. Asking a child to keep a secret can be like asking her to carry around a load of bricks. It's a burden that demands an enormous amount of her strength. It will inevitably crash to the floor, and someone will get hurt.
- When one caregiver asks a child to keep a secret from another, an alliance is established that can undermine the child's relationship with the other parent and the quality of the co-parenting relationship. The message to the child is exciting and scary all at once: 'You and I share something special that your other parent can't know.' This is an invitation to the child to share other secrets with her new ally and keep those same secrets from the other parent, gradually building a wall with the allied parent on one side and the left-out parent on the other.
5. -'Wait until your father gets home!' This is a familiar rant, a parenting cop-out reminiscent of the 1950s, a chauvinistic era when mothers took a backseat to fathers in everything that occurred outside of the kitchen. In our contemporary world, the caregiver who defers authority to her co-parent (regardless of gender) is setting herself up for the child's disrespect and setting her co-
parent up to be the bad guy. The message is, 'I feel helpless and can't stop you, but your other parent will come to the rescue!'
- There are certainly situations in which the POD feels ineffective and powerless. Chief among these are the very scary situations that can arise when a teenager's behavior becomes violent. When safety is at issue (when violence or threats of violence arise, when behavior is destructive, or there is a risk of runaway, as examples), calling in support may be necessary. This means calling in a co-parent and, in the extreme, the police and/or emergency medical providers (calling 911 or going to the local hospital emergency room).
©2008. Benjamin Garber. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Keeping Kids Out of the Middle. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442