Kids aren’t stupid when it comes to getting what they want.
From an early age, whether they’ve got divorced parents or not, they’ve got things figured out. They know who to approach first when there’s something they want; one parent is always more likely than the other to say yes. And they’re savvy enough to know that a ‘no’ from one parent doesn’t necessarily mean a ‘no’ from both – so long as you get to parent number 2 before both parents talk.
And if you’re divorced or separated, that’s where things can come unstuck. Communicating with your ex is likely to be low on your list of things you want to do, especially if your relationship didn’t end amicably. However, it is key to avoiding the stress that comes with having kids who play you off against each other, so it’s worth a second thought.
HOW NOT TO GET PLAYED BY YOUR KIDS POST DIVORCE
SET UP COMMUNICATION GUIDELINES
One of the first things you’ll need to do post-separation is set up a parenting plan. Your parenting plan will dictate when your child sees each parent, but it should also cover things like how parenting decisions, big or small, will be made. As well as how you’ll communicate with your co-parent about any issues or concerns if and when they arise.
So, your kids can’t play you off against each other, make sure your plan has clear guidelines around decisions you both agree can be made without consulting the other parent. Things like the activities you do with your child during their time with you, versus things that need to be run by the other parent and decided jointly e.g. extracurricular commitments and activities, or large purchases like a phone or iPad.
Try to be as exhaustive as you can with your specifications. However, keep in mind that the more things you have on your list of things that need to be communicated about, the more contact you’ll have to have with your ex on a regular basis, and the higher the chance of conflict. So, by all means set clear guidelines, but in the interest of reducing conflict, try to be flexible with your expectations, even if it means relinquishing some of your parental control.
RUN THINGS PAST YOUR EX FIRST
When your child comes to you with a question that needs a joint decision, talk to your ex before you give any sort of reaction. Don’t tell your child that you’re happy for them to play netball but will have to check with Dad first to see if he agrees, because you’ll inadvertently expose your child to adult conflict and subtly sabotage, intentionally or not, their relationship with your ex. Let your child know that you’ll need to chat to Dad so you can make a decision about netball together, but you’ll come back to them as soon as you can with a final outcome.
WHEN YOUR EX IS BEING DIFFICULT
Talk to your ex in private, and then give your child feedback. If the answer is one your child wants to hear, great, but if it’s not, try to make your feedback neutral:
“Dad and I aren’t going to be able to make that one work unfortunately, sorry buddy.”
Instead of biased:
“Dad said no, sorry kiddo. I told him how much you wanted to play, but he still said no.”
If you disagree with your ex, and other factors are at play as well, such as hurt and anger at how you were treated throughout your relationship, it’ll be hard to bite your tongue. But if reducing the risk of your child playing you off against each other and protecting your child from conflict is your objective, openly criticising your ex helps no-one. Yes, your child will be upset to miss out on netball, but they’ll be more upset by ongoing parent conflict. So, if you’ve agreed to make decisions about extracurricular activities jointly, stick to your agreement.
Advocate for your child in private and do what you can to try to make it work. Offer to do pick up and drops offs to training and games if that’s what it takes, but in front of your child, show a united front.
HOW NOT TO GET PLAYED BY YOUR KIDS POST DIVORCE (cont.)
ASK BEFORE YOU ASSUME
If the reverse happens, and your child comes home from time with your ex to tell you that Dad’s promised to buy them the latest iPhone even though you’ve agreed to talk to each about issues like this first, take a deep breath, count to 10, and don’t react. Re-direct the conversation elsewhere, then once you’ve calmed down, check in with your ex, out of earshot of your child, and in a neutral way. Don’t fly off the handle, it won’t help you to be effective, instead say something like:
“Max came home today and told me that you’ve promised to buy him the new iPhone. I was pretty upset, but I also know that sometimes what he hears and what you’ve said aren’t the same thing, so I wanted to check in with you first.”
Yes, there’s a chance your ex has gone rogue and isn’t playing by the rules, but it might also be a simple misunderstanding. Dad might have said something like:
“I’m not sure about that buddy, it’s a pretty big birthday present. Maybe, I need to talk to mum about it.”
Which, yes, still isn’t ideal given he’s indicated it’s a possibility before speaking to you first, but it’s also not as bad as you first thought. Don’t jump to conclusions, ask before you assume.
Communication with your ex will be draining and a test of your patience at times. And yes, taking the high road is hard, but so is raising a child who’s learnt how to manipulate conflict to get what they want. Make protecting your child from conflict your priority. As they get older, you’ll be glad you did.