It’s Divorced Parent Rule #1 to not involve your kids in the details of the divorce. It simply isn’t fair to them, as it can put them in the middle of the two people they love the most. But what about when they get older?
Many parents think that as their children become teens or twentysomethings, it’s fair game to talk to them about their parents’ split. Not so fast, though! Even adult children of divorced parents need to preserve their family memories, so it’s important that parents maintain a sense of perspective even as their children age and only share what is truly necessary with them about the divorce.
This can become especially tricky with regard to parenting time when kids are teens. Many older teens and returning college students choose to maintain the parenting time schedule set up from when they were younger – simply because it’s easier and familiar.
Still, how do you explain certain things that have been decided without putting the other parent down, overly involving the kids, or putting them in the middle? What information do they truly need to know?
The teen years fall into different developmental categories: 14- and 15-year-olds are very different from kids ages 16 and 17. In 9th grade, a child is unable to think abstractly, but by senior year, they can grasp abstract thinking. Once kids turn 18, it’s a whole different story.
Parents should treat 14- and 15-year-olds like children, since they are still in the thick of developing. Protect them from most things. By the time they turn 16, though, it become OK to share on a limited basis things about parenting time and why the parents made certain decisions – still speaking of it in terms of mutual decisionmaking and with respect for the other parent.
I suggest using the plural version of everything – We struggled over this issue, we came up with, we couldn’t figure it out so the court decided for us. There’s nothing wrong with saying we needed an intermediary, we needed the court, so you’re not blaming the other parent or disparaging decisions that impact your children’s lives.
Anything you share about the divorce should come from a place of neutrality. If you cannot stay neutral when you talk about it, you can’t talk about it to your kids. Showing emotion, getting upset or angry, just isn’t fair to your kids.
And frankly, I believe discussing details of parenting time makes sense, while sharing other details about the divorce may not. Children should always and forever be shielded from the personal details of the divorce – affairs, who initiated the divorce, etc. It’s OK for them to know in broad terms that there were struggles but when they ask about what went wrong, both parents should always focus on sending a message of “at one time, our relationship was built on love and you were born in a family of love, and even though things changed between us, the love for you kids is what still bonds us.”
When the divorce is fresh, everyone is still experiencing their own turmoil and grieving and they can’t handle hearing anything except for we got this, we’re going to be OK, we’re taking care of you. The more distance you have from the time of divorce, the likelier you are to be able to have these conversations fairly and with perspective.
If you’re talking about changing the time they switch from one house to the other, it’s OK to explain why you initially decided on that detail and then say that you’ll speak with the other parent to discuss if it can be changed now that circumstances are different. Tell the kids you’ll get back to them if you both decide to change the details. This can apply to holidays, school activities, and other parts of their lives impacted by parenting time.
Parenting Time Agreements are made with the kids’ current ages in mind. As they grow, it’s normal to consider changing those details to suit their experiences and lives. However, it should always be about them and never about the parents.
Many divorced parents mistakenly refer to parenting time as “my time.” It’s not. It’s the children’s time that the parent has the gift of sharing with them. That means the children’s desire to do activities and engage in extracurricular programs should set the bar for parenting time discussions – not what is most convenient or interesting for a parent.
If you read one of my Parenting Time Agreements, it says the parents will enjoy time with their child on this date or that date. It is the child’s time; make it about the child.
Even when your children are adults themselves, I advise using a tremendous amount of restraint. Though they are not bound by parenting time anymore after they turn 18, it’s important to continue to encourage them to spend time with both parents. If they have a younger sibling still bound by parenting time, it’s ok to say, you can keep to it but you don’t have to. You’re growing up and you can make decisions for yourself and let us know, or we can work together and come back to you with some ideas so you don’t feel overwhelmed by it.
The goal should always be to make their lives easier – not burden them with adult quarrels.
If you can, when your children come home from college, call your ex and figure out a schedule that will work. Take the pressure off your kids whenever you can.
The goal is to make sure your children don’t ever feel pulled between their parents. Once they’re out of college, you really have to let them figure it out.
When the other parent, or their relatives, speak badly about the ex-spouse, it puts children in the middle. That creates ongoing trauma for you kids. Who wants that? I tell parents be aware of the impact of your behavior on your children. When you’re talking bad about the other parent, you’re talking bad about half of the child. Kids understandably take it personally, as if their parent is hurting them directly.
Some situations get more complicated as the kids get older. That’s when it’s important to let go of the parenting time schedule, of the need for rigid structure, because you have to start working around the realities of their lives. They have jobs and sports. If a job is closer to one parent and they want to sleep closer to work, let them. If not, you’re taking away the child’s chance to be independent and grow.
Think about what would have happened if you weren’t divorced. Give your child the opportunity to gain their independence as if you were still married. In that case, you would never refer to it as “my time.” It would appropriately be your children’s time, with you there to revolve around it.