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Raising kids is hard enough when the parents are together. But when they are divorced or separated, conflict between them is almost unavoidable. Still, I've been in your shoes, and what I realized through research and experience is there are things you can do to make sure your kids get the best environment possible. And if you do the hard work, you can avoid most long-term effects on your kids. They're worth it, after all. Here's what I learned.
Respect your co-parent’s importance in your kids’ lives
No matter how the relationship ended, there will undoubtedly be plenty of temptation to say unkind things about your ex. But your kids have a special bond with that other parent, just like they do with you. Both relationships are foundational to a child’s health. When parents say mean things about each other, it can make kids feel unsafe or like they’re the source of the conflict, according to the nonprofit Nemours Foundation. In extreme cases, it can lead to a disorder some experts call parental alienation, coined decades ago by the psychiatrist Richard Gardner. Ultimately, your kids will be healthier—and turn into healthier adults—if you go out of your way to be nice to your ex.
Don’t use your kids as your personal pony express
Making decisions takes communication, and if your relationship with your ex is strained, it may be tempting to have your kids get involved by carrying messages to the other parent. But even when the messages themselves are harmless, this practice puts more stress on kids at a time when they need less. Whether it’s pride or inconvenience that’s keeping you from speaking to your co-parent directly, do it anyway.
Find your happy place
In the classic film Happy Gilmore, the titular character is a golfer whose stress limits his success. But when he achieves a relaxed state of mind (his happy place), his performance improves. This is a surprisingly relevant metaphor for parenting. The more stressed out you are, the less patience you will have with your children, which makes you more susceptible to unhealthy displays of anger. Releasing stress is easier said than done—in fact, whole books are written on the subject. So, start with something easy, like exercise or blowing off steam with your Guard buddies.
Lose some battles ... on purpose
Whether parents are living in the same house or not, raising a child with someone involves an infinite number of decisions—from what school to attend to what soccer team to play for to whether they should watch certain movies. All these decisions are potential battlegrounds for warring parents. But if you fight every battle like it’s your personal Waterloo, you’re conditioning the “opposing” co-parent to fortify their emotions. That means when the really important stuff comes up, there’s going to be major carnage. And the collateral damage is usually the kids, which is not OK. Instead, compromise on small stuff, so the most important arguments don’t go nuclear.
Play some Christmas soccer
In late December of 1914, British and German forces in the trench lines were at a stalemate on the Western Front. But on Christmas Day, these mortal enemies engaged in an unofficial truce—and even played some soccer matches together. That was only possible because both opponents decided that there was something more important than fighting. For those troops, it was their humanity. For you, it’s your kids. In the co-parenting world, Christmas soccer might be showing up to a piano recital without getting into a yelling match or attending life events like graduations together. When it comes to co-parenting, it’s worth laying down your weapons and remembering what’s really important—the children.