Often after a divorce or separation, parents find themselves competing with one another for their children’s affection. This competition understandably stems from a place of insecurity. After all, one or both parents could still be suffering from hurt, embarrassment, and feelings of inadequacy, not to mention any number of other emotions.
With their marriage broken, focus often shifts to “getting it right” with their children. The proverbial litmus test for how well they are doing as parents becomes measured in their child’s smile. If a parent feels they can produce the most or the biggest smiles, they “win,” and the other parent must then automatically be the “loser” if they can’t match or top it.
While these feelings are understandable, they are not excusable. Co-parents must learn to avoid looking at their situation as win-lose. That can be easier said than done when society can be so conditioned to expect a winner and a loser, especially with language like “winning” and “losing” custody “battles.”
Competitive parenting battles could negatively impact the family by putting a child in a situation where they possess too much power involving emotions they are too young to understand. Even the most emotionally mature child would be tempted to play one side off the other to see what they can get or get away with.
Parental competition shows up in many different ways, but there are usually two common roots from which they stem. Below is more information about these and some tips on how to avoid turning co-parenting into a free-for-all competition.
After a divorce, most parents’ natural tendency is to provide comfort to their children, who have possibly just had their worlds turned upside down. These protective feelings can manifest themselves in a parent’s avoidance of discipline or efforts to sabotage the other parent’s rules and regulations.
Avoiding the word “no” to garner favoritism from a child will only negatively impact that child’s development. Rules and discipline are necessary for children to develop appropriate and acceptable behaviors. Discipline does not equate to spankings or shaming. On the contrary, saying “no” without being wishy-washy lessens confusion and reinforces a child’s physical and emotional security.
Setting age-appropriate rules and being consistent with them, such as how late they can stay up on a school night versus the weekend, is necessary for a child’s development. Discipline teaches children about boundaries, delayed gratification, self-control, responsibility, and citizenship. They mature into considerate, appropriately assertive adults who can tolerate the uncomfortable and handle life’s ups and downs in a healthy way.
Competing co-parents tend to lavish their children with material things in either an attempt to comfort the child and make them momentarily happier or to give one parent the satisfaction of “one-upping” the other. However, the desire to purchase bigger and better gifts is an unsustainable, snowballing competition that could ruin finances and hurt the parent/child relationship. Not only does this behavior teach children the wrong lessons about money, but it also teaches them the wrong lessons about healthy, loving relationships.
Also, it’s not uncommon for parents to try and out-spend each other for birthdays and holidays. While outdoing the other parent may garner short-term satisfaction, it can have long-term negative impacts on the child by causing them to have unrealistic and unreachable expectations. Communication is key, especially during gift-giving holidays, and setting clear expectations with your co-parent can ensure a budget is developed and adhered to.
The first step to preventing an ever-growing co-parent competition is to recognize why it happens and what it looks like, as described above. The second step is to identify what CAN be done to avoid this situation or turn it around. Here are some must-dos:
Leave the competition for sports and games. There are no winners or losers when it comes to co-parenting. Parents are dealing with complicated emotions at this time. Realize that you both have the children’s best interests at heart. Each parent has love and unique qualities that they bring to the table, and the influence of both parents is vital to raising children who turn into well-rounded, self-sufficient adults.
Competitive parenting after separation or divorce is not uncommon. However, we should not normalize it. It is not a win-lose situation where anyone can benefit from. Instead, it can negatively impact the family and get in the way of properly raising your children. Here are some ways how parental competition can show up and what you can do to prevent it from happening.