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7 Covert Toxic Co-Parenting Habits and Strategies for Change

by | Jan 16, 2024 | Co-Parenting, Divorce and Life After, Life in General

Co-parenting after a separation or divorce is undoubtedly challenging, but when toxic behaviors creep in, the consequences can be detrimental, especially for the children involved.

Toxic co-parenting not only harms the relationship between BOTH parents and their children, cultivates drama and added stress, but can also have lasting effects on the emotional well-being of the children, long into adulthood, including, but not limited to resenting BOTH parents.

And when subtle toxic behaviors masquerade as expressions of love, the consequences can be particularly insidious, escaping immediate detection. Beyond the apparent difficulties, such behaviors can severely impact the emotional security of the children involved.

In this post, we delve into the often-overlooked realm of covert toxic co-parenting, shedding light on behaviors that may go unnoticed due to their ostensibly caring facade. By examining the harmful implications of these subtler actions, we aim to guide parents toward healthier alternatives that prioritize the well-being of their children.

FRESH EMOTIONS

Emotions can be intense and unpredictable during the early stages of a breakup or divorce. It’s common for parents to experience feelings of grief, anger, and confusion during this turbulent period. 

The emotional turmoil can make it difficult to think clearly and act with intention when it comes to co-parenting. Mistakes are a natural part of this process, as overwhelming emotions may cloud judgment and lead to impulsive decisions. It’s important to approach this phase with empathy and compassion, recognizing that both parties are navigating uncharted emotional territory. 

Understanding that these initial challenges are part of the healing journey can pave the way for a more emotionally intelligent approach to co-parenting in the subsequent stages. This can create an environment that prioritizes the well-being of all involved, especially the children.

Psychology 101: Our Brains Can Hijack Us. 

Consider the brain as a complex control center, with a crucial player known as the amygdala. In high-stakes situations or conflicts, the amygdala can become overactive, triggering what experts call an “amygdala hijacking.”

This phenomenon is akin to flipping a switch and setting off internal alarms, causing a disruption in the normal functioning of the brain. In this state, our rational thinking becomes compromised, and our nervous system goes into overdrive. It’s comparable to a superhero losing control of their powers, leading to chaos.

The challenge lies in regaining control and restoring a sense of calm to the nervous system. Developing emotional intelligence is the key—understanding how our brains respond in stressful situations and learning to manage these reactions effectively. It’s about becoming the masters of our emotional control center.

 

My Story.

On the day I was served with divorce papers, a day I had anticipated and even initiated, something inside me snapped into a heap of panic.

The sheriff knocked on my door, delivering the official “you’ve been served” declaration, and that is when something in me freaked the f@ck out. It was an overwhelming merging of emotions; my children were inside enjoying dinner I cooked for them, and it happened to be my birthday. (yes, it was a dick move)

In a state of sheer panic, I loaded all three kids into the car and impulsively drove in the opposite direction of where they were supposed to go – their dad’s place. Fueled by the fear of losing my children and the prospect of seeing them only half the time, my amygdala had hijacked my rational thinking.

Eventually, I pulled over, regained control of my emotions, and, although a couple of hours late, dropped my kids off at their dad’s.

It was traumatic for all of us, but mostly my children who were confused and scared because of my behavior.

THE HARSH REALITY

It’s essential to dismiss the notion that mothers are the sole and most crucial parent in a child’s life. The narrative that children thrive best in the care of their mothers alone is not only outdated but also statistically inaccurate. Research consistently shows that kids flourish when raised in a dynamic with both parents actively parenting (together or not) or, when circumstances warrant, with just their fathers.

Contrary to popular belief, the statistics paint a sobering picture for single mothers, indicating higher rates of children facing challenges such as involvement in the criminal justice system. This is not a dig at single mothers; it’s a call to break free from the stereotypes that perpetuate unnecessary drama.

Children benefit immensely from positive involvement and support from both parents, and it’s crucial we acknowledge the importance of BOTH PARENTS in the equation. So, let’s shift the narrative and focus on fostering cooperative co-parenting dynamics that truly prioritize the well-being of our children.

Low Emotional Intelligence in Toxic Co-Parenting:

One HUGE underlying factor contributing to toxic co-parenting is often a low level of emotional intelligence among one or both parents. 

Emotional intelligence (EQ) involves the ability to recognize, understand, and manage one’s emotions, as well as effectively navigate interpersonal relationships. 

What is Emotional Intelligence and how does it work for (or against us) 

Emotional intelligence (EI or EQ) is a set of abilities and skills related to the understanding, recognition, management, and effective use of one’s own emotions and the emotions of others.

It involves being aware of emotions, both one’s own and those of others, and using this awareness to navigate social situations, make sound decisions, and build positive relationships.

The concept of emotional intelligence includes components such as self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Developed by psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer, and popularized by Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence is considered a critical factor in personal and professional success.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) goes beyond traditional measures of intelligence quotient (IQ), focusing on the ability to navigate emotions effectively. While IQ assesses intellectual abilities, EQ encompasses self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.

Improving EQ involves self-reflection, active listening, emotional regulation techniques, empathy exercises, and social skill development. These efforts enhance interpersonal relationships, communication, and leadership skills, making EQ a valuable asset in personal and professional success.

 

Interesting fact about EQ…

In various contexts, a high EQ often proves more advantageous than a high IQ. The ability to understand and manage emotions contributes significantly to effective collaboration, communication, and overall well-being, making emotional intelligence a key factor in achieving success. 

And another cool fact….we can’t raise our IQ, but we can raise our EQ.

In the pursuit of personal development, it’s reassuring to know that unlike IQ, which remains relatively fixed, emotional intelligence (EQ) can be cultivated and enhanced over time. Beyond the mentioned strategies such as self-reflection, active listening, and social skill development, individuals can further improve their EQ by seeking constructive feedback from others.

Embracing feedback with an open mind allows individuals to gain valuable insights into how their actions and emotions impact those around them, fostering continuous growth and refinement of their emotional intelligence.

Additionally, engaging in activities that promote empathy, such as volunteering or participating in group discussions, can provide practical opportunities to understand diverse perspectives and strengthen interpersonal connections, contributing to an overall boost in emotional intelligence.

Why this matters.

In the context of co-parenting, individuals with low emotional intelligence may struggle to regulate their own emotions and empathize with the experiences of their co-parent or, crucially, their children. This deficit can lead to impulsive, reactive behaviors, escalating conflicts, and perpetuating toxic dynamics.

Parents need to recognize the impact of their emotional intelligence on the co-parenting relationship and take steps to enhance these skills. By doing so, they can break free from the cycle of behaving like children themselves, fostering an environment where the needs and emotions of the children are prioritized over personal grievances.

It’s time for parents to rise above petty disputes, demonstrate emotional maturity, and create a co-parenting environment that truly serves the best interests of their children.

Here are seven examples of covert toxic co-parenting acts:

1. Over-the-Top Greetings and Goodbyes.

Toxic Behavior: Grand, over-the-top greetings and goodbyes during child exchanges may seem harmless, but they aren’t. Sure, everyone misses each other, but this behavior may be an attempt to emotionally manipulate the child or the other parent, creating unnecessary tension and causing guilt and anxiety in the children. 

The Blunt and Harsh Reality: This is a form of insecurity stemming from fear and control.

Healthy Alternative: Keep exchanges calm and straightforward. A simple, positive interaction sets a better tone for the child’s transition between households. Hug them, tell them you love them and in a positive tone, inform them when you will SEE them again. This then gives them unspoken permission to go to the other parent and enjoy their time with them. 

2. Excessive Communication During the Other Parent’s Time.

Toxic Behavior: Calling the children every day (or more) while they are with the other parent is disrespectful, intrusive, and selfish. And quite frankly, extremely toxic and unnecessary. It can create an atmosphere of constant surveillance and undermine the child’s sense of security in the other household.

It is also a direct insult and attack to the routines and new home life being created by the other parent. This is the new norm now, shared custody new lives, and new rules. 

This is also a sign of insecurity and a fear of releasing control of what is no longer your business or place to be. 

The Blunt and Harsh Reality: This is more about the parents than it is about the kids. The kids do not need us the way we want them to and it’s time to let go. This is a good thing when raising happy, well-adjusted, and independent children. 

Healthy Alternative: Create a communication plan that respects the time both parents spend with the child and the child’s time with their other parent. The frequency of communication should align with the agreed-upon time-sharing schedule, ranging from no calls to one call every 2-3 days. 

As the initial weeks of adapting to two homes unfold, it becomes evident that these calls serve the parents more than the children. Sure, in the beginning, this new change is hard on everyone…until it’s not. Giving children space with their other parent (and new family) provides them with a sense of freedom and security in navigating between both households without feeling overly concerned or codependent on either parent. This approach not only builds trust but also cultivates a cooperative co-parenting environment for the benefit of all involved.

3. Failure to Recognize Your Own Toxic Behaviors.

Toxic Behavior: Sometimes, people may not realize their behaviors are toxic. Denial or a lack of self-awareness can perpetuate harmful patterns.

The Blunt and Harsh Reality: We aren’t as blameless as we think. If you can’t get along with your co-parenting ex, you have responsibility for that too!!!

Healthy Alternative: Regular self-reflection and open communication with a therapist or coach can help identify and address toxic behaviors and change them. The more honest we are with ourselves, the happier and easier we will be.

4. Guilt games with the other parent.

Toxic Behavior: Guilt tactics such as criticizing what the other parent feeds the child or how often they don’t call or what they can do better only fuels negativity and unhealthy dynamic. It plants seeds of doubt and resentment in the child’s mind which can ultimately backfire one day. 

The Blunt and Harsh Reality: This behavior is a form of control that stems from fear and insecurity.

Healthy Alternative: Accept that co-parents have no control or say about how the other parent raises the kids and that their relationship is separate from yours. The less involvement and criticism, the less resentment our children will have towards us in the future. 

5. Guilt games with the children.

Toxic Behavior: Backhanded, negative, and passive-aggressive comments about the other parent to or in earshot around the children. 

· “Let’s see if your father even shows up to your event” 

· “Your mother is unstable and needs to be medicated”  

· “Your mom/dad is an asshole” 

· “Your dad’s new girlfriend has no right….”

· “Your dad’s new girlfriend is not your family”

· “Dad’s new wife will never love you the way I do”

· “Yada yada yada”

The Blunt and Harsh Reality:  You are acting like a child! Adopt the phrase “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Healthy Alternative: Learn to focus on yourself and your own personal development. If you start to use your time more wisely, you will start to not care about anything your ex does, (with or without the kids) because it’s not your damn business!!

6. Asking too many questions to the children.

Toxic Behavior: Asking children about their time with the other parent can lead to unnecessary drama and suffering for everyone involved.

The Blunt and Harsh Reality: It’s not your damn business.

Healthy Alternative: It’s important to show interest in our children’s lives without making them feel guilty or causing unnecessary drama. 

Simple questions like “How was your week?” or “Did you have fun with Dad?” can go a long way. Sometimes, we may think we want to know all the details, but it’s often better to know less. Trust me on this.

7. Using the children as glue to the other parent.

Toxic Behavior: Often, the parent struggling to let go and grappling with insecurity seeks any excuse to interact with the other parent. For these individuals with lower emotional intelligence, negative attention seems preferable to no attention at all. 

The Blunt and Harsh Reality: You are embarrassing yourself! Move on already!

Healthy Alternative: It’s vital to recognize that this approach not only undermines healthy communication but also places unnecessary strain on the children caught in the crossfire. Establishing clear boundaries and finding more constructive avenues for interaction can help break the cycle of toxic co-parenting.

 

Why Toxic Co-Parenting is Harmful:

Toxic co-parenting has serious consequences for children, affecting their emotional well-being and future relationships. When parents engage in harmful behaviors, such as constant arguing and manipulation, it leaves lasting scars on their children. Witnessing (and feeling) toxicity between parents can lead to anxiety, depression, and behavioral issues in children that may persist into adulthood, potentially requiring therapy for resolution.

Toxic behaviors often create a harmful power dynamic between parents, perpetuating a cycle that is passed down to the children. This interference and negativity undermine the child’s relationship with the other parent, causing potential long-term emotional damage and the need for future therapeutic support.

Engaging in low emotional intelligence behaviors not only impacts the child’s relationship with the other parent but also jeopardizes the bond between the child and the toxic parent. As children’s minds mature, (takes a good 25 years) the resentment stemming from constant bickering and toxicity between parents can resurface, creating strained connections and emotional fallout that may haunt the parent-child relationship in the long run.

It’s crucial to break this cycle to ensure a healthier and more stable environment for the well-being of the children involved.

My advice.

Navigating the transition into a new normal can be tough, but I’ve got some advice for you. The key to succeeding in this journey is to leave the drama behind. Instead of trying to control everything, it’s time to focus on our own relationship with our children and our individual lives.

We need to accept that our kids’ connection with their other parent is their own. It’s not about us – it’s about fostering their relationship. By shifting our focus and letting go of unnecessary drama, we can create a healthier and more harmonious family dynamic.

Let me share my own experience with you. There was a time when I freaked out over divorce papers, but now I have a newfound respect for my co-parenting partner and his new wife. We only communicate when necessary, often going weeks without contact. We use group chats for discussions with all the parents and have separate ones with the kids. This approach has made things much easier and happier for everyone involved.

Remember, it takes a village to raise children. So why not embrace it and let go of control? By surrendering to the possibilities that come after leaving the drama behind, we can create a brighter future for all.

Conclusion:

Toxic co-parenting has far-reaching consequences, affecting not only the parents but, more importantly, the well-being of the children caught in the crossfire.

Recognizing and addressing toxic behaviors is the first step toward creating a healthier co-parenting dynamic. By adopting more positive and respectful alternatives, parents can contribute to a stable, nurturing environment that fosters the well-being of their children, both now and in the future.

It’s time to put an end to the toxic patterns and prioritize the best interests of the children involved.

 

Hello!

I am Jen,

As a dedicated life coach specializing in co-parenting, divorce, and single motherhood, I bring a unique blend of professional expertise and personal experience to my coaching practice. I am deeply committed to helping women not only survive divorce but also thrive as they transition into their roles as single mothers. I provide tailored coaching to assist my clients in developing effective co-parenting strategies, fostering healthy communication, and creating nurturing environments for their children.

I am also the author of the best-selling book “I am Amazing: From Invisible to Invincible”. My self-help memoir offers hope and inspiration for anyone who has felt overwhelmed by life and their struggles with mental health. With raw honesty and vulnerability, I provide an intimate look at my journey from victim to victorious.

 

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