Co-Parenting can be hard enough in itself but when we also have differences of opinion (or different values) on how we want to raise our kids then it brings the challenge to a whole new level…
Before we have kids it might not be so apparent, nor matter too much. But once we have a family our own mum or dad can suddenly come out in us. It can be a shock for the other parent to see a new side of someone they have lived with for a while, to see their partner turn into someone they feel they don’t know, or even like at times! In some cases these differences can even lead to separation.
During parent coaching or workshops I often have parents coming up to me afterwards saying they can’t stand seeing their ex partner parent the ‘wrong way’ or a ‘different way’. They feel they are letting their children down if they don’t stop their ex. Often they are afraid that it will emotionally damage the child when the ex comes from a place of punishing instead of teaching, sarcasm instead of clarity, aggression instead of assertion. Or they feel that their partner is too soft, or spoils the children. Or lets them stay up later than them on a school day, lets them be on technology for too long etc.
Whatever the reason is, these differences in values, styles, opinions and approach to parenting can be very stressful for everyone, including the child. It can also do more damage to the co-parenting relationship in a relationship that may already be fragile or difficult. And it can also have a negative effect on the relationship between the children and their mum and dad.
Common behaviours when parenting styles differ:
- Sharing with the child your disagreements about the way your ex parents:
- ‘I cannot believe that dad lets you stay up so late’, ‘I don’t understand why your mum doesn’t help you more with your homework, ‘I am so sorry that your dad is so mean to you’, ‘I wish I could stop your mother being so angry at you all the time’, ‘that is so typical of daddy to say that’ or, ‘I don’t think mum would agree with you going out, I’m ok with it but you never know with her’ and so on.
- You might try to smooth things out afterwards:
- When your child comes home to you maybe you try to explain your ex’s behaviour, ‘she is just very tired, she didn’t mean it’, ‘don’t worry about it – he had a bad day, it has nothing to do with you’ etc.
- Maybe you tell the child that you would never do what your ex did. Give the child a big hug so they know that YOU are there for them and are kind to them.
- Some parents start spoiling the child because they feel sorry for them and feel they have to overcompensate for their ex’s behaviour by being overly nice and ‘easy on them’.
These behaviours can cause damage for everyone involved:
- Confuses the child: No matter what the other parent does or says to the child they will always love their parents and want to be with them. So when they feel we are talking negatively about their other parent it can confuse them. But also our kids will always try to please the parent they are with so they try to get our attention and approval by agreeing with us (in the moment) and then later feel guilty and sad about talking badly about someone they love. We might also be in danger of planting a negative seed about the other parent and slowly destroying the relationship between them, which they will not thank you for later in life. Maybe your child starts resenting you or avoiding you if you are the one that adds negativity to the relationship with the other parent.
- Your child can see it as a personal attack on them: your child is 50/50 yours and your ex partner’s genes so when you attack your ex some children feel that you are attacking half of them, their behaviour and character. So it can really have a damaging effect on their self-esteem and how they see themselves. But also they may start hating you for attacking part of them!
- It causes friction between family relationships: your ex will most likely be upset at you for talking negatively about the way he/she parents. There is also a chance that they could start turning their anger on the children for causing this rift between the two of you. The other parent may even start resenting the child and become even harder on them. This will only make it worse between you and your ex and the kids as the anger and resentment escalates. Furthermore the two of you might start to find it harder to communicate about any issues and damage your co-parenting relationship further.
- Teaches the kids to disrespect you and your ex (and other authorities):If you do any of the above there is a risk that they will quickly learn that if one parent says no or sets boundaries they can always go to the other one or get what they want if one says no. This sends a signal that it is ok to manipulate or ignore rules or agreements. You might be encouraging them to lie if they know that they get your attention when they tell you what the other parent has said or done, ‘mum/dad yelled at me’ or ‘dad, mum said I couldn’t have any more ice cream as I am too fat’ etc. And you are in danger of raising lazy kids who think they can get you (or others) to take on their responsibilities because they know you will step in and take over in order to avoid the battles.
- Can create insecure kids: Your kids might also take it personally and think that it is their fault that mum and dad fight and are not together. Furthermore, as we are role modelling ‘how to have a relationship’ we run the risk that our kids grow up to develop connections and relationships that are based on negativity, disrespect and poor communication.
Try these 4 tips instead:
- Keep the communication open with your partner: you and your ex partner need to sort out the mess. If you are reading this there is a good chance that you don’t have an amazing co-parenting relationship with your ex. But you are the adults and you need to establish some way of communicating when the kids are not around. It can be a neutral place (i.e. a café), it can be over the phone, it can even be on zoom if you don’t want to be in the same room.
- Stay emotionally safe: if you feel that your ex partner’s texts, calls or emails upset you emotionally, set boundaries around where and when your ex can contact you. For instance if you feel you still need to communicate by phone you might like to have a separate mobile that only your ex has the number to. This way you can choose when to turn it on and off, and whether to bring it with you when you are out or not. Control what you can. Or if your relationship is really fractured you might like to use a free secure messaging service such as Talking Parents where you can communicate everything in writing from challenges, to routines and agreements and contact schedules etc.
- Be prepared: if you CAN communicate directly in person, either over the phone or face to face, be strict about the “topics” and come prepared. Set out what you need to talk about before each call or meeting so you don’t get taken by surprise, i.e. ‘I am having another child’, or ‘I am getting married again’. If your ex brings up a new topic that you have not agreed to discuss, say ‘I will be happy to discuss that at the next meeting / call’
How to talk with your ex: keep the conversation ‘clean’; use an ‘i-message’ where you explain how you feel about the situation without finger pointing or accusations. And try to keep it calm, ‘I get very upset when Sam comes late to me on the weekends that I am having him – can we find a way to sort this out?’
Control what you can control and let the rest go (accepting what is)
- Control what you can: you can’t and shouldn’t try to control other people. You can only control how you choose to behave. You CAN explain and suggest to your ex what sits well with you when it comes to parenting – but you cannot make her/him do it if they don’t agree. Keep to what you CAN control: how you parent and what feels right for you. You might have to let go of a few things on the way but make sure that you keep it to yourself and that at the end of the day YOU can look in the mirror and say, ‘I think I did a good job today as a parent’.
- Keep it positive: you can also control how you choose to think and where to place your energy. Think of all the good things about your ex (when you once loved her/him). Remind yourself about why you had kids together in the first place, remember the last time she/he was kind and respectful to your kids and you. This way you reduce the negative energy and start seeing your ex in a more positive light which will lead to a more positive co-parenting relationship.
- Let the other parent parent:
Who says that you are right? Sometimes you might want to step back and accept the way your ex parents. I know it can be hard, but we need to trust him/her that, ‘what is done in love is done well’ and that the behaviour comes from a place of goodness. Remember that kids can deal with two sets of discipline styles as long as they don’t go ‘hard against hard’ and compete and interfere with each other!
- Give your child a voice: I know it hurts when you see your child upset but you can use this as an opportunity to teach your child resilience by knowing that their voice and opinion matters. Instead try to support the child to have a voice, to be heard. Rules when we are aiming for this: Respect your child’s voice as much as you do yours! and assume that your child has the ability to offer their opinion about the world they live in. Try to tell her/him, ‘I can hear you are upset because XX and I understand that you are angry/sad right now because XX and that is OK – but you are free to go and tell mum/dad how you feel’.
Why it matters that kids have a voice:
- Makes them feel confident that they matter too – that they have a say and an impact in the environment they live in. Gives them the confidence to say NO when they have to.
- Children with “voice” have a sense of identity and strong belief in themselves. They are not afraid to stand up for themselves when necessary. They speak their mind and are not easily intimidated.
Once you have decided how to handle your feelings and situations you will find that:
- Your kids feel safe when with you as they are not on edge wondering if you will talk negatively about their other parent and won’t feel they have to take sides.
- They are learning to stand up for themselves, if they disagree with your ex and you don’t fix it for them.
- They are learning how to deal with different rules and opinions, to adapt and fit in.
- You are role modelling a healthy relationship based on respect and good communication
Please note: if you truly think that your partner is being abusive (either emotionally or physically) to one or more of your children I suggest you seek professional advice, for instance via your GP, your local authority children’s services department or a specialist charity such as the NSPCC
All the best from Mette Theilmann
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