The Broken Dream of the Parent Trap
So, you are divorced or separated and are sharing custody of your children with your ex-partner. Things have stabilized and there is a comfortable routine emerging.
The kids seem settled and even happy. I remember my lawyer telling me at one point that eventually things settle down and you reach a new normal.
She was mostly right.
All of a sudden, your ex finds a new partner and is introducing them to your child(ren). What seemed to be smooth sailing is now a tumultuous ocean in a storm.
How can you support your children through this transition phase?
It’s important to recognize that children can re-experience the divorce or separation differently at their different developmental stages. What seemed processed and done may re-emerge later as their level and depth of understanding of emotional issues changes. With this re-processing may come uncomfortable emotions, so have patience with them and yourself. As they re-experience feelings, it may be very personal and uncomfortable for you. Try your best to put your feelings aside to support your child in working through this situation.
Often, children may hope beyond hope for the eventual and romantic reunion of their parents. They may on some level understand that the divorce was best. They may even seem well adjusted and happy now. Regardless, under the surface, there is often a secret hope that their parents will reunite and their life will return to one house with one set of parents. It is the dream of The Parent Trap, the popular movie from the 1960s that was remade in the 1990s and starred Lindsay Lohan.
The Parent Trap is a popular story of two identical twin sisters who are separated at birth by their divorcing parents. They meet as adolescents, realize they are related and hatch a plot to switch places and bring their parents back together. It highlights the often present hope children have for an “intact” family. When one of the parents chooses to move on, this can send children reeling when they realize their secret dream isn’t going to happen anymore.
Do’s and Don’ts: Helping Your Child When Your Ex Moves On
While you can’t control how or when your ex-partner shares the news, you can support your child as they work through this adjustment.
- First, put aside your own emotions. It can feel very personal and upsetting if your child expresses anger or upset about the divorce. They may even be very angry at you if you left, or even if you were left. If it was mutual, the child may still be angry at both of you. It is important to resist the urge to stifle your child’s feelings and just make them understand it was for the best or that it wasn’t your decision. The key is to focus on letting them express their hurt feelings without judgement.
- Be real and honest with your child. You can support them by underlining the fact that the relationship was already over and that one person moving on does not mean you or your ex-partner love them any less. It can be helpful to re-state that the child is not at fault for the divorce. It is an adult decision and it wasn’t going to change. This is just the next part of moving forward.
- Reassure them they are loved (by both parents). One or both parents moving on does not mean the child is loved any less. Find ways to reassure them that they are still important and loved and they are not losing their parents. Explore their fears with them and find ways to show them how they will still have loving parents.
- Support your ex-partner as still loving and caring for the child. Resist any urge to speak poorly of your ex or their new relationship. Instead, find ways to support their connection with your child. Angry outbursts can lead to loyalty conflicts for your child.
- Take the high road while ensuring the physical and emotional safety of your child. This may mean having a conversation with your ex about how this new person will have access to your child.
- Ask a million questions about your ex’s new partner. It can make your child anxious. It also puts them in the middle of a situation that is not theirs to mediate.
- Retaliate or look jealous.
- Reminisce about “the good old days” or share old stories about your relationship with your ex with your child. It isn’t helping them settle in to the new reality and only creates more .
- Rush yourself into a new relationship “just to keep up”. You may be feeling left behind, or reminded of what you have lost but don’t let that push you into decisions grounded in that pain.
- If you are hurt that your ex has moved on, don’t share this with your child. Keep the focus on the fact that you love them and that your ex loves them. If you share your pain with your child, they will not want to leave you when it’s time to go and it puts them in the middle of a challenging loyalty conflict.
Even though the idea of the parent trap might be enticing and romantic for kids, it really is a setup for disappointment. You can avoid this disappointment if you put your kids first. Take time for yourself and to do things that matter to you. Talk to people who support you and focus on your healthy future and the positive choices you are making.
If you need help or support you can contact the Men’s Helpline at 1-833-327-MENS (6367)