The Language of Coparenting: What to Say (and NOT to Say) to Your Child of Divorce
When you go through a divorce, you have to relearn how to live in many ways. Everything from how to arrange pickups and drop-offs to how to manage funds is a skill you'll relearn probably multiple times. But for me, the hardest skill to learn as an almost-divorced mom is the language of coparenting.
I'm sure I was speaking English before, like I am now, but sometimes I trip over my words as if I'm gaining a new mother tongue: the verbiage of parenting after divorce. I recognize that not all of my phrasing will work for someone else, but by focusing on using positive and neutral language, I have allowed my child to feel comfortable having a relationship with both of her parents, as well as helped her feel safe to vocalize her own hurts and fears. This has also encouraged a good working relationship with my ex, which is no small feat.
For example, as a child, my mom would occasionally say this phrase when she was mad or just shooting the breeze: "your father."
But as an almost-divorced mommy, saying "your father" sounds cold, distant, and almost punishing to me. I never, ever use that type of distant language. He is strictly "daddy," an affectionate and warm phrase to my 4-year-old daughter. How I address and talk about him will affect how she views him. If I use language to describe him that is less than savory and clinical, she will end up viewing him differently and me as well. I don't want that for my child. Plus, despite our differences, I think my ex is a good person and I want my daughter to know that — as well as him! This means addressing him positively in a consistent fashion.
If you can't address your ex in a positive or, at the very least, neutral fashion, you're causing a lot of heartache for your child. If you're always saying "your father" or worse, and it comes across in an angry or negative way, your child will take that little possessive pronoun "your" and retain not only all of your anger toward your ex but also feel partly to blame for his or her father's behavior.
Avoid cold pronouns. If you can't say anything nice, just say "Dad."
Since her father and I separated, any slight raise of my voice when her father is around is enough to give my daughter "argument signals" even if we aren't fighting. One day he was sharing with me that he was frustrated at work, and as he expounded on the story, my daughter interjected to stop the supposed fight she thought we were having. I can thank the last year of our unhappy marriage for setting the stage of her fear of tense or sarcastic vocal tones, but I am happy to report that her dad and I are both using mostly happy voices these days as civil coparents and sometimes as friends.
We weren't yellers, but we still fought, and I can guarantee that your children pick up on any tension in your voices, so when you speak to your ex around the kiddos, moderate your vocal tone and volume!
After separating from my ex-husband, the word "home" became more powerful than it ever was in my married days. Whenever I refer to a home or a house, I always remind my daughter that she has two homes. For the longest time she would call her father's house "Daddy's house" and my home "Mommy's house" or "her home." I tried to reinforce to her that both homes belong to her. That my house isn't my house but instead, "our house." And that Daddy's house is also hers. This new parenting phrase will help me since my daughter and I are about to move into a new place. By changing how I spoke, I wanted to reflect to my daughter that she belongs to both of us and in both places. That she is not a guest there but our family and heart no matter where we are or where we go.
Make sure you let your little one know that both homes are his or her homes. If Mommy puts the seal of approval on where the little one is, the child will feel secure about wherever he or she is sleeping that night. If you don't, your child will be anxious, and that's not fair to your child.
It Seems Like
When we were a nuclear married family, I would just ask my daughter if she were down or upset, "Why are you sad?" Now that her emotions are higher in the past year throughout the divorce process, I never simply ask. I always start with, "It seems like you are emotion X (happy, sad, mad)." I do this so that way she can correct me if I have gauged her mood incorrectly rather than feeling I am forcing some emotion on her or, if I am right, give her a chance to tell me why she's feeling that way. If I phrase myself wrong, I could shut down my little peanut emotionally, and I don't want to do that.
Kids can shut down from stress during a divorce. Use neutral and empathetic language to encourage your child to share how he or she feels.
Validate the Feelings
If your child tells you he misses his father, validate his emotions. If he says he wishes he could be with you instead of Dad on Dad's night, validate! This doesn't mean you're encouraging him to skip Dad's night but that you validate your child's feelings so he or she can feel safe sharing what's going on in his or her little head and heart. You need to be a support for your child. If you think divorce is hard for you, it's even harder for the kids! It doesn't matter if your ex stinks and your kid misses a deadbeat — empathize and validate!
When I refer to my ex, I call him "my friend."
"Daddy and Mommy are friends. We make great choices as friends. I care about Daddy."
I always call her father my friend. He is not the ex, "your father," or my former husband to my child. He is a friend. I did this purposefully in order for her to one day understand that Daddy and I get along better as friends . . . than we did as married partners. Plus, I want her to know I respect and care for her dad even if there ended up being no happily ever after. I understand that some people don't like their exes very much, and so saying "friend" for them might be a stretch, but for me, I realize that as sad as it is, it is better for us to be apart. I will always care about him, but I have moved on and want all three of us to be happy.
Your child will question your marital status and ask if you love Daddy still. It's classic divorce chat for kids of divorce. Saying he's your friend shows that while you may not be husband and wife anymore, you respect him . . . even if he's not your favorite cup of tea!
I'm Sorry You Feel That Way
When you're a kid in a divorce situation, you have little choice about where you sleep, who you're with, and where you're going. Sometimes, my girl doesn't want it to be a "Daddy's day" or a "Mommy's day," but she doesn't get to choose where she goes. So instead of simply telling her, "We're your parents and we choose. Deal with it," I tell her I am sorry you feel that way, but today you are staying here or there, whatever the case may be. I acknowledge and empathize with her feelings but remind her that we are the parents and have to make the choices.
Validate — acknowledge — but take charge and show strength. Your child will learn to be flexible!
My New Dictionary
There are so many words and phrases I had to learn in order to be a fairly calm (hey, divorce is exhausting sometimes) mother under the pressure of divorce, as well as a successful coparent with my ex-husband. Some days it is hard and I forget my new words, but as long as I keep plugging along, they will all be a part of my new motherhood lexicon.