Think of the last time you waited for the doctor to tell you whether you had cancer. The last time you waited to hear whether you got the job. The last time you waited to see if the prospective buyer was going to make an offer on the house. What was the hardest part of the process the answer or not knowing?
Usually the not knowing.
As bad as a cancer diagnosis, rejection for a job, or a failure to get a bid can be the not knowing is far worse. People derive huge security from a yes or a no. They know the truth of what they face and how to plan for the future. Our children are no different.
Children derive their security from the known. Clear ground rules for behavior. Clear expectations for school work, for friendships, for participating in extra-curricular events. Clear routines that apply whichever house they sleep in. Parents instill security when they work together to create a “known.”
Divorced parents must recognize this truth and find a way to build the children’s security through being consistent between each household and with each other. The challenges are varied and huge:
- Child pits parent against parent. Dad has children for the weekend. Daughter asks to go to slumber party. Dad says, “Sure” because Daughter has gone to numerous sleep-overs at this friend’s house. Dad doesn’t realize Daughter already asked Mom who said “No” because Daughter has been surly with siblings all week and hasn’t earned the privilege.
- Parents consider different factors. Dad agrees to slumber party because he plays golf with the other father who seems nice, Daughter asked sweetly, Daughter has homework done, and Dad hasn’t seen Daughter in several weeks and doesn’t want to rock the boat with a denial. Mom refused to give permission because she knows the other Mom doesn’t always supervise events very well, new girls are attending whose behavior is in question, and Daughter has been on brink of illness for the last two days.
- Parents are taken by surprise and don’t have the opportunity to check with each other. Slumber party invitation comes at 5:30. Party starts at 6:00. Mom works till 7:00. Dad makes a call not realizing Mom wouldn’t agree due to any of the above factors.
The list goes on without ever getting into the realm of one parent purposely undermining the other with a different answer. So, how can parents, even parents who can’t be in the same room together find a way to build security for their children through consistency.
- Internally decide to be a team for the sake of the kids. Even if you have no desire to share any part of your life with your ex, you will always share the children. Given a peaceful room and time to think most parents will say their children’s sense of security is paramount and they would do anything to protect their child. This becomes one of those anythings. Be willing to partner with your ex to keep the rules, routines, and relationship expectations consistent between households.
- Set ground rules and stick to them. A few predetermined guidelines for evaluating situations can help both parents make decisions that are consistent yet tailored to the uniqueness of moment. Parents may decide that slumber parties are allowed when: both parents know and trust the other parents, homework has been successfully completed for the week, and child is in good standing with both parents. If a party matches these criteria Mom can decide to let daughter attend even though the invitation came too late to consult Dad or nix the party because Daughter acts a little under the weather. Dad might make a different decision on the underlying factors. The point is the major factors remain consistent and predictable for Dad, Mom, and Daughter.
- Check with each other. When in doubt, consult. Be ready to say (and to respond respectfully to), “Daughter has asked about sleeping at Sally’s. I want to make sure we’re on the same page. She has a huge trip out of town on Monday for school. Is it a good idea for her to be up all weekend with a friend?” There will be situations that fall enough outside ground rules that honor for each other requires parents to double check first. More, if parents aren’t sure whether Daughter has kept up with her homework or been consistently respectful in the other house, checking with each other ensures both parents feel supported and Daughter knows she can’t pit one against the other to get her way. While irritating in the moment, Daughter actually derives the greatest security from knowing the adults are going to behave like adults for her best good.
- Be consistent at home. No matter what be consistent at home. Even if the other parent continually and purposely works to undermine every boundary you set (even the ones you set together), your consistency offers security. Children aren’t stupid. Children viscerally love their parents. When one parent uses even indulgence in the child’s requests to harm the other parent, children see the harm and react to it. They also deeply desire parents to be in control guiding and caring for them. The parent strong enough to lovingly stick to the boundaries and maintain the principles becomes the parent children trust.
Parents often fear most the impact of the divorce on their children’s sense of security. You can channel this fear into action that makes a difference. Create the known for your children then work with each other to stick to it.