On Children and Breakups
Backstory to this post:
This post was written 3 years before Getting Past Your Breakup was published.
It was one of the first on the “new” blog that started 11/29/06 following the old blog that ran from 2005 to the end of 2006. This post was written 12/16/06 This post was one of the first to let me know that other people – other than the handful of students this blog was meant for – were reading. Most of this made it into the GPYB, but I don’t think it’s ever been rerun.
Since the GPYB website is almost complete, I am going into the vault and rerunning posts in order of appearance (unless they’re restricted in my book contract with my publisher) with a little blurb up top to introduce it and whether it’s been rerun, and if so, how many times and what the commentary was like. However, if you have a topic that you want to see a post on, send email here. 
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. NEVER. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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 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.
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 permission of the author.
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