November 16, 2020

Combative to Collaborative: The Co-parenting Code

Talking to Kids about Divorce

You may have seen my announcement on social media that I am starting to craft a new book titled Combative to Collaborative: The Co-parenting Code. This new book will focus more on the co-parenting journey and less on divorce. It will offer perspectives on combative versus collaborative approaches to handling a number of topics co-parents face throughout their journey. The book will be divided into three parts:

  • Part 1: Uncoupling
  • Part 2: Life Goes On
  • Part 3: Correcting Course

At the end of each chapter, you’ll get advice on how to review the topic in question through the lens of the Golden Rule which I refer to all the time. This is what I call the Co-parenting Code.

Welcome to my Advisory Board!

As my loyal followers, I want you to have the first chance to see it. I would love to get your feedback on the title and the new way in which I’m organizing the content. Who better to advise me on my book than you? After all, it’s for you that I’m writing it. So I hope you will take a few minutes to read my draft of Chapter One from Combative to Collaborative: The Co-parenting Code and offer your feedback.

Part 1: Uncoupling

Chapter 1 – We Have to Tell the Kids

So here you are.  You told your spouse or significant partner you’re through. Or maybe, they unexpectedly pulled the rug out from under you. You’ve probably cried and cursed. You may have even left your home to seek sanctuary somewhere else. It’s only a matter of time before you have to tell the kids.

Oh damn! What will we tell the kids? What if he tells them first? What if they overheard us yelling about it? We’ve got to get on top of this quick. Should we do it together? Can we do it together? What if the kids cry?

Jesus, we’re about to change the rest of their lives! If they don’t handle this well – If we don’t get this right – they could end up as one of those sad statistics that say children from broken families are doomed to fail at love, their careers, and basically life in general. So let’s get this straight. We’re not about to change their lives. We’re about to potential ruin them. No pressure.

Combative Approach

Lots of parents screw this part up. They share all the nasty reasons why they are splitting with the other parent with the kids. “Your dad’s a lazy bum.” “Your mom is a whore.”  “Your daddy is in love with someone else.”

Maybe it all goes down at the same time. You ask for a divorce. Your spouse flies off the handle and in fear of your own safety or maybe losing your kids forever, you abruptly grab them up, run out the door, and tell them you’re all leaving forever.

Some of the worst examples I’ve heard are, “Mom doesn’t want to live with us anymore,” and the equally painful, “Daddy doesn’t love us anymore.” The ‘us” cuts your children to the core. They think they’ve been abandoned. Are you going to leave them too?

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Geez. I’m not stupid. I know better than to do any of these.” But there are more subtle ways to screw this up that are also damaging to not only your kids but your future relationship with your ex-partner. Let’s face it. Unless you really are planning to abandon your children or alienate them from their other parent, you’re going to have to interact with your ex. When you have children with someone, you are inextricably tied to this other human at least until the kids are grown.

While you may not be planning to employ any of the worst examples I’ve highlighted, there are more subtle approaches which are problematic as well. Including:

  • Telling your child without the other parent present
  • Telling the kids when you’re in a fit of anger either together or separately
  • Implying that the kids were any part of the decision to split, like, “Dad wants more freedom,” or “Mom wants to focus on her career

Even more subtle but still damaging are the things you don’t say which leave room for the kids to fill in the blanks. Things like:

  • “I just need to find myself,” Kid translation: “I want to be alone and I’m abandoning you.”
  • “Dad doesn’t want to live here anymore.” Kid translation: “Dad is leaving you.”
  • “Mom is very angry right now.” Kid translation: “Mom is leaving because I’ve been bad.”

By not specifying the object of the other parent’s angst, the child may assume that somehow they are to blame. These feelings can linger throughout the life of a child, leaving them with immense feelings of guilt for what they perceive to be their role in ruining the family.

True Stories

“I remember the day my parents told me they were getting a divorce. They were both sitting on the couch next to each other, crying, not necessarily holding each other. Through tears and deep, broken breaths, they explained to me what was going to happen.

I don’t know how much I actually understood at the time, but I do remember walking outside by myself after my parents had finished detailing the situation. I was pointing at the ground, cursing the devil, saying it was his fault that my parents were getting a divorce. As I look back on that now, watching five-year-old me standing in the back yard blaming Lucifer for my parents’ separation, I definitely chuckle – for many reasons.”

Collaborative Approach

If you’re not ready to ruin your child’s life and saddle them with a future filled with guilt, anger, and sadness, you’re in luck. You don’t have to. By using the following steps, you can make sure your child regardless of their age is left understanding that this isn’t their fault or because of them. You can let them know that it is okay to be angry or sad. You can ensure them that, while their lives will change, you will always be there for them, you both love them, and you will do everything in your power to reduce the impact on them.

  • DO tell them together – unless there is a history or real risk of physical violence. Look, you’ve been with your partner this long. You can stand a few more minutes. Your kids have earned that from both of you. It need not be a long conversation.
  • DO choose a time when you’re both calm
  • DON’T wait until they figure it out on their own. They WILL resent this.
  • DON’T give detailed reasons why the two of you don’t want to be together anymore. All you need to say is, “Your mom (dad) and I have decided to not live together anymore.” If your children ask why, simply say that that is between the two of you and has nothing to do with them.
  • DO tell your kids it is NOT their fault and that they did not do anything wrong nor did they cause this.
  • DO tell your kids that you both love them
  • DO tell your kids that you will both still be there for them always
  • DO let your kids know it is ok to feel sad or even angry but assure them you will work to minimize the impact on their lives.
  • DO listen to your kids and ask them how they are feeling?
  • DO be prepared to answer questions like, “Who will I live with?” or “Where will I live?” DON’T panic if you haven’t figured these details out yet. You can simply say that you are working through that and assure them that as soon as you know, you will share the details with them.
  • DON’T sit silently while your soon-to-be ex does all the talking. This will leave your kids wondering if you agree with what is being said.
  • DON’T be tempted to go back to your kids afterward and fill in more details about the reasons for the split. While this may feel cathartic to you, it will only hurt them and set up future problems. Either you will achieve making them feel anger toward their other parent or you might unwittingly make them question whether they too have something inherently wrong with them. If you think making them angry at their mom or dad is maybe a good thing because after all you think they’re a piece of shit, be careful. You do want your ex to be able to effectively parent your child. Don’t handicap them from doing this by imposing your opinion on your children.
The Co-parenting Code

When planning how you will break this news to your kids, you need to step outside yourself for a few minutes to consider three things.

  1. How will it sound and feel to your child?
  2. How will it sound and feel to your ex? Will you be setting you two up for a combative or collaborative relationship going forward?
  3. Will you be setting your child’s other parent up to be an effectively parent? 

Will you take a moment to tell me what you think of the new book, Combative to Collaborative: The Co-parenting Code?  Submit your feedback here.

For more co-parenting insights, visit my blog.


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