Helping kids stay loyal to both parents might be the single most important thing divorcing parents can do. The reason why this is so important is because these early and lasting attachments to each parent provide the best opportunity for children to feel safety in the world. Their security rests in knowing that these are the people who love them the most and who are committed to what's best for them. Children who experience this kind of connection to parents are able to build trusting relationships to others and develop a positive sense of self worth. These powerful biological ties of belonging last a lifetime.
So why does it seem so hard for a divorced parent to allow children to love the other parent? I suspect it's because there are too many hurt feelings and blame for parents to stay neutral after divorce. Staying neutral about someone whom you might still have negative feelings requires courage. And getting beyond anger takes practice. Yet, cooperative co-parenting is in your child's best interest and is worth the effort.
Here are some suggestions to support children's attachment to both parents:
Strive for cooperative co-parenting.
It's important to assume that both of you are equally committed to your children and that you each value regular contact with them. Being present and engaged with your children's activities helps them feel important and loved.
Have respectful conversations.
You will be engaged in many joint decisions about your children and you won't always agree, so it's especially important to negotiate respectfully. Each of you will have a unique point of view, which means it's important to listen and acknowledge each other's concerns. This will help you to stay flexible and to be willing to renegotiate when needed.
Conflicts are inevitable, but you can set rules in advance to help you stay cooperative. If you are getting defensive, suggest taking a break so things don't spins out of control. You can respectfully state that you need some time to think about what you've been discussing and suggest a time to come back to the discussion.
Don't get pulled into the middle.
When a child has an issue with the other parent you can sympathize and listen, but be clear that this is something they need to discuss with the other parent directly. You can assure them that the other parent cares and would like to know what's bothering them. Even if you worry about the other parent's ability to listen, it's important to remember that regardless of what happens, this is their relationship to work out.
Don't listen to negative comments about the other parent.
Sometimes children talk negatively about the other parent because they're not happy with a restriction or limit they have to adhere to. Don't evaluate that limit; just acknowledge that each household has different rules. At other times children may comment negatively about the other parent because they don't know if it's okay to have a good time with them. They need permission to have fun and not feel guilty that they're being disloyal to you.
Don't speak negatively about the other parent.
Expressions of anger at the other parent will always affect a child. They might think you're being mad means they have to take your side, including being mad at the other parent. And, in order to be loyal to you, they might act out at the other parent's house. Children need to love and respect each parent. They don't want to hear you speaking unkindly about someone that's important to them.
Remember that children want both of you in their lives to love and enjoy time with each of you. They need to count on you to raise them, to guide them and to support them when they face set-backs in their lives. You each provide something unique and special. Your commitment to cooperative co-parenting is your assurance of healthy happy children.