9 Ways Divorced Parents Can Avoid Royally Screwing Up Their Kids

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Dad with child

One of the biggest misconceptions about divorce is that you will screw up your kids. We believe that maybe its better to stay in an unhappy marriage rather than subject our kids to the pain of a family breakup.

The truth is that divorce doesn’t have to be catastrophic for your kids’ well being. You CAN raise happy, healthy and functioning children after divorce ... if you follow a few simple and steadfast rules:

1. Don’t bash your ex. (Seriously.)

This one seems like a no brainer — it’s even written into your divorce documents. No matter how tempting it is to tell your kids what an awful, horrible, no good human being your ex is, remember this: you chose them at one point.

When you bash your ex, you bash your children. Especially if they feel like they are more like the parent you are saying all those horrible things about. Instead of engaging in harmful negativity, it might be more beneficial to point out their good qualities or how much you both love your children.

2. Don’t compare your child to their other parent.

The five most harmful words a kid can hear are “you’re just like your mom/dad”. This is not a compliment and your kid knows it. Imagine what that’s like for your child to hear that their mom is a terrible person in one breath and then you turn around and tell her she’s just like her mom.

Even if your child has traits that remind you of the other parent, remember to tell them everyday that they’re unique. When children are compared to their parents, they sometimes falsely believe that being like them means they will turn out like them. So, if we want to avoid screwing them up, it’s best to avoid comparisons of any kind.

3. Keep your marital dirty laundry in the hamper.

If your spouse was a lousy lover, keep it to yourself. I don’t care if he didn’t please you in bed or if she was a “cold fish”, this is completely out of bounds when it comes to sharing personal information with your children. It seems like common sense not to air your dirty laundry, but it happens more than you'd think.

Even if you feel like this was the reason your marriage ended, it’s not something your kid wants to know about. Hell, they barely want to think about the fact that you even had sex.

And while we’re on that topic, the same thing goes for dating after divorce. Sure, your kids will ultimately see you out with another person — but, I promise you they don’t want to know the details about it. Your kids are your kids — NOT your friends.

4. Do some things together as a family.

Even if you’re divorced, it’s important to remember that you are still co-parents raising amazing kids together. In the years after my divorce, my ex husband and I made it a point to spend some holidays, school events and special occasions together.

Every time kids see that you are both able to enjoy time with them and one another, gives them confidence that their world is ok. That they’re ok. The more security that you can continue to provide, the less likely your divorce will have lasting effects.

5. Don’t make them choose between time with you and their friends.

As a kid, it’s hard enough learning to navigate the social nuances of friendship — but for the child of divorce, it’s that much harder. Because your child has two homes and they may not see one of their parents as much as the other, they are often faced with the difficult decision of spending time with their friends and seeing their parent. Making your child feel guilty about wanting to be with their friends over time with you isn’t fair to your child.

Remember, it’s not that they don’t want to see you, they just want to hang out with their friends more right now. Let them know that you will carve out one-on-one time with them at a different date and then let them go.  

6. Listen to your kids’ needs.

Too often we get wrapped up in knowing what’s best for them or vying for equal time.

One of the best stories I heard from a friend of mine was about her decision to let her son move two hours away to live with her ex-husband. As much as she wanted to keep him close and feared losing their close relationship, her son expressed a deep desire to go live with his dad in his teenage years. Rather than dismiss his wishes, she listened to her son and respected his need to be closer to his father. 

Even when it’s hard and pulls at our own worst fears, listening to our kids needs in divorce might just be the biggest gift we can give them.

7. Follow similar rules.

One of the best things about being divorced is getting power over the remote control. And as much as you now can watch whatever you want, when you want, it might not be the wisest thing to apply that same pattern to parenting your children.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard parents argue over setting rules for their children. Whether it’s bedtime schedules, what they’re allowed to watch on TV or even chores, having different rules teaches children to favor one parent and manipulate the system.

If you can, work with your ex to create a basic set of agreed upon ground rules; your kids will have more of a chance to thrive without confusion.  

8. Don’t pity them.

This goes for your friends, your parents and you. Just because your marriage didn’t work, doesn’t mean your kids are suffering. They are not broken and they don’t need to be pitied.

How many times have I heard my mother say, “Poor kids”? Sure their situation may not always be ideal, but what if you looked at divorce as an opportunity to teach your kids how to become stronger through adversity? What if you could look for the gifts of divorce instead of always looking at your kids through the lens of your own broken dreams?

When we let go of the pity and shame, we can instead teach our kids to be confident.

9. Don’t let them hear you fight.

This one is from my own kids: please don’t fight in front of your kids.

They don’t care who said what or did what to whom. Every fight they hear (even after you divorce) makes their stomach turn. They wonder how will they be blamed or what might now change in their world. They also might feel compelled to defend one parent that they feel is in a weaker position.

Either way, watching you fight will bring your kids back to how they felt during the divorce. They hold onto those fights as memories of their own childhood and if that’s all they remember, they can’t learn what it means to live in a loving home. So, make this rule an absolute.

When it comes down to it, divorce doesn’t mean your kids are going to be screwed up.
If you're willing to try different things and honor their other parent, your kids will be fine. And remember, we’re human. You might slip up on these rules from time-to-time. The key: own your mistakes so your kids can own theirs too.