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How to Help Kids Through a Messy Divorce

Breaking Good: A Modern Guide to DivorceHappy, smiling faces in Instagram photos when dropping off the kids for the weekend. Drew Barrymore and her ex. Gwyneth Paltrow and her ex. It can feel like divorce in Celebland — or any land, really — is a constant pretty picture of mental health, mutual respect and conscious uncoupling. And of course, all those divorces put the kids’ needs first.

But a pleasant, cordial divorce isn’t always possible — at least not here in the real world. So how do you minimize the damage to your children if your divorce is a spiteful mess?

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Minimize tension at home

My ex refused to move out for nine months after I left him. If you’re mid-split, it’s likely you and your ex will share a living space for some period of time after deciding to part ways. Even when my ex and I weren’t actively fighting, the atmosphere in our house was one of tension — snippy words alternating with the silent treatment. And it fell to me to create the space we needed to minimize tension, whether that meant taking our kid to the park, scheduling playdates and time with family or just doing my best to act like a roommate around my ex.

Stacey Freeman, a journalist who focuses on divorce and single parenting, has similar advice. “If tensions are high and you’re with your ex or soon-to-be ex, just lay low. Don’t try to pick a fight.” The kids will thank you later.

Establish clear communication channels

One method of minimizing conflict and tension around the kids is to set boundaries around communication. Marika Lindholm, founder of ESME, a website devoted to helping solo moms handle parenting and divorce, says couples often divorce in an attempt to stop endless arguing. So end it now; establish clear rules about communication with your ex — what’s allowed, through which channels and when. For example, it only took me a few nasty phone calls before establishing the “email and text only” rule, especially once I realized that my son could hear his father through the phone and would get upset after our calls. “It’s incredibly unfair and ultimately damaging to children if they don’t get some relief from [the process of] their parents splitting up,” Lindholm explains.

If necessary, each party’s lawyer can get involved to hammer out how and when communication will happen. But remember: You likely still have to see your ex in person sometimes. So it’s best to be prepared.

Memorize a few key phrases

At a recent hand-off, my ex launched into the criticism the moment he walked through the coffee shop door: “Where are his mittens, Dena? Won’t he get cold?” My mind went blank.

When emotions are on the rise and words are getting harsh, it’s hard to think of what to say, which is why Freeman recommends you “have a few catchphrases on the tip of your tongue.”

“Have a nice evening,” or “Enjoy your time together” are some simple, innocuous phrases you can say with a smile. Deliver them, and then walk away. Do your best to keep your calm in front of your child; that means lowering your voice, avoiding launching a counterattack (“You forgot his mittens last time!”) and removing yourself from the situation as soon as is feasible. As much as it hurts to have anyone question your parenting skills, it’s not worth getting into a battle with your ex in front of the kids.

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Enlist help

Whenever possible, ask friends and family to help with hand-offs. Even if you feel like you’re imposing, it’s better than exposing your child to yet more tension. Plus, beyond hand-offs, friends and relatives can be sources of strength and calm. Freeman’s children, for example, grew close with her mother and stepfather during her split with her ex; they came to view them as safe havens with whom they could express their emotions about the divorce.

When it comes to the kids, Lindholm says it’s important to “create an environment where they can share their feelings without judgment or fear of a strong response.” It can be difficult not to overreact when kids come home to tell you their other parent fed them pizza for four days straight. But do your best to take in the information calmly — and also ensure they have plenty of other people in their life who are safe (and nonreactive) sounding boards.

Make space for fun

In the midst of a divorce (and all the moving, packing and new routines it entails), it can be easy to lose track of such a simple thing as… fun. But to your child, playtime can mean the world — and help them reconnect with you. It can also be a great outlet for some of the energy and emotions they may have built up throughout your split. Lindholm tries to help her kids blow off steam with “a race in the park or a water balloon fight.”

My son and I went stomping in mud puddles. Also, when we had playdates, I made a strict rule with the other parents: no talking about the divorce. Give your child(ren) spaces and time that are “divorce-free” and fun.

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If you have kids together, your ex may always be in your life in some way or another. And you’re probably more worried about your divorce’s impact on those kids than on either of you as adults. The good news? When handled properly, divorce’s negative impacts can be short-term — and most children of divorce grow up to become stable, well-adjusted adults.

One key factor in ensuring these positive outcomes for kids is minimizing conflict. As Lindholm puts it, “Be the parent that shows kids that their world is consistent, safe and fun.” Even though you can’t control the other person, the best you can do is work to control yourself and your own actions.

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