Communication Tips for Divorced Parents: Easing the Stress of Divorce on Children
For married couples, effective communication is hard enough, but it can feel like a frustrating impossibility if you're divorced and have kids. But as a newly single parent, you have to communicate with your spouse if one of you has visitation rights or you have dual custody. The first year is a time of adjustment. If you and your ex-spouse already have a legacy of communication problems, the task of communicating now becomes even more challenging. Learn to talk to your ex without fighting or making the situation worse, and you can help to minimize the stress load on your kids...and on yourself.
Effects of Parental Communication on Children
In the Handbook of Family Communication (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003), the authors point to a study demonstrating that the better parents communicate in their co-parenting efforts, the better their children adjust to the divorce. It's no secret that children notice tension in the home and are alert to conflict between divorced parents.
Your kids don't absorb conflict passively. They watch how you talk to your ex-spouse and model their behavior after you. This is a good thing, usually. If your kids see you angry and watch how you deal with it—study, in other words, your conflict resolution strategies—then they learn these tools for their own use.
It boils down to this: The more effective you are at communicating, the greater the chance that your kids will emulate your communication strategies. The less effectively you communicate, the more you risk leaving your kids without a communication skill set to use when conflict arises in their own lives.
Accept That You're Divorced
One of the hardest challenges you face as a divorced parent is redefining your relationship. No longer is your relationship all about trying to make your marriage work or trying to live together. Now the relationship focuses away from you and your ex and re-centers on the kids. As separated individuals trying to raise kids in cooperation, work to establish between yourselves the new terms under which you'll conduct yourselves as divorced parents.
Resolve to Communicate Effectively
Talk to your ex. Affirm together that you are both committed to communicating with each other about important issues. Keep in mind that communication is meaningless when only one party tries to communicate. If your ex wife or ex husband resists your efforts at communication, chances are this is because she or he doesn't trust you. Overcoming distrust may never happen fully, but you can get pretty far on that road by starting anew, leaving old issues at the door.
Manage Old Anger
The old issues that you dealt with during your marriage may be over and done with, but it's a sure thing they'll crop up again. When they do, acknowledge your anger to yourself, but resist the urge to rehash old fights. Communicate only what's constructive. Again, you're not out to re-establish intimacy; you're out to work with your ex-spouse to raise happy, healthy and well-cared for children.
When your ex-spouse strikes one of your “hot buttons,” whether intentionally or not, avoid constructing mental you-me models in which decisions become power struggles between you and your ex. You may “win,” but your kids will be the ultimate losers for being in the middle of this battle. Commit to working in cooperation, keeping in mind that your kids' other parent has value and that you share a common goal.
Whatever other trust issues you have with your ex, assume you are a team for this one purpose. Discuss with your ex-spouse how you can agree not to be bogged down by the old issues of contention.
Deal With Conflict
Old anger and conflict is one thing, but new conflicts will arise that need your attention. You and your ex might disagree about what's best for the kids, custodial issues and other parenting matters. Not to mention the personal stuff—it's common for newly single parents to find themselves blindsided when they learn about their ex's new relationships through their kids.
When conflict happens, especially over issues that could affect your children's lives, avoid the temptation to ignore it or put off dealing with it. If you don't deal with it, sooner or later it will rebound on you, if only by increasing your stress level, which will spill over into your parenting.
Deal with conflict by letting yourself cool off. Think about the problem and its possible solutions. Approach your ex with courtesy and respect. Avoid making demands or issuing ultimatums. Agree to set aside time to discuss the conflict and work out solutions. If your ex refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem or doesn't wish to talk, then do what you can on your own to solve the problem for now, but keep the issue on the back-burner to raise again if it becomes necessary.
Learn to Listen
It's been said before, but it's worth saying again: Effective communication is as much about listening to your ex as it is about doing the talking. When the person who's talking is your ex, listening is anything but easy, especially when you feel you've heard it all before or read subtext into the conversation based on your history together.
But don't be so sure. Stop assuming you know what your ex is saying. Even when the words sound all too familiar, try to listen with fresh ears.
Effective communication between divorced parents means leaving your assumptions at the door and starting anew. It means treating your ex, not as the husband or wife they were, but as a friendly stranger who's part of the same team, and building up the new terms of the relationship all over again—and that's one of the biggest challenges that single parents face when learning to communicate effectively with their ex-spouses.