Throughout our parenting lives, we’re given conflicting and superficial parenting advice from magazine columns, attorneys, teachers, our friends, and family. Sometimes there’s an ex who has harmed your children and is mandated to stay away; other times, the children want nothing to do with their other parent. For the most part, most of us experience an ex with resentments, anger, and frustration. We’re tired of being cheated on or feeling controlled. I get it. But, when the time comes to really communicate with your teen’s other parent, (the one who’s nearby, in their lives, unchaperoned and available to them) there’s one important, very important bit of advice I can offer you.
You won’t want to hear this advice believing instead that you’re justifiably right to tell them what to do or to hate them for hurting you, and that you always know what’s best for the kids. Especially, when you see your teen doing things that are stupid, thoughtless, rude or going down the wrong path. (That’s when you’ll be blaming the other parent and their DNA!)
Our teens, no matter how tall really, are still kids. Still in formation, still not quite ready to get out there and make it real.
Quite often, there’s no need for this advice. Your teen is doing what they’re supposed to be doing - going to school, playing sports, being involved with activities; saying please and thank you. There’s a lot to be proud of even if they don’t get all A’s or are the MVP on the football team. You don’t need what I have to say at these times. And their other parent is nearby or at the parent-teacher meetings with you. The truce between the two of you is taken for granted.
Sometimes, you’ll be at a game or an event and want to shy away from the other parent. You may not want to stand too close or hear them shout cheers from the sidelines or constantly ask to know your child’s friends’ names. I mean, “What’s that about anyway?” This advice won’t make sense then. That’s okay and definitely allowed! There’s no need to pretend you respect or admire them if you don’t.
Then there are the times when your teen takes off for the weekend, flying here or there to see the other parent’s family or friends; or they get taken to an amusement park, the beach, or a barbecue without you. You’ll hate this advice in these moments because being grateful for the break doesn’t even register if you’re alone at home or hurting on the insides. You’re envious and a bit jealous. You won’t want to be gracious. You can’t stop protesting. It’s a funny thing that kind of pain… you know your child(ren) is okay, and you’re the one who’s upset. It doesn’t seem fair.
And it’s not. Fair.
Watching our teens walk away from us living their own lives is one of life’s greatest challenges for parents.
I remember when my oldest child was tiny, just a few weeks old. I was nursing him in the middle of the night, delirious from lack of sleep and looking out the window. All of a sudden I had this flash of parenting advice. I saw his entire life fly before me: his first day of school, learning things in a classroom, having a playdate, being with his nanny, riding a school bus, going to the movies, playing sports, getting hurt, falling in love, making love, going to the Prom, going to college, getting a career, getting married, being a parent himself… just like that. All the times I would not be able to be with him.
That flash of parenting advice has stayed with me for years. It has allowed me to feel the pain of separation every day, not just the pain when my kids leave to go with their father on his parenting time.
Often we forget in the midst of divorce that we’re not allowed to live our children’s lives.
We are forced to let go and give them the time and space to experience the life they’re being given. During divorce, that means with the other parent. This is when we hate this advice. We have to let them go. Letting go doesn’t mean being negligent or cruel. Just the opposite… letting go gives them a chance to become who they’re supposed to be. We can’t do it for them. And we can’t control what occurs as they step out into the world without us - on their own going to school or to camp or on their own going to their other parent’s home for the weekend!
When divorced parents share teenagers, they share the burdens that teens bring with them. “Little children, little problems… big children, big problems.” Luckily, as they go from crawling to walking to dating, we’re given time to grow into how to handle the chaos that sometimes befalls our kin. And this is where my most important parenting advice comes in:
When the shit hits the fan, you will want to have your teen’s other parent on speed dial.
You will need them to be there for you. For your teen. For thinking through options, choices, and the steps to take because, though they may no longer be intimate with you, they are with your teenager. You’ll need their clear dialogue and whatever parenting skills, and useful discussion, they’re capable of giving you. You will want to strategize and consider decisions together.
Because shit hits the fan sometimes and your teen’s other parent loves your child too.
In those moments, when it really matters, none of the stuff you were arguing about will. It won’t matter if you didn’t break bread together at the football awards dinner or that your divorce cost you years of lost time and thousands of dollars. It won’t matter that they hurt you at all. Or that they hurt your child by leaving the family home. It seriously won’t matter because when it counts… when it truly counts… the teen, the child you both created and raised to whatever degree, truly is, all that matters.
I have been through several shitty experiences raising teens with my children’s father. Each one has been worse than the one before. Each one was scary and desperate, and serious. Each one involved life and death. Way too many of these moments for any parent to deal with. And the one person, the first person I call is my children’s other parent.
He is the one I reach out to for his steady, legal mind. I want his disassociated, objective viewpoint. I need his testosterone layered action steps. I need his car to drive me to school or to camp to retrieve my teens in trouble. I need him to drive while I sit in the backseat holding my teen in pain. I need his humor as my mind races. His steady, wise, objective viewpoint to manage the Deans, Directors, and Doctors. I need him. Because my child needs their other parent more than we’ve ever needed anyone in their life.
No one else loves your child the way the other parent loves your child. When they do and when they can.
We may not share dinners together or have the same friendships. I didn’t like that disassociated, objective analysis of my life in my home. You may not get invited to those family events and former friends’ celebrations. I was bored with that humor when I heard it day in and day out. That controlling behavior and curt directives are a relief to be out from under. Your separation was painful and necessary for all the reasons you know and accept, or not accept. But in the moment when the shit hits the fan, it won’t matter.
That’s why it’s important to remember, as you send those OCD texts and go back and forth arguing about who packs what clothes and what they’re eating for dinner and all the petty, stupid (seemingly justified and necessary) fighting that goes on as two formally married people literally tear themselves and their marriage apart; it’s important to know, to keep in mind that your child, that little itty bitty thing you two brought into the world has their own life to live.
And when shit happens to them, they will need you to be there for them. Together.
Even if you never live together again.
Even if you hate one another, disrespect one another or despise each other. To your teenager none of that matters in their self-centered adolescent years. They need you to be there for them.
And here’s the thing… you will be.
You will rise above all of it and step into being an adult. You will remember you’re a parent. You will do the right thing and be grateful for the support. You’ll welcome the hug even if you couldn’t look them in the eye in the courthouse. If you’re lucky, there may even be a thank you.
This is the most important parenting advice I can give any parent of any teenager, divorced or not: when it comes to our children, we’re capable of showing up.
So, here’s the big question… how much showing up can you do now in service to your children (in service to yourself!) whatever age they are? Can you act as the parent you are? Show a united front in support of your children? Or while teaching your little ones how to behave? If that other parent hurt you, can you put that aside for the moment you’re in front of your child? When your teenager needs you? (Which is every day.) When the shit hits the fan?
Your children are testing and watching you to see how you’ll react, to see how much they can trust you, to figure out if you’re on their side of things or your own. (That sucks!) But it’s true and it’s always happening.
What I know for sure, is that your teen is on their own path. You’re also bigger and better than you know. You will be able to show up when you have to… no matter what has transpired in the past with that other parent. Your pride will shrink, your heart will open, your mind will rush toward a bigger perspective, your fear will take over and you’ll need the support to help your child. When the shit hits the fan. And so will their other parent. I believe that. I’ve seen it over and over again.
We’re only human and hardly perfect, but if this touches a nerve and you’re having trouble keeping things in perspective and would like some help stepping into a new direction, reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org Your teenager will thank you.