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Refuse to Play the Games

By Diane C. Shearer, M.A., LMFT

Most single parents work very hard to physically provide for their kids, keep them emotionally stable, and help them to feel as normal as possible in a world that can be so complicated. It can sometimes feel futile, however, when the other parent seems to be sabotaging that good work. Parents who fail to pay child support on time, use the kids to hurt the other parent, or cannot get over their anger about the relationship break-up, can often push the well-intentioned parent beyond his or her limits. So, how can one parent make a difference? Since the only person you can do anything about is yourself, it is unrealistic and delusional to think you can control the thoughts, feelings or behavior of another person (especially a former spouse or lover). With that said, it is still possible to manage the outcome, even if the other parent continually creates difficult situations for your children. You can refuse to play the conflict game by following these simple rules:

Refuse to be emotionally blackmailed. A parent may try to threaten you with taking the kids away or stopping child support payments, but if you have a well-written court-ordered agreement that outlines child support as well as parenting time with the chidlren, you are under no obligation to do anything else but to follow the court-ordered agreement. That means that if you are holding up your end of the agreement, the threats from the other parent are empty and baseless. So, the first rule of staying out of conflict with the other parent is to get your ducks in a row legally. Make sure your child support and parenting plan is very specific and detailed. Don't leave room for interpretation or you will fight about what certain phrases or words mean. Don't say you will have the children from "Friday until Sunday every other weekend." Instead, say you will pick up the children at the end of the school day on Friday and will return them to dad's house on Sunday evening at 6:00 pm on the first and third weekends of every month." This kind of detail can be a conflict saver for parents who cannot see eye-to-eye on anything, including what the word "weekend" means.

Refuse to allow the kids to get in the middle of the adult conflict. When kids come home and tell you that "dad said you shouldn't be sleeping with your boyfriend ," or "mom said to tell you she can't have us this weekend," you are likely to want to blow a gasket and defend yourself or take your anger out on the children. Neither strategy is helpful to the kids. First of all, when kids tell you conflict-inducing facts that the other parent has supposedly said, understand that kids can embellish the truth or get the words mixed up, so don't accept everything you hear from them as absolute reality. Secondly, kids share these kinds of facts to either manipulate their parents, to test a parent's reaction (so they can know how they should feel), or because they have strong emotions about the situation that they want to have validated. Instead of responding with "Well, you can tell your dad that who I sleep with is none of his business," which sends your children directly back to the other parent (creating a tug-of-war game), it is better to say, "I'm sorry your dad put you in the middle of this adult stuff. I bet that felt awful to hear something like that. If I ever do that, let me know, because you don't deserve to be stuck in the middle." When parents send messages through the kids about scheduling conflicts, for example, don't give into the temptation to let out your anger. It is easy to say, "What do you mean she can't have you this weekend? I've got plans! I'm so sick of her irresponsibility." Instead, lovingly respond, "I'm sorry your mom didn't call me to tell me that. I will talk to her myself and she and I will work it out." This sends the message to the kids that they can trust at least one parent to be the adult and handle the conflict with the other parent without involving them. That is hugely powerful and comforting for kids.

Refuse to give into the temptation to act like a child! Children's emotions (especially a toddler's or teenager's) are eratic and unpredictable - that's simply the nature of the child. You should expect that and not expect them to behave and think like adults. But we often get nervous when our kids act out because of what the other parent is saying to them, and then we begin to do and say irrational or childish things to counteract all of that emotion. Too often, parents act like the children, leaving the kids feeling insecure and wondering who is really in charge. If the other parent engages in childish behavior, such as telling the kids terrible things about you, refuse to stoop to that level. Be the adult. If your child comes to you and says, "Mom said you are a liar and a cheater," don't respond with your own set of descriptive adjectives about dad. Instead, simply say, "Please judge me by what you know about me, not by what you hear about me." And leave it at that. What a great lesson for your child to learn in life anyway, right? And then proceed to live a life of integrity in front of your child. Your actions will far outweigh any words that they hear.

You can do very little about the other parent's destructive words and behavior, but you are in control of your responses. In fact, when you respond in a way that allows your children to remain children and not be inappropriately drawn into the adult issues, you maintain provide kids with a safe environment to share their emotions and feel protected from the adult world.

Diane Chambers Shearer is a marriage and family therapist, divorce mediator, and parent educator in Atlanta, Georgia. She is author of Solo Parenting: Raising Strong and Happy Families (Fairview Press, 1997) and publishes The Peaceful Co-Parent, a quarterly newsletter for divorce parents. For ordering information, visit her web site.

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