Your fear of your ex-partner may be justified, but unless you have fears for your children’s safety when they are with him, you need to be able to support them to feel positive about the time they spend with their father.
Even when you are angry with him because he has not made a child support payment or because he has missed some access time with the kids without giving you advance notice or because he is taking you back to court about something petty, try to keep these feelings to yourself.
Be honest with yourself about any criticisms you may have about his parenting. Is your criticism about something important (for example, a child not being given medication or being kept from extra-curricular activities that mean a lot to the child) or are they about something less important (he is not as conscientious as you are about bedtimes on weekends or about well-planned meals)? Are you struggling with having to give up some of the control you are used to having as the primary parent?
Talking about their dad
Tempting as it may be, don’t use your children to spy on your ex-partner. Of course, you want to know what happens when they spend time with their dad, but avoid cross-examining them the minute they return from an access visit. Ask them general, positive questions rather than pointed questions that insinuate that you are expecting a negative answer.
Be alert to answers that may indicate you need to probe deeper or that there may be a concern for the children’s safety or well-being.
Generally, give them positive feedback about what they share with you: “I am glad you had so much fun with your dad.” “It sounds like your dad’s new girlfriend is really nice – that’s great.” “I know you feel uncomfortable at your dad’s apartment right now, but it won’t be long till it starts to feel like home too.”
You don’t want your children to feel they have to tell on their father to you (or vice versa) or that they have to keep secrets from either of you.
Help your children manage their emotions. This is a difficult time for them, too. They may have a mixture of feelings, including grief at the loss of the family you used to be, anger with either or both of you for what has happened, frustration that there is not as much money as there used to be or unhappiness at having to move to a new home or neighbourhood. They may blame themselves for the family breakup or be worried that you or your ex-partner won’t love them as much in the future.
On the other hand, they may also feel relief not to be living in a home where abuse is happening.
Limit what you share with them so they don’t feel like they have to become involved in the adult issues. At the same time, listen to them so you know what they are worried about, what they want for their future in your newly configured family, what kind of support they might want, how they feel about decisions that will have an impact on them.
It is really important, no matter how old your kids are, for them to hear consistently from you that you love them, that the family breakup is not their fault, that they are not to worry about money and that it is okay for them to keep loving their father too.
To the extent that you can, make changes slowly and try to stick to familiar structures and routines. For example, even if the children are going to have to change schools, can it wait until the end of the school year or at least the end of the term?
If it is safe, develop similar (or at least not contradicting) strategies with your ex-partner so the children learn there will be consistency between their two homes about things like homework, chores, bedtimes and so on.
Your children will be affected socially, physically, emotionally and academically if they are exposed to ongoing conflict between you and your ex-partner. You cannot control his behaviour, and you should never put yourself in an unsafe situation just to avoid conflict, but if you do the best job you can to behave in a non-emotional and respectful way toward him, you will reduce the tension to which your children will be exposed.
Tap into support
Now may be a good time to involve extended family if your children are already close to them. A child may be able to share with a grandparent some of the anxieties that they don’t want to burden you with.
Depending on how severe your children’s emotional reactions to the new structure of your family are, you may need to consider finding professional support for them.