Since my wife and I separated we share custody of our son. He spends time in each home and we have very different approaches to how we manage things. I worry about the impact of this on our son and despite trying to talk about this with my ex-wife, we cannot seem to come up with a way to do this that is consistent between homes.
I am frustrated and wish that we could agree on something but every time I bring it up it leads to some sort of argument. Mostly I worry that it is negatively impacting our son and I am worried that it will cause problems for him down the road. What should I do?
This is a very common problem for parents who share custody and parenting of their children after a separation and divorce.
Differences are often a source of ongoing conflict and stress for adults and children alike. It is not uncommon to find that each home has a different approach and view about how things should be managed and common ground is not easy to find.
Parents often worry that this will have a negative impact on their children and they can get stuck in some very unproductive exchanges with each other as they try to address this.
However, children can, from fairly young ages, negotiate the differences between homes successfully. Inconsistencies between homes are not necessarily a problem and they do not necessarily lead to difficulties for children down the road.
Children have to negotiate different expectations in different places from an early age as they go between home, daycare, school, and community activities. Differences in expectations and approaches are generally to be expected and are not, in and of themselves, something that are problematic.
What the research is showing is that it is the conflict that is a problem and it is the conflict that is most strongly related to negative outcomes for children prior, during and after a separation.
This places children in a difficult position and causes more stress and difficulties down the road. Parents can sometimes forget this as they get frustrated with the other parent’s different choices, actions and approaches in their relationship with the children.
The research also shows that one of the strongest protections for a child against ongoing conflict and disruptions that come with a separation or divorce is the strength and quality of their primary relationships.
The strength and quality of children’s attachment relationships provide children with the safety and security to explore, cope and manage the things that they encounter in their world. Children of all ages rely on their primary relationships to assist and support them as they confront difficulties in their lives.
So the best thing you can do is build and maintain a strong, safe, healthy and connected relationship with your son. It is that relationship that will help him negotiate the differences in the places that he encounters in his world and it is that relationship that he will return to for help and support when he needs it.
So rather than focusing on the differences, help your son understand that things are different in different places. Create a space in your relationship for him to talk about how he feels and experiences those differences and help him develop some strategies for managing those differences.
Use time that you have together to spend time connecting and strengthening your relationship so that your relationship and his experience of it can support him as he negotiates differences that he encounters.
Moreover, continue to do what you can to keep the difference between you and your ex wife between yourselves. Address any concerns and disagreements with your ex wife when your son is not present.
When your son tells you something that upsets you about what his mother is doing resist telling or showing him how upset you are. And accept that she may do things differently and that can be OK.
Your job is not to change what she is doing so that it is consistent with your approach but to support and connect with your son so that he can develop ways of negotiating and working out things successfully himself.
If you wish to ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail them at email@example.com. Consult a Counsellor is provided by registered clinical counsellors Nancy Bock, Diane Davies Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead and Sara-Lynn Kang at pacific therapy & consulting inc. It appears every second Thursday in the Record.