Page 6: Because life goes on … helping children and youth live with separation and divorce

Section 4 - Protecting Children from Conflict

One of the best things you can do for your children to protect them from the negative consequences of parental separation and to help them thrive is likely to be one of the most difficult – reducing conflict with your ex–partner. (See box Understanding Conflict.)

Impact of Parental Conflict on Children

Children are very vulnerable to their parents’ anger, either directed toward them or against each another. When parents fight openly, their children suffer the consequences. There is nothing more distressing for them than to be caught in-between angry parents.

A high degree of conflict very often results in difficulties for children, and these problems may last a lifetime. A large body of research reveals that children’s lives – and their relationships with their parents – are affected by how their parents handle conflict. The aspects of conflict linked to the greatest difficulties for children include:

  • seeing or overhearing their parents’ aggressive or violent conflict, whether verbal or physical
  • feeling guilt and responsibility for parents’ problems or their well-being because of a conflict they are having with a parent
  • hearing one parent speak negatively about the other parent or criticize that parent’s character or mistakes
  • being caught in loyalty conflicts that require them to directly or indirectly side with one parent and against the other
  • being used as a messenger to carry hostile messages or convey a parent’s anger
  • being forbidden to mention one parent in the presence of the other or to have photos or momentos of the other parent

Children learn what they live. If they see their parents treating each other poorly or yelling at each other, they learn that these are acceptable behaviours and become more likely to engage in them.

You may be involved in a bitter break-up, exhausted and infuriated. Or you may feel like you just want a clean break from your ex-partner. This is understandable, but the bottom line is that your children need both of you in their lives.

At all costs, avoid venting about your adult problems with your children. Friends, counsellors, therapists, and even a pet can all make good listeners when you need to get negative feelings off your chest.

Understanding Conflict
What Is Conflict? Ask Yourself …
A conflict is more than just a disagreement. It is an ongoing situation in which one or both parties perceive a threat (whether or not the threat is real).
  • What were the main conflicts in your relationship?
  • Are they the same or different issues after the separation?
Conflicts continue to fester when ignored. Because conflicts involve perceived threats to our well-being or survival, they stay with us until we face and resolve them.
  • Do you fear conflict or avoid it at all costs?
  • Do you have conflicts with your ex-partner or anyone else that never get addressed?
We respond to conflicts based on our interpretations of events. We do not always respond to an objective review of the facts. Our interpretations are influenced by our life experiences, culture, values and beliefs.
  • What is the story you tell yourself and others about why the relationship ended?
  • What story might your ex-partner tell about how the relationship ended? Is there some truth to both stories?
Conflicts trigger strong emotions. If we aren’t comfortable with our emotions or able to manage them in times of stress, we won’t be able to resolve conflict successfully. Viewing a conflict as hopeless could create a self-fulfilling prophesy.
  • Do you view conflict with your ex-partner as demoralizing, humiliating, or something to fear?
  • Do you expect discussions with your ex-partner to go badly?
Conflicts are an opportunity for growth. When you are able to resolve conflict in a relationship, it builds confidence and trust.
  • Do you think you might be able to let go of some of the resentment and anger you hold for your ex-partner, for the sake of the children?

It’s natural to feel hurt and angry, but your feelings don’t have to rule your behaviour. (See “Learning to Let Go of Anger” in Section 2.) Fortunately, there are proven strategies that you can practise and apply that reduce anger and improve your mental well-being.

Some Tips to Help You Reduce Conflict with Your Ex-Partner

  • Focus on the goal – stay child-focused. Take a few moments to change your mindset from what’s happened in the past to what your children need in the present. Think about what you want to accomplish and how that will make a difference for your children. State the problem without blame, describe how you think it is affecting the children, and be open to finding a solution that works for both of you. (See box Differences Between a Hard and a Soft Start-Up.)
  • Give yourself a short “time-out.” Schedule some personal time to relax at a stressful time of day or around a stressful situation.
  • Consider the timing. If you and your ex-partner tend to argue at a particular time of day or night, try changing the time of these co-parenting discussions.
  • Avoid what you can avoid. If it just isn’t possible to relate to your ex-partner without constant conflict, there are ways to co-parent that minimize contact with the other person. (For more information, see “When Cooperative Co-Parenting Seems Impossible – Parallel Parenting” in Section 6.)
  • Use a “soft start-up” when bringing up areas of conflict or disagreement. The use of a soft start-up at the beginning of a disagreement could help influence a positive outcome. Research reveals that discussions generally end on the same note they beginFootnote 3.

In other words, if you start an argument harshly – meaning you attack or blame your ex-partner verbally – you’ll most likely end the argument with at least as much tension as you began. But if you use a softened start-up – meaning you raise the issue without criticizing – you have a much better chance at reaching an agreement. Here are some examples of the difference between a harsh and a soft start-up:

Differences Between a Hard and a Soft Start-Up
A Hard Start-Up A Soft Start-Up
Raise the issue without blame. “It’s your fault that Allison’s homework was turned in late last week.” “Allison’s homework was turned in late last week. I’m upset about this, because she needs us to help her stay on track in school.”
Make statements that start with “I” and not “You.” “You are not listening to me.” “I think it could be helpful if we tried listening to each other better, for the sake of our children.”
Describe what is happening without judgment.

“You never fix the kids a healthy breakfast.”

“John is never free when I am scheduled to call him.”

“I think the kids do better at school if they start their day with a healthy breakfast.”

“I really find it helpful to touch base with John when he is at your house. How can we work to ensure that I call at a time when John is free to chat?”

Be clear. “You need to pay more attention to the children in the evenings before they go to bed.” “The children respond well to a pre-bedtime routine. Joey calms down for sleep when I read two storybooks to him before bed. Suzy needs to take a bath, even though she doesn’t always want to take one. She likes her special soap and bath toys.”
Be appreciative. “The children enjoyed the trip to the zoo.” “Thank you for taking the kids to the zoo for the day.” I know they had a great time”

Understanding Anger

We all feel angry at times. Anger is part of our human experience. Anger by itself is not destructive, but how we try to cope with it can be. For example, if we handle and express our anger inappropriately, we can end up doing harm to ourselves and others.

Anger is the emotional response that we have to an event perceived as a threat, a violation or an injustice. The experience of anger varies from person to person. For example, someone may cry when they feel angry while someone else may yell, while still someone else may become withdrawn.

We usually learn to experience and deal with anger as we grow up. For example, in some families angry outbursts were tolerated while others avoided expressing any feelings – positive or negative. Still others encouraged the expression of feelings and taught children to deal with their anger in healthy ways and to stand up for themselves in a firm, but respectful way.

When we feel anger, it’s time to pay attention to the reasons behind the anger. The experience of anger has some common elements:

We experience what is happening as unfair

  • We feel helpless in the moment, or maybe:
    • threatened and fearful
    • vulnerable
    • exposed, shamed or violated
    • unable to meet our needs
  • We personalize the experience:
    • “it’s been done to me”
    • “it’s happening to me”

There are four basic ways in which people respond to anger:

  • Aggressive: Anger is “turned loose”
  • Passive: Anger is “locked up” inside
  • Passive/Aggressive: Outwardly agreeable, but channels the anger indirectly
  • Assertive: Anger is appropriately managed and communicated if necessary.

Skillful Handling of Anger

It may appear, at face value, that holding anger in rather than letting it out is a better option. But denying our anger can be very harmful. Because unresolved anger can leave us in a state of perpetual arousal, or make us feel chronically helpless, it’s damaging to our bodies, our relationships and our own mental well-being.

If you tend to hold in your anger, first recognize that this is your way of coping with the anger. Next, try to get it out by writing your thoughts and feelings on paper or on a computer. Then try to talk with a trusted friend or a counsellor about the anger you are holding inside. There are ways to express negative thoughts and feelings in a healthy and respectful way. Allow yourself to be angry. If you feel you need to confront someone, stand up for yourself in a firm, but respectful way.

Do it at a time when you are calm and in a way that protects the other person’s feelings. Respond rather than react. (See box Preventing Impulsive Decisions or Actions: The “24-Hour Rule.”)

Preventing Impulsive Decisions or Actions: The “24-Hour Rule”

Our reactions to various life situations do not always reflect who we want to be or what we really want. For example, think about the times you’ve regretted decisions that you made or actions that you did in the heat of the moment. Like a lot of people, in hindsight you probably wish you could take them back. When we experience anger, we are more likely to make poor decisions and act impulsively if we don’t take the time to calm down and gain perspective. That’s where the “24-hour rule” comes in.

The 24-hour rule is a simple and effective decision-making tool that prevents us from overreacting or making instant regrettable decisions. In a nutshell, the 24-hour rule has only one requirement: to wait 24 hours after an upsetting incident – perhaps with your ex-partner or teenager – before reacting. The 24-hour rule can help stop us in our tracks and remind us to calm down. We can even say something like “I am so angry with you, but I’m going to wait a day before deciding what to say or do.” The passage of just 24 hours allows us to look at the situation with a fresh perspective, without feeling like we are being controlled by immediate, strong emotions. With some distance, our judgment is in charge, not our anger.

You can apply the 24-hour rule when you find yourself in difficult situations with your ex-partner, your children or anybody else.

Just as turning anger inward is unhelpful and damaging, so too is unleashing the anger inappropriately. In the short-run, acting out our anger in destructive or inappropriate ways may seem to help us feel better, but rash behaviour tends to make things worse. If we make a habit of acting out our anger, we put ourselves at its mercy, letting it control our lives and reinforcing our fears, feelings of vulnerability and guilt. (See “Learning to Let Go of Anger” in Section 2.)

Identify Negative Thought Patterns That Trigger Your Anger

Common negative thinking patterns can also trigger and fuel anger. The key is to bring them to your awareness. These common negative thinking patterns, unrestrained, are likely to make life more difficult for you and your children:

  • Overgeneralizing. For example, “You always interrupt me” … “You never consider my needs” … “You are always late delivering the children.”
  • Obsessing on “shoulds” and “musts.” Having a rigid view of the way things should or must be and getting angry when things don’t line up.
  • Mind-reading and jumping to conclusions. Assuming that you “know” what your ex-partner is thinking or feeling, for example, he or she has intentionally upset you, ignored your wishes or disrespected you.
  • Collecting straws. Looking for things to get upset about, usually while overlooking anything positive. Or letting small irritations build and build until you reach the “final straw” and explode, often over something relatively minor.
  • Blaming. When anything bad happens or something goes wrong, it’s always the fault of your ex-partner.
  • Losing perspective. Blowing the situation or problem out of proportion when compared with the bigger picture.

Most of us, at one time or another, engage in these negative thinking patterns. But if they become ingrained in your way of relating or responding to your ex-partner, your co-parenting relationship – and thus your children – will likely suffer. Take a moment to see if you can relate to any of these forms of negative thinking patterns. With awareness, you can change these patterns.

The bottom line is that, whatever it takes or whatever works to help you co-parent with your ex-partner, do it for your children. Over time, you may begin to see the positive benefits in your own well-being, too.

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