When families restructure (separate, divorce) there are many changes for everyone involved. Whenever possible, it’s important that kids are permitted to maintain a loving relationship with both parents.
As child(ren) go between both homes, it’s easy to slide down a slippery slope of getting the kids to do these three examples of adults’ heavy lifting:
As uncomfortable and seemingly inefficient as it may feel, communication must happen between the co-parents. It is not a child’s job to relay messages back and forth. Conversely, a child must not be asked to keep secrets from the other parent. Find the communication medium that works best between the adults, be consistent and persevere.
Watch out for:
“Tell your father that you are going to have to be back here early on Sunday so that we can go to Grandma’s house for dinner.”
“You tell your mom that she needs to get you here earlier on Friday afternoon!”
“Don’t tell anyone at the other house that I have a new friend who stays over sometimes. That’s our little secret.”
“Do not mention that we are planning to go to Disneyland – I don’t want any flack from the other house until I get the tickets booked so we can’t cancel the trip.”
It is not a child’s job to become a sounding board for the parent when there are big emotions, regrets, and fears. Kids are not responsible for cheering up either parent. They will often take on this role automatically, as it’s tough to watch their adults going through hard times.
This doesn’t mean that parents need to hide their emotions. Hiding feelings rarely works, as kids are very perceptive. We can let everyone in the family know that with big changes come all sorts of big feelings. The adults in the family might be grumpy, lethargic, teary, and overwhelmed. They might also feel relieved, happy, confused, and all things in between. As big as the feelings are, they will change over time, and the adults can handle the big feelings. Kids may experience big feelings too. All feelings are welcome. We can hug them out. We can cry them out. We can dance, talk, color, sing, or journal them out. Adults are here for the kids. That’s an adult’s job.
Watch out for:
“Come sleep in my bed tonight – it’s really lonely now that we’re on our own.”
“I’m so glad you are here to cheer me up. You do a great job of making me feel happy.”
In years gone by, there was often a tendency to put kids into the role of the missing co-parent. That just doesn’t need to happen. Kids don’t need the pressure of taking on adult roles. They aren’t ready to do that yet, and are working on looking after themselves and adjusting to all the changes.
Of course, we can invite kids to take on new responsibilities; helping with the chores, getting meals ready, cleaning up. We can leave the old-style language out of the picture. We can use language like:
“There are lots of tasks we need to look after in the house. Let’s figure out how to make it work between us. Here’s a list – what is your least favorite? Where will you help?”
Watch out for:
“Now that your mom’s not here, you are going to have to pitch in – get the laundry done and clean up.”
“With Dad at the other house, I need you to look after all of us here and keep us safe.”
It will take time to figure out how things will work best during this period of restructuring. Be kind to yourself. Notice if things start to slide and make plans to get them back in control. If you need a different perspective, ask around. You’re always welcome to check in with me at JFS Parent Education. Parenting is tough…it’s easier together.
Author, blogger, podcast host and parenting expert, Julie has been supporting parents across North America for 20 years. Through her company JFS Parent Education, she helps parents just like you find relief from their everyday parenting challenges. Want to know how she can help you? Check out parent-break.com/join.
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