Avoid these post-marital missteps to stay in your kids' good graces.By Natasha Burton
Marriages come and go, but divorce is forever, to quote the late, great Nora Ephron. While you may be able to move on to another man, your children will always be tied to you and your ex-and any drama from that relationship. With this in mind, adult children of divorce share what bothered them as kids-and still irks them today-about their parents' post-split behavior. Plus, experts weigh in on what divorced parents should do instead. Photo by Thinkstock.
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1. Badmouthing the other parent.
Stacey's parents divorced when she was 18, and they disparaged each other for years. "The destruction of the family is painful enough without being involved in the parents' marital strife," she says. Negative talk damages children's self-esteem, adds Susan Saper Galamba, a divorce and family attorney in Overland Park, KS. "Whether it's genetics or environment, a child's bound to have attributes of both parents. When one parent repeatedly speaks negatively about the other, and then tells a child that she 'sounds just like' the other parent, the child receives the message that she's bad, too."
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2. Discouraging kids from talking about their other parent.
"Kids want to talk about their lives, including their other parent, without feeling guilty," says Dominique*, whose parents divorced when she was younger. Psychologist Terri Orbuch, PhD, a relationship expert for OurTime.com, adds, "Even if an adult child speaks negatively about the other parent, she doesn't want the parent who's listening to add to that negativity." Instead, help her identify solutions to the problem at hand.
3. Divulging the dirty details of the divorce.
Stacey began to resent her father after her mother offered uncomfortable info about the split. Sparing kids details makes divorce easier on them, says Allison Pescosolido, founder of the Divorce Detox program. "When you need consoling about how horribly their dad treated you, get actionable advice from a pro; don't look to your kids," she adds. Also avoid mentioning particulars like child support, says Sheila Blagg, CEO of Divorce2Dating.com, an online network for separated and divorced individuals. "A child should never know if a parent isn't paying," she says. "It may make her feel that her dad or mom doesn't love her enough to support her."
4. Keeping kids completely in the dark.
Still, some key information is worth sharing, depending on the situation and your children's ages, says Pescosolido. For instance, Anna felt deceived after her parents kept the reason for their divorce secret from her for a year. "My parents split because my dad's gay," she says. "It's better to be open than trying to ignore an issue because you're embarrassed."
5. Skipping family events because your ex will be there.
Unless there are extenuating circumstances, like abuse, you'll likely need to attend some of the same events. Galamba says that adult children of divorce often dread coordinating special occasions with their parents. "Blending families when someone remarries is hard enough, but dealing with one or both parents refusing to attend gatherings can be near impossible," she says. "If parents aren't careful, they may not get invited at all."
6. Making the situation all about you.
If you agree to go somewhere your ex will be, handle the encounter gracefully. Frankee, whose parents have been divorced since she was eight, says her mother's anguish over being near her father ruined big moments. "When I graduated from college, my mom wouldn't hug me until I'd said goodbye to my dad," she says. Blagg recommends ex-spouses ignore each other, rather than cause a scene, which only mortifies children. "Choose your seats wisely," she advises. "You don't have to greet one another, but remember that you're going to be dealing with this individual for years to come."
7. Making kids feel guilty for spending time with their other parent.
If you and your ex have joint custody, then your kids inevitably will be spending time with their other parent on a regular basis, as well as during some holidays. Galamba says that parents need to remember that although they divorced their spouses, their children didn't. "Don't tell the kids how lonely you'll be when they're with the other parent, or that you're sorry they have to spend time with him," she says. "Instead, tell them to have fun, and consider their time away as 'court-ordered' relaxation."
Related: Learn about 10 things you should never say to your kids.
8. Justifying your bad behavior.
P.J., whose parents divorced when she was a kid, says that her dad's defense of his affair made the split harder on her and her sister. "I asked him years later if he was sorry for what he did and he defiantly said, 'No, and I'd do it again,'" she says. "Where was the father who taught me right from wrong? He damaged his credibility with me." Pescosolido says that affairs are strictly parents' business-knowing the truth can damage your relationship with your children and cause them to have trust issues within their future relationships, she says.
9. Putting your kids in the middle.
Jessa* recalls delivering child support checks from her father to her mother until she was 20 years old, which she says was humiliating. Kids simply shouldn't be a go-between, Dr. Orbuch says. "If their mother or father wants a message relayed to the other parent, or they need to make a decision together, they should talk to each other," she says. And, this should go without saying, but never grill your child for details on the other parent's life.
10. Making everyone feel your unhappiness.
The pain of divorce can last a long time, but don't transfer it onto your children. Lindsay's mother still vocalizes her bitterness about her split. "It hurts me when she says, 'The past 30 years have been a waste,'" she admits. "I feel like I've been a hassle." Galamba says that no child constantly wants to hear how her parent was wronged. "The 'woe is me' game can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many adult children start showing a preference for the parent who was portrayed as 'blameworthy.'" *Names have been changed.
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