Continuing marital wars is the most common mistake parents make after divorce. It is extremely damaging to children who need to have healthy relationships with their parents — including new ones in a blended family.
Effective communication and agreement between custodial, noncustodial and stepparents on as many issues as possible is essential. The goal is to keep children, already wounded by divorce, from becoming overwhelmed by confusion or bitterness of adults in their lives.
Here's what can be done.
Refrain from saying negative things about your ex-spouse to your children. Although youngsters recognize differences in personality, outlook and habits of their parents, voicing negative feelings puts them squarely in the middle of post-divorce marital conflict.
Agree to meet and work cooperatively to resolve major differences about parenting decisions and make what is best for the child the top priority. Articulate this priority at the outset and reiterate it when other issues intrude.
Make sure you have complete privacy from children when discussing parenting issues.
Identify issues of mutual agreement between you and your ex, staying focused on one objective at a time. Then, broach more complex issues, such as adjusting the visitation schedule or who pays for dancing lessons, the orthodontist or college.
Listen, paraphrase and acknowledge valid points — even if you do not agree with them. Voice your point of view only when it is clear that you understand that of your ex.
Agree on a schedule that includes not just weekly visitations, but also family vacations, annual holidays and summer camps. Changes in schedules should be exceptions, not the norm. Lack of routine makes everyone's life chaotic and leaves children feeling insecure.
Establish routines between your homes. Routines are essential for creating safe, predictable household environments for children. Although complete uniformity between households is impossible, common expectations about homework, bedtime, curfew and other basic landmarks help your child. With some common standards and each family reinforcing its own norms, both sets of parents, when necessary, can become involved in enforcing discipline.
Consult your child's other parents when serious issues arise. For example, if a child is disciplined because of a serious infraction at school, it is best if all parents in the child's restructured family enforce united consequences. This is particularly important for teens who harm themselves by playing one set of parents against the other.
Talk through honest conflicts about values and priorities, if they resurface, with all your child's parents. Acting out your feelings only puts your child in the middle of a post-marital skirmish.
Agree that the noncustodial parent will support the decision of the custodial parent, if important issues cannot be resolved. Harmony based on the "second best" decision is usually better for a child than continued conflict to arrive at the "best" decision.
Parents who cooperate like this can create an environment where their children benefit from effective parental communication, established routines and consistent discipline within the restructured family.
Ultimately, this benefits parents, as well as their children.
Dennis O'Brien, MA, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker, experienced educator and therapist. His column which appeared in Suburban Journals, "Prevent teen suicide by addressing it," won an award in 2010 from the Missouri Institute of Mental Health for outstanding reporting on suicide.