Most divorced parents never want to admit to our kids, let alone to ourselves, that we not only no longer love their other parent, we don’t even like that person much most of the time. We do want our kids to both like and love both of their parents, so should we lie to them about how we really feel? In the confusion, especially when we are under stress, we end up blurting out some cliché along the lines of “Oh yeah, well why don’t you ask your Mom? She’s the one who…” It is totally unintentional, and usually the exception to the rule of how we usually speak about the other parent, but the impact can be strong and lasting, leaving us feeling guilty and our kids feeling confused and torn.
What I have found to help many parents, myself included, is to pre-explain potential outbursts before they happen. Kids don’t need a great deal of detail about what went wrong in their parents’ marriage, but they can understand the meaning of differences in perspective.
To help your child understand perspective, you can give examples within their own friendships. Let’s say you have a daughter named Jenny with a best friend named Nicole. Jenny and Nicole were excited to play together last week, but ended up in a big fight because they just couldn’t agree on what to do. Jenny wanted to go swimming more than anything in the world, while Nicole just could not tear herself away from Jenny’s awesome My Little Pony collection. They were tired from a long week at school, and they fought and fought, even though they love each other and have been best friends for years. In the end, no matter how many ideas for compromise you tried to counsel them with, it became clear that it was best for them to call it a day and go their separate ways. After the weekend apart they were both able to cool down and see that next time they could plan in advance some ideas for what they could play at each other’s houses.
No one can say that swimming is absolutely better than My Little Pony, or vice versa, but that day each girl had a particular perspective of what was best to do, and just could not be swayed otherwise. Just like school friends, married couples sometimes have different perspectives on what is best to do in a given situation. When these differences come up too often about too many important issues, parents sometimes need to go their separate ways. No one is to blame. No one did anything “bad”. It is and it will be OK.
Try taking some time when you are not upset with your ex to explain this to your kids. Then reinforce it after those unfortunate but unavoidable human moments of outburst have passed: “I am sorry I said that your dad doesn’t know what he is talking about. Your dad is a very smart man. We just see this differently. We have a different perspective on what to do, just like you and Nicole had a different perspective last week about what to play. I needed to take a break to calm down, but he and I love you and we will talk and work it out.”
It is healthy to choose to spend your time, and your life, with people who you enjoy and who enjoy you. It is also healthy to admit and apologize for times when you have acted or spoken unkindly out of anger. We could all use some help stepping back to gain greater perspective from time to time. What gift to help your child start learning this now.