When you spend one-on-one time with your child after a divorce, it’s normal for your bond to change.
In this emotional upheaval, it may feel special to share something that only the two of you know about, but divorce can give even innocent secrets an ugly context.
Should you tell kids to keep secrets? No. Asking your child to keep secrets places an unfair burden of responsibility on them and undermines the other parent’s authority. Encouraging secrecy breeds an atmosphere of mistrust and confusion in a child of divorce, ultimately resulting in future resentment toward the parents.
What begins as harmless secret-keeping may land you in legal hot water if your fellow co-parent deems this uncooperative behavior.
Your children are the most important aspect in all this — try to remember that they are people and not pawns.
Find out why secrets between a co-parent and child are a no-no plus essential co-parenting rules to live by.
Secrets Between Co-Parent and Child — Why It’s a Bad Idea
Swapping secrets might be fun between besties in the schoolyard, but attempting this practice with your child as a newly divorced parent can result in more than broken charm bracelets.
It can have long-term consequences of eroded trust and confusion, not to mention how poorly this will read in court.
Here are 6 big reasons why secrets between a child and co-parent create a lose-lose situation:
1. Stressful for the Child
Asking your son or daughter to keep a litany of your secrets from who your new dating partner is to your last-minute vacation puts a huge emotional and psychological burden on their shoulders.
All a child of divorce knows is that they are constantly swapping one parent’s loyalty for another back and forth, creating a hotbed of anger and future resentment toward both parents.
2. It’s Not the Child’s Job To Protect a Parent
It is the job of the parents and guardians to protect a child, not the other way around.
When you ask them to keep secrets, you are asking your child to assume the responsibility of protector from whatever your ex-spouse may throw at you if they found out.
3. Undermines the Other Parent’s Authority
A typical scenario in toxic co-parenting may be one parent punishing bad behavior while the other rewards them for it and asks their child to keep it “just between us.”
According to former Empowering Parents coach and psychotherapist Megan Divine, this only teaches your child to play both parents against each other and gives them less confidence in the other’s authority.
4. Children Should Feel Free To Discuss Anything
Encouraging your child to keep a secret communicates to them that they are unable to speak freely, which will come back to haunt you when they decide to withhold something that is worrying or upsetting them.
A secretive environment is a tense one and can breed unease and a feeling of watching what they say.
5. Encourages Sneaky or Dishonest Behavior
Children soak up the behavior they witness in others, especially their authority figures.
A Huffington Post piece by law consultant Diane L. Danois illustrates this in an example of a daughter being permitted to smoke pot in one parent’s home.
Lies and secret-keeping between two households run the risk of snowballing into encouraging dishonest behavior in your children.
Depending on how far one parent lets this escalate for the sake of ego and “cool parent” points, this could go on to have dire consequences.
6. Keeping Secrets Will Look Bad Should You Ever Go To Court
Even if the secrets are harmless or well intended, consider how secret-keeping will look in a family court of law.
When your fellow co-parent could use this as proof of uncooperative parenting, a judge may read this as not acting in your child’s best interests, advises Massachusetts-based law firm KWC.
It is simply not worth the risk.
How To Talk With Your Co-Parent About Keeping Secrets
To ensure you maintain a healthy relationship with your child and keep an amicable one with your ex-partner, it’s wise to communicate openly and honestly with them about secret-keeping.
Without being accusatory, simply start a discussion about the potential impact of keeping secrets on your child and perhaps try to establish ground rules you can both follow for the future, i.e., the difference between permissible little white lies and the need-to-know stuff.
Here are a few DOs and DON’Ts when it comes to communicating healthily with your co-parent in matters of secret-keeping and everything else:
- Do consider hiring a mediator: A professional family mediator can help you form a parenting plan and iron out any kinks in your communication (such as a tendency for secret-keeping).
- Do update each other regularly: If there’s some need-to-know info regarding their school life, health, or hobbies, allow your co-parent to be a part of it.
- Do treat each other with politeness and respect: You’re both the parents of your child. Try to remember that when pettiness and frustration appear.
- Do keep track of expenses: Making a note of how much you spent on your child for trips, special occasions, etc. can help prevent conflicts over who spent what. Being open about how you spend time and money with your children leaves no room for assumptions, secrets, or backstabbing.
- Don’t use children as messengers: A secure and happy child of divorce/separation is one who witnesses their parents resolve their conflicts without the child’s help — never put this responsibility on them.
- Don’t wait to solve problems: Instead of harboring resentment over an issue, communicate the issue clearly to them. Letting things fester will only spill out into aggression in the form of bad-mouthing your spouse in front of your child (or point-scoring with secret treats).
Ideally, the rules of co-parenting should largely mirror the parenting rules that were in place before you decided to separate from your spouse.
Every family is different though, and things may not be as simple as this.
Family law firm OTS Solicitors argues that factors such as whether a financial settlement was reached, the manner of the divorce (bitter or amicable), work schedules, the distance between households, new partners on the scene, etc. will ultimately inform the rules you set for your co-parenting arrangement.
To provide some food for thought on establishing good co-parenting rules, here are some simple guidelines to keep in mind:
- Communication is key.
- It’s not about you or your fellow co-parent — it’s all about the kids.
- Formulate a plan.
- Try to be flexible.
- Try to be forgiving.
- Don’t forget that the children will watch and learn.
- Respect each other’s time with the kids.
- Be consistent.
- Don’t fight.
- Commit to resolving big issues — a mediator or counselor can help with this.
Is It Okay To Keep Things From Your Co-Parent?
If the relationship with your ex-spouse is less than amicable, some family lawyers recommend treating the new relationship like a business, i.e., reserving communication to email and keeping things on a need-to-know basis.
Apart from matters of your children, it’s key to keep personal lives personal.
How Often Should Co-Parents Communicate?
According to family life educator Cheri Burcham, consistent rather than frequent communication with your co-parent is key.
Talking every day is not necessary, but you should aim to speak to each other more than once a month to ensure you are on the same page about any schedule changes or important updates.
In summary, children of divorce need to feel that they can approach both parents and speak freely about things.
The practice of keeping secrets between one another erodes this much-needed security and weighs a child down with unfair pressure.
While difficult, working hard to be open and honest with your ex-spouse (when it’s necessary) will help to reduce conflict and the need for one-upmanship in the wake of a less-than-amicable separation.
No matter what, remember to put your children first and treat them with respect.
Rebecca is a seasoned copywriter and researcher with over a decade of experience, specializing in parenting topics. With a passion for all aspects of raising children, from breastfeeding to potty training.