(Beyond Buttoning Your Lips!)
Hold a “Commitment Ceremony”
Before you can implement any of the following ideas, you need to have a commitment from your ex (or soon to be ex) that you will both do everything possible to stop fighting in front of the kids. Write it down and sign it together. Attach a photograph of your child(ren) to remind you that you’ve made them a priority in this process.
Know Your Symptoms – and Manage Them Before You Explode
You’ve experienced it a thousand times – that feeling of anger or impatience that flares up when you are about to have an argument with your spouse: your throat tightens, your heart races, you literally begin to see red. You are about to flip your lid – the amygdala in your brain has been activated. Once you identify these symptoms, move as quickly as you can into managing them:
- Let your spouse know you need a break and leave the room without a dramatic exit;
- Take 5 deep breaths before you say a word;
- Ask your spouse to meet you in the next room or outside and once there, remind each other of your commitment you both made not to fight in front of the kids. (See #1 above.)
Pick a Regular Time to Check in with Your Spouse or Ex Spouse
Most arguments stem from some kind of miscommunication. And most of us mis-communicate because we lead busy lives and often don’t have time to slow down. This is especially true of separated or divorced families. If you are an intact couple, find a time either during the day or at night where you can spend time going over any major issues that you are facing (money problems, discipline tactics, school issues, health problems). If you are divorced or separated, make time once a week to check in either in person or on the phone about the same issues but only those that have some impact on the children.
There is a host of professionals out there who are trained to help couples or ex-couples communicate in such a way that the children are not involved in their conflicts. A co-parenting counselor is a professional (usually a therapist) who can work with the parents to iron out any disagreements before they turn into all-out wars. Plus, if you make a regular commitment to co-parenting therapy, you’ll each know that you have a regular and safe “space” each week where you can air your differences and express your frustrations away from the kids and in front of a professional trained in conflict resolution. Often just knowing that this appointment is right around the corner can stem a rising conflict and prevent it from escalating.
Don’t Underestimate the Impact that Fighting Has on Your Children
Plenty of research exists out there to show the negative impact of fighting in front of your kids. Your children know that they are “half you” and “half the other parent.” When one parent attacks the other, the child will be attacked, too. The result can be lower self esteem for a child, and/or increased anxiety and depression. Remember your commitment: to make the children a priority. Circle back to your Pledge and take a look at your children’s photos one more time. Use this as an opportunity to teach them that conflict does not have to be toxic or charged – rather, it can be an opportunity for each party to practice listening and compromising – these are great lessons to teach your kids.
Johanna Kleppe is an attorney and mediator in Marin and Sonoma Counties. More information in her bio on the Sonoma County “Find A Professional” page.