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How to Connect With Your Kids When Co-Parenting Is Hard

A template to ease the sticky situations of co-parenting.

Photo by Jessica Rockowitz on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Jessica Rockowitz on Unsplash

“You are the parenting strategy your child needs.”

When I heard Heather Chauvin, a mindfulness parenting expert, speak these words my shoulders lowered, I took a deep breath and felt relaxed.

Heather shared that parents spend a lot of wasted energy pursuing the perfect parenting book, podcast (I would recommend Heather’s podcast “Mom is In Control”), or online course.

As parents we put immense pressure on ourselves to parent perfectly. There is even more pressure when we are co-parenting after a divorce. The number one worry expressed by the women in Afterglow, my online program, is that their kids will have irreparable damage from the divorce.

As a divorced parent you walk around feeling constantly guilty for hurting your child and putting them in a position of pain.

I try to remind all my clients that while, yes, divorce affects children it does not have to ruin their lives.

In fact, what Heather teaches so beautifully is that there is no such thing as “ruining” our kids. Parenting is not an all or nothing experience where we either do a good or bad job at it.

Parenting is a moment-to-moment experience where we do our best to show up as our full selves and to connect with our children.

While it can be easy to connect to our kids when we are feeling positive and hopeful, like after a great meeting, or a successful experience in our divorce proceedings, it can be really hard to be patient when we are having a hard day.

Heather and I spoke about ways to manage two situations that can come up and make our ability to connect to our kids a bit more challenging.

Situation One:

Imagine you are having a really bad day. You just got the news that your ex is on Tinder and is dating. You are still heartbroken over the end of the marriage and the fact that they are already out there moving on has left you really sad. Your child notices you are sad and asks, “Are you okay?”

What not to say: I am fine. This short answer denies the reality of what you are feeling and what the child is witnessing in front of them. Keep in mind that our children pick up on our feelings even if we are not explicit about them.

What to say: Thank you for noticing. I am having a hard day/moment right now. I know this will pass but right now it feels painful. How are you feeling today? This answer validates the child’s perception, shares that you are going to move through the pain and brings the focus away from them taking care of you to you focusing on them. If you feel up to it you can suggest you spend some connected time together. Connecting after a vulnerable conversation helps show your child that you will be there for them even when you are upset.

Situation Two:

Imagine you are really angry about something going on in your life and you snap at your child.

What not to say: Don’t worry about me just do what I said and I won’t get so angry. In this response you do not take any responsibility for losing your temper or projecting your anger onto your child. This message is confusing because the child will interpret your anger as being about their behavior rather than about your own internal trigger.

What to say: Before you say anything take a break away from your child. Give yourself the room you need to feel your feet on the floor and take some deep breaths. Take as much time as you need to process your feelings. When you feel more calm return to your child and say, “I am sorry I snapped earlier. I am having a hard day (or days). I am feeling overwhelmed and I took that out on you. I apologize. I love you even when I am angry. How about we go draw together? This response provides validation for what your child noticed and models what it looks like to take responsibility for projection. By asking the child to reconnect you are bringing the focus back to the child and showing them that the relationship has not changed just because you got angry.

Co-parenting can be really challenging. We won’t always do it perfectly, but we can approach it with compassion for ourselves and what the buddhists call “a beginner's mind.” This way every interaction we have can be an opportunity to learn and reconnect.

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