I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that trash-talking the “other” parent is hurtful to your kids. I don’t have to tell you that fighting and hurling insults at each in front of them will cause them distress.
I probably don’t even have to tell you that kids naturally blame themselves when their parents break up; that they will look to their own mistakes or shortcomings for clues to the tension, or that they’ll worry that the loss of love between their parents means that their parents no longer love them.
But what you may not realise is that by obsessing over your kids during your divorce, even with the intention of showing them how much they are loved, you can do them – and yourself – just as much damage.
I saw this problem rear its head just recently with one of my clients. This client (let’s call her Julie) was racked with guilt over the breakup of her family, but adamant that her personal trauma wouldn’t eclipse her relationship with her children.
Even though she was exhausted and needed time to process her feelings, she packed the days with activities to do with her children. She took tons of photos and flooded her Facebook feed with all the fun they were having together.
A picture-perfect, Instagram-tinted broadcast of what a great mother she was and how well they were all coping for the benefit of worried family and friends. And how did her kids respond? Were they thrilled to have their mother’s boundless attention all of a sudden? Were they grinning happily into the camera, relieved to see how “fine” their mum was despite the divorce?
It had just the opposite effect.
They could feel that mum was being needy. They didn’t want to be rushed around and harassed all day long. They didn’t want their mum to live her life vicariously through them.
They felt awkward, suffocated and unable to live their own lives.
They were worried about their mother, but didn’t feel they could express their concerns. Worse, the more time, energy and money Julie sacrificed, the more unappreciative of her efforts they became, making her feel sulky, rejected and alienated from her kids – exactly the opposite of what she was trying to achieve.
She recognised in her session last week that she was using her children to fill a hole within her – to make herself feel loved. This shocked her to her core and she has chosen to take a step back.
Children aren’t stupid.
- They perceive a lot more than their parents ever realise.
- Being on the receiving end of over-intense emotions or behaviour sets off alarm bells no matter how old you are – you sense that the other person is unbalanced, or emotionally volatile. It puts you on edge.
- You might think that you’re being selfless by making your kids the centre of your universe in the aftermath of your divorce, but you’re actually stressing them out.
- You come across as weak and needy, putting huge amounts of emotional pressure on them to perform in the way you want them to.
- Instead, this is the time to model independence. It’s the moment to make your kids proud of you for your strength, not your martyrdom.
You need to get a life so that your kids can live theirs.
- Be there for your children – and avoid dragging them in to your battles – but don’t obsess over them.
- Trash-talking about the other parent will backfire, they will end up hating you for doing that.
- Give them space. Don’t hang around them 24/7. Demonstrate that you can cope with and without them. That they can run off and be kids without worrying about you the whole time.
- Make plans that don’t involve them. Encourage them to do their own stuff, without you, too.
- And when you are with them, be with them. Enjoy the quality time you’re spending together. Don’t photograph every moment of your day, or keep up a running commentary online. Don’t chase the attention of social media “friends” when you could be nurturing the real relationships in front of your face. Kids can see right through this stuff and they’ll resent you for it.
- And lastly, you don’t need to spend a ton of money or obsess over doing bigger, better activities all the time. After all, kids crave continuity, love and security over constant variation. Don’t stress yourself out trying to win Best Parent of the Year. Who are you trying to impress?