Excerpt: Soon-to-be Ex by Jacqueline Newman
How Do I Not Screw Up My Kids?
Ninety-nine point eight percent of the time clients walk into my office and say, “The most important thing to me in this divorce is my children.” Others go as far as to say, “I do not even care about the money, I only care about custody.” (Some are very clear that they care about the money, too.)
It is safe to say that so many couples stay together simply for the sake of the children; after all, who wants their children to grow up in a broken home? However, what many do not realize is that staying together in a dysfunctional marriage (especially if it is abusive) may screw up your kids worse than a divorce could.
There are many studies that support both theories, but personally I believe that if you can maintain your child’s true best interests as your focus during your divorce, the odds will increase that your children will grow up to be just fine.
There are some things that a parent can do to try to protect their children from the effects of divorce. One of the most important messages you can offer your child during their childhood (whether it be during a divorce or not) is that they will always have your unconditional love.
If your child is secure and confident in the idea that they are loved by you, and knows that no matter what he or she does that love is unwavering, they will be able to get through your divorce, as well as every other stage in life.
Here’s a funny, personal story about unconditional love. It was during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal back in the late 1990s that my mother called me at the office, which was a big no-no unless there was an emergency. I answered the phone—and honestly I was a bit annoyed by the distraction—to hear my mother say, “I just need to tell you something quick. If you ever had sex with the president, I would lie for you.” I chuckled, feeling my annoyance pass, and said, “Duly noted,” and ended the call. Her message was clear: Unconditional love.
Children who are dealing with divorcing parents need to know that if they enjoy time with Dad, you will still love them. They also need to avoid feeling guilty when working to maintain the relationship with the man that you no longer wish to be married to. Children must know that they are not being disloyal to you by loving their father. Give them permission to keep their dad in their lives and love him as if the marriage was still intact.
Additionally, children should not have to face choosing one parent over another. Oftentimes, a client will say, “Let my child choose who they want to spend Thanksgiving with.” Frankly, this is a terrible idea—and will only end in tears, anger, and turmoil.
Giving children this type of power can deliver the key to a manipulative kingdom (i.e. who gets me the best toys, gets me for the holiday). It can also cause great anxiety in a child because in essence you are asking them to say who they would rather be with. Parents need to be the parents! By dictating which parent a child has to be with for the holidays, the child is given permission to go with the “bad” parent without feeling disloyal to the “good” parent.
Your Child is Not Your Friend
No matter how old your child may be, he or she is not a person that you should be confiding in, bitching to, or offering insight into your divorce proceedings. Your child should not know the name of your lawyer or the judge, and should not be privy to the spousal support package you are receiving.
Your child should especially not be informed about the amount of child support that your ex may be paying on their behalf. I know that you may feel like you want to make your child understand why you are so upset with their father and probably feel the need to tell your side of the story, but please resist.
Your child does not need this type of information. Children (again, no matter how old) do not want to think that their parents are bad people. Now, this may sound incredibly naive because he or she may already know the reality of your marriage’s situation—but it is not your job to confirm their beliefs.
Try your best to keep your kids out of your divorce. Do not have them pass messages to your ex (many agreements will actually specify language to this effect) and do not task them to be couriers, shuttling your ex’s last pair of socks that were left at the house.
Your child should simply know that both Mom and Dad love them, that you are going to take care of them, and make sure they are provided for and happy. You are going to, once again, sacrifice your own personal feelings of wanting to tell them everything so they can put on their “Team Mom” t-shirt and get on your side. Instead, take the high road and keep quiet.