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7 Secrets to Co-parenting with a Difficult Ex

Knowing what to say and how and when to say it when our children are struggling with, hurt or disappointed by our ex is vital to both our own personal growth and to raising healthy children.

Even after I was able to create a buffer for the criticism, hurt, inconsistency or harsh words that my ex spewed at me, when my children were affected, I found myself back in that place of absolute anger.  My momma bear would fly into a fury.  While understandable, my reactions did not benefit my children or me.  I decided to ‘see’ the situations differently so that I could ‘respond’ rather than ‘react’ to them.

Let’s take a look at the 7 secrets to co-parenting with a difficult ex while using every ‘crisis’ as an opportunity to raise our children to be healthier than we were.

The stories that we face vary; implementing the secrets remains the same.  You may be dealing with one of many possible scenarios including but not limited…Your ex:

  • promises to take the kids and shows up hours late or not at all
  • is judgmental, condescending, insensitive or abusive
  • is consistently inconsistent, sometimes warm and fuzzy, other times cold, distant or angry
  • is ‘buying’ the kid’s love and then is intensely controlling
  • doesn’t feed, clean, dress or supervise their school work appropriately

The list can go on.  The bottom line is that while our children are with their other parent, things are handled differently.

The first question to ask is if the issue is yours or your children’s.  For instance, they may be fine eating Fruit Loops for dinner, but you are not – your issue.  On the other hand, they may come home feeling insecure or hurt due to something that transpired and they need your help.  Be clear about what the problem is and who’s the problem is (yours or theirs).

If they are having difficulty navigating their other parent here are 7 guidelines to helping them both in the moment and seizing the opportunity to teach them healthy ways of navigating everything that comes their way.

1. Acknowledge their experience and validate their feelings

The most powerful thing we can offer our children is acknowledgment and validation of their experiences and feelings.  It gives them a sense of security that they are not crazy or wrong.  It lets them know that you hear them and understand that they are struggling with something that is important to them.

2. Keep to the facts (dad is late, speaks harshly, is inconsistent, drinks, has lots of women)

Part of acknowledging is stating the facts.  They may say daddy doesn’t love me or he wouldn’t…  The fact may be that dad has a tendency to be late or to make promises he cannot keep.  It makes sense that you ‘feel’ that he doesn’t love you.  I know dad does love you and he is not very good at ______(being on time, keeping his word…).

Keeping to the facts is not bashing, it is acknowledging your child’s reality.  Their interpretation of the reality, ie. dad doesn’t love me, is most likely not true.  You can help them see the difference.  It is not about defending the other parent, but helping the child untangle their interpretation (enmeshed in their feelings) from the truth.

3. Bite your tongue when you want to criticize (judge) him.

Take the high road, there is nothing productive in bashing your ex and may make your children less likely to come to you when they are struggling with him.  If you are ‘safe’ to talk to, you will be more able to help them.

4. Help them with acceptance and forgiveness (or at least detachment)

Dad is just being dad.  None of us is perfect and this is how he is or chooses to be.  He is not doing it to you.  Can you forgive him for being tardy / for saying hurtful things? (see #6 for strategies to cope)

5. Caution them against trying to change, protect or parent their parent

While you can and are well served to tell him how you feel, say it to speak your truth and not to change him.  Only he can change how he chooses to be in any situation.  Saying how you feel is a way to communicate your thoughts and feelings and staying clear and honest.  You do it for yourself, not to change the other person.

6. Help them see their choices in any situation

This is where you help them to act in a way that serves them.  It might mean setting boundaries, it might mean having a plan B so that when dad doesn’t show up, their day is salvaged; it might mean learning to cook to eat healthy at dad’s or simply taking responsibility for their action… just because you aren’t made to do your homework, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t (your grades will suffer).  Helping them to see that they always have choices.

Children of divorce who have a difficult parent sometimes have to grow up faster than we might want or think is ideal.  Yet, if that is their reality, what’s the possibility that what seems like a terrible situation can be the very training ground for them being stronger and healthier, more emotionally aware and mature, more articulate about what they want and wiser about how to attain that which they desire.

7. Celebrate when they learn new ways of navigating difficult situations.

The greatest support we can give our children is to help them learn to navigate life in a healthy, empowered way.  Celebrating our successes is a vital part of the process.  Teaching them to celebrate the lessons learned and strategies that work for them will fill them with love and appreciation for the young men and women they are growing into being.


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