Children and Breakups

Apr 11, 2020 | cheating, child support, children, children and breakups, featured

by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.

Author, Attorney, Podcaster, Media Commentator, Motivational Speaker, and Creator of the World's Most Successful Breakup Program. 

  • Getting Past Your Breakup: How To Turn A Devastating Loss Into The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You (Hachette Book Group 2009)
  • Getting Back Out There: Secrets to Successful Dating and Finding Real Love After the Big Breakup (Hachette Book Group 2015)
  • Getting Past Your Past Workbook: The Definitive Workbook to Emotional Healing, Health and Happiness (La Bella Vita Publishing 2012)
  • GPYP Power! Affirmations (La Bella Vita Publishing 2019) 


Backstory to this post:

This post was written 3 years before Getting Past Your Breakup  was published or anywhere near under contract or even before I ever even THOUGHT of trying to get it published…A LOT of this is in GPYB but it was too long for all of it to make it in. But because of the book contract, I took down many of the posts that WERE somehow represented in the book (either in the original blog post way or some other way).  Some I was allowed, per my book contract, to put back up and some I was not.  I know I was allowed to put this back up, but I didn’t until I included a modified (shorter) version of it when the blog was redone in May 2019. So this is the ORIGINAL LONG VERSION of the 2006 blog post including one of the first written rails against the “b” word. I am very dismayed that in 2020, I’m still fighting that fight. 

This was originally titled

On Children and Breakups

15 Ways To Make Your Breakup Easier On Them

One of the most difficult issues involved in breaking up is how to deal with it when children are involved. The burdens on the children can be many. At the very least, they are hurt and confused. They do not want their parents to split up. At the very core of every child whose parents are breaking up is a primal fear of “What’s going to happen to me?” Children personalize the world around them and don’t understand it’s not about them. Even if absolutely cared for and considered by two loving and giving parents who have kept their personal issues with each other from the children, the children still feel the loss of the family unit deeply.

What can parents do to make things easier on the kids?  

1. Talk to the children about what is going on. Sit them down and gently tell them that it is not about them. Let them know that mommy and daddy still love them no matter what. Don’t wait for or expect a response. They need to process it.

Encourage your kids to talk about their feelings but do so in a gentle, non pushy way. Just gently tell them that you understand they might be sad or angry or confused and if they want to talk to you, they can. As they grow up, continually reinforce this with them.  You can ask, “Are you okay?” if you notice them feeling down but don’t force sharing. Ask if they want a hug or something else.  But avoid coddling them or overprotecting them.

Let them know you are there if they need to speak to you about their feelings. Let them know you will get them a counselor if they need to talk to someone else.  Don’t pressure them into sharing how they feel. Let it be. Give gentle reminders, now and again, that you are there for them if they need to talk.  This will always depend on the child and the age of the child.

While children (esp preteens and teens) may seem annoyed with all this prodding about emotions, that’s okay to a degree, but don’t let them to be rude about it, such as yelling, “If I wanted to talk to you, I would!” or let their anger or hurt get in the way. This is true for preteens and teens. Let them know that you still deserve and demand respect, no matter what, and if you’re bugging them with these reminders, they can communicate that in a more respectful tone. Almost every one of these items will include some “other” lesson in single parenting. Because they’re all complicated. 

2. DO NOT get into specifics about what went wrong and if they ask try to keep it in broad terms…that mommy and daddy cannot live together peacefully and they both think the kids deserve to grow up in a peaceful home. If the children are older, talk about choices in life and how they are important and when a situation is no longer healthy, it has to change. Try to give your kids something positive to hold onto.

Kids know more than they let on. They know when people are fighting and acting like they’re not. They pick up on the faces you make about the ex when you’re talking to friends and family. They know so much more than you think they know. Edit yourself when they are around. If you think they can’t hear you, chances are they can. Children of divorce/breakups become very hypervigilant for a time. They are convinced the roof is going to fall in if they’re not sensitive to changes in the environment. Their antennae is up. Watch what you say even if they’re in another room or in bed.

If your ex is oversharing and using the divorce to wage a campaign of parental alienation that is very harmful and to some degree, it is psychological abuse. If your ex is badmouthing you to the degree of parental alienation or not, you need to bring this to the attention of your attorney and, if one is involved, the Guardian Ad Litem and/or Parenting Coordinator. Not all PCs are on top of parental alienation, so that might not be of any use. If your ex is doing this early in the game, make sure you have an attorney who is on top of parental alienation statutes – not every one is. 

Do not fight back or bad mouth back. If it gets bad, you may need to tell older children (12 and older) in general terms that what is happening is not okay.  “Parents need to love their children more than they hate their ex and badmouthing the child’s other parent is not love.”  (you don’t say “Your mother/father is an abusive asshole!”) What alienating parents don’t get is that they are giving the child a message that half of the DNA in them is bad.  The kids may buy into the alienation to avoid being typecast as part of the “bad DNA pool” (not that any of this happens on a conscious level) and they try to distance from the “bad” parent without knowing why. But it makes it so much harder to separate the damage later on. If alienation is happening, professionals need to get involved QUICKLY.  And, as always, even if your ex is casting you as an abusive, horrible person, you still need to set boundaries and demand respect from the chilren. 

3. DO NOT use the children as pawns. This happens in so many different ways, it’s almost impossible to name all the ways that it happens. Check your stuff. Do not use the children as pawns.  If your ex is doing that, again, get professionals involved.

4. Have a family meeting. Talk about how the dynamics in the family have changed and now you need help with home maintenance and meal ideas. Make the children important. If they are part of planning for a new life, they won’t feel as if this is all happening TO them and they are powerless. By involving them in decisions, they feel as if they have power. Come up with ideas to involve them. Tell them you would like to have a calendar where the meals are listed and ask them to help out with meal ideas. Ask them what chores they can be “in charge” of.

Put children “In charge” of other things that give them decision making ability (i.e. getting the mail, sorting out the adverts etc.) Show any child over 10 how to do laundry. Make sure they all pitch in with meal time.  Depending on their age, be sure they are involved in the “new” way the house is run.  Impress upon them you want and need their help in designing the “new” way of doing things. Even the smallest child – unless an infant or toddler, should have chores and a role. Give them lots of praise as they fill the roles. 

Teach them how to do things. All children over the age of 6 should be pitching in – but don’t just bark orders. Have a family meeting where everyone decides who is going to do what. Revisit it every other month or so.  Maybe they want to switch chores. 

Involve them all in planning meals and shopping for those meals. Before shopping, talk about what kind of snacks you will buy….let one child buy a box of this and another a box of that. Teach them how to negotiate with each other. In the store send them to find some ingredients. When you get home, divvy up the food and show them how it needs to last until next shopping trip. Look for other ways to give them responsibilities. Look for ways to involve them in fun time too. Have a family afternoon of movie watching and vote on what to watch. Make them an important part of the new changes. 

5. Do not introduce the children to Mr. or Ms. Rebound. Even if you think you’ve found the love of your life, wait a long time before introducing any significant others to the children. It’s not fair to them to introduce them to anyone in less than a year’s time. While that seems like a long time, every person (including you) could use a year to adjust after a significant breakup. Even if your ex does not wait a year, don’t retaliate by bringing your Mr. or Ms. Rebound around. This is not healthy for the children.

Do not play tit for tat games through the children. In other words, if your ex gets involved early and introduces the kids, don’t go out and find your own version of their rebound person.  If and when you do get involved, let your new person know that your children are your first priority. Treat the children that way. If you are the non-custodial parent, spend time with your children alone without the new person. Let the new person be a friend to the children, but don’t let them try to be a parent. They can expect respect, but they can’t expect love. Don’t try to mold all of you into a family. Give the children time to get used to everything. Don’t tell them what to do or how to feel. 

6. Do not insult the ex’s new person.  It doesn’t look good on you and the kids might hear. Ladies, never call the new woman a misogynistic name.  It’s NOT okay.  She’s not a slut or whore or tramp.  Don’t go there. Women should NEVER call another woman those names.  NO ONE should ever call a woman those names. And words like Cow and Heifer and all those animal like words are not okay either. STOP IT. Get some dignity.

No one should ever call a woman a bitch.  Yes, this is a commonly accepted word that is absolutely unacceptable and used by both women and men.  The continual acceptance of this word across gender lines in all societies is absolutely outrageous.

This is a misogynistic word, used by women and men, that needs to STOP.  Every other group in the world has managed to stop destructive and harmful labels EXCEPT women.  WHY?  Women are the most abused and maligned group in the history of the world. The objectification and harm (murder, rape, sex trafficking, etc) done to women outweighs the harm done to every other group throughout history.  The continuation of misogynistic name calling – including the continued acceptance and overuse of the word bitch – is one of the reasons women are mistreated, abused and maligned. The use of these words MUST end. IT NEEDS TO STOP.  Stop using those words!!!!

Guys, don’t insult the new beau.  It’s not okay.  GPYB is about having class and calling the other person a name (even if they call you it – my ex’s 2nd wife called me the B word even though it was SHE sleeping with MY husband when we were still together!  And I never called her a name – not once).  Be classy.  

7. Continually reinforce to your children that you love them and they are important to you. Love is what you DO, not what you say.  Whether you are the custodial or the non-custodial parent, spend time with each child separately. Find out what that child likes the most and make an evening or day out of it. Treat the children like they’re special but treat each one like he or she is special as well. Loving and spoiling are two different things.  Love but don’t spoil.  

8. If you become seriously involved with someone with children do not force your children to like the other children and continue to spend time with just your children. No matter how old the kids get or how bonded your kids and step kids may be, spend time with just your kids. As they grow they may have things they want to talk to you about, things they will only bring up if you are alone and if you have nurtured that relationship, they will do so.

9. If you are the non-custodial parent, pay your child support and don’t think for a minute that it’s too much. It’s usually not. There are cases where the non-custodial parent is getting taken for too much, but for the most part your support is not 50 percent of what it takes to raise the child.  Your ex is not throwing wild parties on your child support. Support your children and shut up about it.  If you are the custodial parent, make sure you get what you deserve. Do not let the other parent off the hook for it.

Don’t be a martyr. It’s not attractive and this is not your money,it is your kid’s money. Fight for it.  No matter what your ex accuses you of (being a money-grubbing evil horrible person), remember, it is your CHILDREN’S money and their other parent MUST support them to the best of his or her ability. Don’t allow yourself to be insulted for advocating for what your children need and deserve.  At the same time, don’t be devious or untruthful about what money you are making. Both parents should be declaring their income honestly. Don’t play games or do anything deceitful to get more money. 

10. Do not let the kids manipulate you or misbehave or get out of control because you feel guilty for the breakup. No matter what is happening you are responsible for making sure they are well-behaved. Kids need boundaries and limits but especially when there is a breakup. Boundaries and limits tell the kids you know how to keep them safe. If they can get away with anything with you, how much of a caretaker are you? How well can you keep them safe from the big bad outside world when you can’t even keep them safe from themselves?

Children do not respect weak parents and they will ride roughshod over you if you let them. This is especially true with teenagers. Set rules and boundaries and take things away from them when they don’t show you the love and respect that they should. .You’re the parent. Act like one. Be CONSISTENT in your rules and boundaries. Set the rules and enforce them. NO means no. It does not mean yes and don’t let it turn to yes. No matter how hurt or angry your children are, you must insist they treat you with respect. This teaches them that even when life is difficult, we cannot misbehave or be disrespectful.

Insist upon respect. At the same time make sure the children know they are entitled to all of their feelings and that it is okay, but not okay to act out on them. If your children need a therapist, GET ONE FOR THEM but do not excuse bad behavior because they are hurt and/or angry. It’s not okay. Part of growing up is having to do unpleasant things like laundry and dishes and cleaning the floors and their bathrooms. If they balk, too bad.  Children NEED chores and need to be productive.  Don’t wait on them hand and foot. If you do, you are doing them a grave disservice.

11.  NO CONTACT WITH THE OTHER PARENT:  This is the longest section in this article for a GOOD reason.  The concept of NO CONTACT originated with GPYB in the early 1990s and the earliest GPYB blog posts in 2005 exhort parents to do a modified NC.  If you hear the term “no contact” or NC, it ORIGINATED HERE. Therefore ignore any other methodology or philosophy that does not use it in the following way:

NC, as taught by GPYB is about your safety, sanity and security. GPYB has been recommending it to clients since the mid-90s when I did it with my own husband at the insistence of my therapist.  Although it has been hijacked by others (without any accreditation to GPYB) and even BASTARDIZED as a way of “getting even” or  EVEN a manipulation tool to get your ex back, that is not what GPYB – the original source of NO CONTACT – intended. GPYB is about healthy living and NC is about psychological, emotional and physical well-being, not game playing.  And we DO NOT worry if NC is good or not good for the other person (leave the codependency at the door).

Practice MODIFIED NC with your ex – meaning brief, business-like and ONLY when absolutely necessary (and don’t fool yourself about what is absolutely necessary).  If your ex is personality disordered it is IMPERATIVE that you keep communication to a MINIMUM.  Do not allow them unfettered access to you or the children. 

If you MUST speak to your ex in front of the children, be civil.  This does not mean be friendly – it does not mean give hugs (honestly I have had to tell people they do NOT have to give the ex hugs!)  It means if you MUST talk to the ex in front of the children. Most times it should be hello and goodbye.  Nothing more – nothing less.  Visitation goes on for many years. If you overdo the friendliness now, you will regret it when you feel very angry later on (trust me, this will happen).  The kids will pick up on it. Also, the kids don’t always understand friendliness (If you can be so chatty, why aren’t you still married?) Not a good idea. Hello. Goodbye.   PERIOD.

Be polite in front of the children and behind their back, don’t bad mouth them. If you have issues with visitation issues, discuss them away from the children. If you need court intervention, ask for it, don’t try to enforce visitation or support orders yourself. If the ex is truly intolerable, try to find some middle ground where you can agree on how visitation exchanges happen.  Again – PRACTICE NC – BRIEF, BUSINESS LIKE and ONLY when absolutely necessary.  EVERYTHING should be in writing and set in STONE. 

DO NOT allow your ex to play games with visitation.  Make sure the hours are what they are and NOTHING short of an emergency changes that. I have counseled parents over and over and over again to NOT SWITCH TIMES.  Don’t say “If I take them this weekend, you get them next weekend.”  KEEP IT TO WHAT IT IS even if it causes a problem. If your ex is personality disordered, remember: no good deed goes unpunished. DO NOT switch with a personality disordered ex EVER. It will come back to haunt you, I guarantee it.

Don’t don’t don’t give “free” time to the ex personality-disordered or NOT.  “I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d take the kids for ice cream.” NO.  “I know the kids wanted to see this movie and it’s playing near your house, I thought I’d take them.” NO.  Does this sound mean, harsh, cruel and nasty?  Because it’s NOT.  If you allow this sort of thing (which sounds nice and may even BE nice) you’re allowing the ex to chip away at agreements that need to be SET IN STONE.  Why is that not good? Because something will come up where the response will be, “But you let me take them for ice cream…”  or “Sure it was fine when you got a night off when I took them to the movies…” or “You didn’t care about that when I was taking them on your time!”  Honestly, you allowing them to chip away at agreements will ONLY come back to bite you in some way.  The answers are no, no, no, NFW and no. 

Unless your children are very small, they should be getting themselves into one place or car and into the other without a lot of help or with help from only one parent.  Don’t use physical exchange to linger or be somewhere you don’t have to be.  Make a clear spot for pickup/dropoff if one parent needs to physically get the child or bring the child. We had a neutral pickup/dropoff place – a strip mall – halfway between our houses.  That eliminated the need for anyone to go into a house or wait by a house.  Avoid this as much as you can.  Think of better ways to facilitate drop off/pickup ESPECIALLY if there have been issues.

Some parents drop off/pick off at a police station and I know there are some who think that is terrible but if it’s a high conflict family, that is the BEST idea. I was in front of a judge one day who said to the parents, “You can’t get along to the degree that you NEED to drop off/pick up at a POLICE STATION???”  The judge (a kindly older man who was a wonderful judge but very sweet and didn’t get “non-sweetness” in people) It took everything I had in me to not say, “Your Honor, this man (my client’s ex) is such a destructive, manipulative, conniving, horrible sociopath that I am not sure that even a police station will be enough.”   Some will think a police station is horrible, but it has to be done a lot of the time. Don’t let the judgment of others (or the judgment of a judge) get you to back down from the best decision for YOU. 

If you are to pick up the child at the ex’s house, be on time and make sure the child is ready on time. It should be the same time every time.  This will avoid the need to text or call.  Minimize ANY opportunities for communication. “I will be there at 7, have them at the curb.”  can be a quick text or you can agree to only text when you’re running late (which you should never be.)  My ex and I exchanged for many years without a single missed or late (I considered late more than 15 minutes, but if you’re in your own car waiting, it’s not a big deal…sometimes there was traffic that caused a lateness but it was never more than 15 minutes). Meeting in a neutral location, with each of you in a car is really the BEST way to do exchanges. It feels very “fair” and if it’s halfway between your homes, it IS very fair.  

Don’t use visitation exchange as an excuse to talk or spend time.  And don’t EVER give your ex a hug or a kiss. It’s over. Act like it.  Enforce clear boundaries and limits. Model moving on behavior. You have to show your children what “moving on” is all about and that means you are happy, healthy and whole and being happy, healthy and whole means having good, clear boundaries.  Communication with your ex should be BRIEF, BUSINESS-LIKE and only when NECESSARY.  Don’t “fudge” what is absolutely necessary. Everything should be in writing and set in stone. Otherwise, you’re just looking for trouble. 

I have had readers, podcast listeners, clients and boot campers get angry with me when I tell them that their ridiculous relationship with their ex (overly friendly) is NOT good for the kids. I had one client whose kids were so angry at their father and she knew it yet she would invite him in for coffee when he was picking up the kids and she would be very chatty.  She also invited him for holiday dinners with her family and even invited other members of his family.  The kids felt as if she didn’t take their feelings into consideration. She thought she was showing them that forgiveness was possible. I told her that they were not ready to forgive and that her acting  as if he had done nothing wrong was a betrayal of sorts to the kids.

People who say, “Oh I’m friends with my ex….” are probably that way because they don’t know how NOT to be.  If you don’t know how to move on, that doesn’t mean you are doing the right thing. It’s NOTHING to brag about and the “Oh aren’t we just the greatest because we’re so fabulously friendly!” doesn’t mean you are.  Whenever someone brags that they have the closest and most wonderful relationship with an ex, I always think, “Methinks thou doth protest too much.” It’s not COOL, it’s not HEALTHY and it sends a very CONFUSING message to the kids and teaches them NOTHING good about moving on. 

Kids and Drop Off / Pick Up / Their “Things”:  Your children MUST be responsible, beyond a certain age (8-10 depending on the maturity of the child) to have what they need from place to place. Don’t let them forget things you need to go back. NATURAL AND LOGICAL CONSEQUENCES:  the natural and logical consequences of forgetting your homework ANYWHERE is you don’t have it when you show up to school. Children learn VERY FAST when they are made to feel the consequences of their actions and don’t have mom and dad to get and fetch. DON’T DO IT. And especially don’t do it if they’re leaving things at the ex’s or left things home that they need while at the exes. DO NOT DO THIS.  You MUST teach them that this does NOT happen. 

With clothes and toothbrushes etc, you might want to either have those things at the ex’s house and leave them there or have 2 bags – the clothes/hygiene items the kids take to mom or dads and the one they use for school/home/overnights at friends.  And if they leave clothes there, let it stay there until next time.  Again, they will learn not to leave it there. My kids used to whine that their step brother would be wearing it and I would say, “You didn’t worry about that when you forgot to pack it.”  Eventually I told them to pack a “dad’s house” backpack and put clothes in there that they didn’t care about losing. What came home, got washed (by THEM, not by me) and put back into the “dad’s house ” backpack IMMEDIATELY (otherwise they’ll be running around the day of trying to figure out what else they can take).  With my kids’ “dad’s house backpack,” whatever was lost/forgotten, was lost/forgotten. It wasn’t my problem. I didn’t remind them, I didn’t harass or fuss at them.  When you use logical and natural consequences (Edit 5/2019 for more on this see this video), you don’t have to be involved in what they are forgetting/losing. It’s all them, all the time.

You DEFINITELY want to minimize the opportunities for losing things and you definitely don’t want to play “[mommy/daddy] get and fetch” and you absolutely do not want to get into any kind of discussion with your ex about the things your kids forgot or need or whatever.  

12. Don’t get into game playing with the ex. No matter how angry you are and how much you would love to get back at that so and so, remember, you’re going to hurt the children. Stop all the nonsense. Try to cultivate a business-type relationship. If you have unfinished business, take it to a therapist, not to the ex and especially not in front of the kids. Don’t expect apologies.  Don’t play the victim. Those days are over.  

13. Live your life separate and apart from you ex. ALWAYS. Don’t spend time with the ex. Don’t show affection to the ex. It will confuse the children.  This isn’t about being polite or “nice.” It’s about showing your children WHAT MOVING ON LOOKS LIKE. If you have a good relationship, that’s wonderful, but don’t give them a key to the house (even if they used to live there) or let them come and go as they please.  Although I’ve said this a few different ways, it is very important that lines are not fuzzy. If the ex wants to be “friends” the answer is no. Friendly?  no. Pals? no. Spend holidays together? no.

I had a relative whose husband cheated on her and left her and her 3 little kids for a woman half his age. Not only did the man spend every holiday after the younger woman moved on (about 5 years later) but spent overnight in the mother’s bedroom.  The kids were FURIOUS that their mother was such a dolt. In another section in this article I talk about another family where the kids were still mad at the father and the mother was overly friendly (unlike my relative, these two lived near each other and would have coffee together).  Each set of kids felt that their parent was either stupid or betrayed their hurt and anger. None of them relayed this to the parents until they were adults and then it came out sideways. Don’t do it. 

14. If your ex is truly a horrible person and has broken one or more of the above rules and hurt the children by doing it, let the children know, as gently as possible, that it’s not about them. If Mommy is doing more for the boyfriend’s kids or daddy isn’t visiting and/or paying support, or the ex is just being about as horrific a human being could be and the children are seeing that, let them know that it is about Mommy or Daddy, it is NOT about them.

This should be used sparingly, but I remember once my middle son came home from a visit with his father and simply couldn’t take the doting that his father did on his step son (2 months older than my son), he flung his 8 year old little self on the bed and cried, “Why does he love him more than me??? What’s wrong with me???” I had to hold him and rock him and tell him it wasn’t about him, it was about his father. His father was not getting it and not being the best dad he could be but my son was a lovable and special child and what his father did had nothing to do with him. I never liked to “bad mouth” their dad but when my kids were taking his lack of parenting personally, I had to step in and let them know it wasn’t about them, it was about him. Sometimes that is necessary.

15. CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES. This is VERY VERY VERY important. Do not be fighting every week about every thing. You are going to need to learn to let some things go. If the ex does not know what this means, there are times you are going to have to cut the conversation off. At the same time if something really needs attention, is really important, both parents should talk about it. And it doesn’t mean the step-parents or boyfriend and girlfriend, it means the parents. If it’s not a convenient time, set one up. Choose your battles but don’t let the real important ones go. LASTLY, Above all else, remember the kids really didn’t ask to be born. You made that decision. Be responsible toward that. That means making their lives stable. That means balancing love and discipline. That means HARD WORK. You are the parent. You had these children. Now step up to the plate and be responsible for that. And if you are having trouble with that, don’t make any more children until you can be responsible. Ask for help when you need it. If you need parenting class or to go to a therapist and ask how to parent or how to resolve some of the issues, GO. The kids will thank you for it.

Susan J. Elliott 05/18/2019

Original date of post: 12/6/2006
Copyright Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed. No material may be copied without the express per


See Also

Video: GPYB and Parenting 

Video Systematic Parenting

Video Boundaries and Affirmations

Podcast Boundaries 

Podcast Navigating the Legal System with the Personality Disordered

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The Mean Lady Talking Podcast

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