It's easy to get so caught up in the battles of divorce and the hassles of custody that you forget that your child has certain inalienable rights. A child of divorce, especially, needs to have his or her rights honored and respected.
All children deserve to be loved by their parents for who they are, not for what they do or how they behave. They have the right to experience all of their feelings and thoughts, both positive and negative, and they have the right to express those feelings and thoughts to you, even if you don't agree with them. Children have the right to ask questions and receive honest answers, and they have the right to be treated respectfully in all circumstances. And finally, children have the right to and the need for a childhood unburdened by your responsibilities.
Every child also benefits from having a relationship with both parents. It is critical to acknowledge to your child the importance of his or her other parent, even if you think your ex is a jerk. Having a parent move out can be emotionally devastating. If you create an even bigger distance between your child and his or her other parent by getting in the way of their relationship, it will take your child much longer to adjust to the divorce.
Here are some guidelines to help you meet the needs of your child:
1. Your child has a right to protection from your arguments with your ex.
While you know not to criticize your ex in front of your child, maybe your ex hasn't gotten the message. If a negative message comes your way, use it as an opportunity for an open discussion with your child. Try responding with questions or statements like, "What do you think about that?" or "Sounds like your father/mother was upset. Sometimes people use angry words when they have big feelings."
2. Your child has a right to a neutral position.
When children are asked to take sides in the divorce, to choose who is right or wrong, it places them in a vulnerable position. They wind up feeling disloyal and resentful, and sometimes believe that loving one parent (or a new stepparent) is betraying the other. Your children need your verbal permission to love and care for your ex, even though you no longer do.
3. Your child has a right to an openness and honesty.
One of the worst things you can do is ask your children to keep a secret from their other parent. This puts them in an untenable position. If they keep the secret, they're being disloyal to the parent who doesn't know. If they tell, they are betraying the trust of the parent who asked them to keep the secret. The same goes for asking a child to withhold any reference to something he did, saw, heard or experienced.
4. Your child has a right to remain silent.
Sending messages to your ex through your child opens the door for mixed messages, misunderstandings, and all sorts of triangulated communication and manipulation. If your ex is using your child to deliver messages to you, politely ask him or her to stop. (And don't send that message via your child.) If this doesn't work, empower your child to say no to your ex with a simple, "Please, Mom, if you have something to say to Dad, do it directly. Don't involve me."
5: Your child has a right to his or her childhood.
When you use a child as a sounding board for financial fears or as a confidant for adult issues, the child becomes overwhelmed. All families must have clear parent-child boundaries where a parent knows that worrying about when the money will come is parent business and worrying about when the tooth fairy will come is kid business. "Parentifying" your child also takes its toll on you by delaying you from getting on with your adult life. For children, it gives them an unhealthy amount of responsibility for the parent's emotional well-being and can lead to more problems later on.
6. Your child has a right to a relationship with both parents.
When your child is visiting his other parent, don't call, text or email. It disrupts their time together and can suddenly change the tenor of their day, simply by interjecting yourself into their "space," even with a well-meaning, hope-you're-having-fun message.
7: Your child has a right to calm transitions.
To ease the transition from Mom's to Dad's home, build in some routines for your child, and keep transition times low key. Don't use these times to talk to your ex about late child-support checks or how important it is that the child learns to play the flute. Your child should be told what time his other parent is picking him or her up and what exactly will happen when the parent arrives. One tip is to use a neutral zone, such as school or a playdate, for the drop-off and pick-up. That way, your child has time to process the goodbye to one parent before processing the hello to the other.
8. Your child has a right to post-divorce happiness. (And so do you!)
Recognizing the ways in which divorced families are either the same as or different from other families gives you the opportunity to create a different structure for your "new" family to grow. Change things up--a birthday becomes a "birthweek" and Santa can come twice. Build in your own special traditions and routines: they will become the new foundation for your family's post-divorce life and happiness.