Helping Kids After Divorce When One Parent Stops Parenting

Divorce doesn’t have to be the worst thing to happen to your kids. Yes, it is difficult for children when their parents divorce; it is also difficult for kids to live with parents who constantly fight or no longer love one another. Yet, one thing I know about children is that they are resilient. If both parents are happy, they can better attend to their children’s needs and happiness, and the story can have a happy ending.

The ideal divorce is done respectfully, without malice and blame. Throughout the transition, the parents support each other and work together to co-parent their children. If step-parents are introduced, everyone works together to create a unified parenting team. Does this sound like a fantasy to you? Is this not the way your divorce is going? Are your children suffering because your ex has left them in the divorce too? This is not ideal, but there are still things you can do to help your children through this.

Unfortunately, you cannot be both a mother and a father to your children. I have often heard parents say, “I had to be a mother and a father to my child.” No woman is capable of being a father; nor is a father capable of being a mother. Each parent offers their children different things within the parenting dynamic. When one person is absent from that equation, whether it be because of death, divorce, or decision, there is something missing that the other parent cannot provide. Sure, you will be able to pick up some of the duties that your partner previously took care of, but there are things each parent is uniquely qualified to teach their children, either directly or indirectly. Fathers teach sons and daughters about men, and mothers teach their children about women. It is important to have the influence of both genders in a child’s life. However, this influence does not have to be provided by the child’s biological parents, nor does it mean you have to immediately start dating to provide your child with the missing parental influence.

Invite your ex to be a part of his or her children’s lives; especially invite him or her to the significant events—the birthdays, the sports games, the recitals, etc. If he or she has a poor track record of attendance, don’t tell your children he or she has been invited in case your ex doesn’t show up. There is no need to continually disappoint your children. Your ex’s absence will speak for itself.

If your children want to invite their noncustodial parent, don’t try to stop them. As much as you want to, you will not be able to protect your children from disappointment; you don’t want them to see you as the obstacle that gets in the way of the missing parent’s participation in their life. Along these lines, when your ex does show up, be happy for your child. Do not use that time to remind your ex of the many disappointments he or she has visited on your child. Remember how excited your child will be to have those moments with your ex and, as much as possible, do your best to share and revel in those moments for your child’s sake.

If your child is expecting the other parent to show up and he or she doesn’t, do not use that time to criticize the missing parent. Be supportive of your child and empathize with the disappointment, sadness, and possible anger—do not denigrate the other parent. You can say something like, “He must have had something important come up. Maybe there was something else she needed to take care of. I’m sure he’ll call you as soon as he’s free.” (If you believe he actually will.) If your ex is so self-absorbed that he or she is completely missing from your child’s life, you can say something like, “Your mother/father is going through some challenging times right now. S/he needs to focus all their attention on getting themselves together before they are able to be a better parent for you.”  You want to help your child understand they have a right to be disappointed while helping them develop compassion for the uninvolved parent. You might find this difficult because you’ll have to watch your child struggle to manage deep disappointment at such a tender age; to avoid this, you’ll be tempted to force your ex into co-parenting. Unfortunately, nothing you say or do will make your ex do something he or she doesn’t want to do.

The reality is the more you try to protect your children by badmouthing the other parent, the more you risk your child turning against you! Your child might blame you and your attitude for the reason his or her other parent doesn’t come around. You become the villain and your ex becomes the misunderstood saint.

Never speak badly about your ex to your children. Your children need to feel loving toward both their parents. There are no sides here other than the side of healthy parenting. You want your children to understand that whatever is happening is because you and your ex have grown apart or no longer love each other, but neither of you have stopped loving them.

If your ex is often absent, you may want to enlist the help of other men or women in your children’s lives to fill in. They may have aunts and uncles you can call on. There may be teachers, coaches, neighbors and friends willing to be a role model for your child when your ex is not present. This isn’t meant to replace the absent mom or dad; it’s just good to provide the missing male or female presence during the time your ex is getting him or herself together.

Most children hope their parents will reconcile, so be careful not to begin dating too early, and don’t expect your children to accept a new person in the parental role right away. Their dream is that everyone is together the way it used to be, the way their whole lives have been. Bringing a man or woman into their lives before they have adjusted to the divorce will be a set-up for failure—they are unlikely to play nice with this new person. Children, particularly older children, are not looking for a new mom or dad. They have a mother and a father, even if one is absent. Give your children time to adjust to having one parent living somewhere else and spending less time with him or her. You can’t just replace a parent in your child’s life like you might a puppy that has died.

If you are already dating, provide a clear message to your children that this person is in your life because you enjoy his or her company, not because they are trying to be a mother or father to your child—not initially anyway. If it is possible to date without involving your children in the new relationship, all the better, particularly in the beginning. Introducing your children to every person you date after a divorce can leave them confused at best and hurt at worst. They may form attachments to the person you are dating and become traumatized if things don’t work out between you. It would be best to wait and only introduce your significant other to your children after things have become serious.

It may help to remember that every person is doing the best they know how in any given situation to meet their needs. If your ex is absent from your child’s life, it’s not likely that he or she is purposely trying to hurt you or your children, but because your ex is working hard to get what he or she needs at that point in time. This could be challenging because you may resent that and view it as selfish behavior, but if you can remind yourself that you are enough, you can be a single parent. Ask for the help you need from positive people in your life of the opposite sex who are willing to support and encourage your children. Even alone, you are capable of loving, teaching, counseling, and disciplining your children day-to-day.

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