Q&A: How to Master Family Communication, Post Divorce

We answer common questions about awkward divorce communication situations.
By:
Chelsea Williams
November 29, 2021
N

o one knows better than a divorced parent that the definition of a family unit is what you make it. But having separate households can present some challenges to family communication.

While there may not be a one-solution-fits-all way of handling communication with your kids, co-parent, ex in-laws, and other family members, it can help to know how other parents in your shoes navigate the need to regularly interact. That's why we're giving you some direct advice in response to situational questions from divorced co-parents. 

We'll answer specific questions related to:

  • Communicating fairly and appropriately with your co-parent
  • Keeping the lines of communication open with your former spouse's family
  • Modeling positive communication skills for your children
  • Responding to communication challenges within your own family structure

Communicating Clearly With Your Co-Parent

Q: My ex-wife is very close with her large extended family, and wants our two kids to attend their events often. It seems like she's always asking if she can take them for a few hours on my weekends for a distant cousin's birthday party or graduation. I want my kids to feel like part of their mom's family, but how can I tell her this is getting to be too much?

A: This is primarily about mutual planning and prioritizing between you and your co-parent. If you don't already have a shared calendar, consider creating one so that your kids' mother can add her loved ones' upcoming events in advance, and you can both add notes to decide whether the children can attend each event. Perhaps you can also input dates or weekends on which you wouldn't be OK with a schedule change, or when you'd be comfortable letting them go for just a few hours. 

Whichever mode of family communication you choose, be sure to make your wishes and decisions clear. Rather than delaying a response because you're undecided, make a choice based on your instincts, then express it using a neutral tone. For example: "I'm fine with them attending the wedding on the 8th, but we already have plans for the 23rd."

Finally, keep in mind that even if the kids really want to attend an event, you're the final decision maker when they're with you. Learning to set appropriate boundaries with each child based on their age could also be helpful if you're feeling a bit pressured.

Q: My ex and I frequently fought about money. This year he’s made late payments for several of our son’s extracurriculars, and I'm worried he might do the same for his upcoming soccer team dues, too. What’s the best way to bring this up?

A: Money can be one of the most contentious issues between co-parents, and your fears are certainly justified. While it's probably not appropriate to ask whether your son's father is facing financial trouble, it is OK for you to bring up the specific shared expense that you're concerned about. 

To neutralize any potential conflict or miscommunication about expenses beyond child support, try using the Onward App. You could send your co-parent a casual email or text like "A friend recommended this great app that I think we could use to talk about expenses for Lincoln." You'd be bringing up your shared responsibilities in a non-threatening way. 

Family communication: Onward App example expense

If they agree to use the app, you could set up the soccer team dues as an expense and upload a receipt and even a photo of your kid at soccer practice, giving you peace of mind and your co-parent some helpful transparency.

Interacting With Each Other's Family Members

Family communication: mother and son in a video call with his grandparents

Q: My ex in-laws have always been the primary caregivers for my twins. I appreciate how involved they are as grandparents, but I now have a bit more flexibility with work, and would like to have more one-on-one time with my kids after school and in the evenings. How do I tell them I don't need their help as much without hurting their feelings?

A: Start the conversation with gratitude and kindness. Good news first! If you approach them warmly, i.e., "I appreciate how much time you've dedicated to the kids over the years," they'll be more likely to reciprocate that understanding. 

Then, be honest about what you need. Sure, they might be disappointed about the changes you're requesting, but they're also going to understand your desire to be there for your kids. Chances are, they'll want a bit of reassurance that they'll be able to maintain a strong connection with their grandchildren. Present some options for when they'd be able to spend extra time with them instead of the after-school hours.

This positive communication pattern works for all types of family relationships, but especially when setting boundaries with parents.

Q: The holidays are coming up, and I'm dreading having to see my former spouse's family. We were married for 12 years. After our divorce, her siblings insisted that I continue coming to their Christmas and New Year's parties. It was OK for the first couple of years, but now I feel ready to create my own traditions. What do I say to them?

A: It sounds like you're ready to set some new boundaries. This can be difficult with members of the family you're close to, but it's an important form of self-care and will allow you to move on from your former life. 

Effective communication in this case will depend on removing any sense of obligation from the equation and getting real about what you need. Once you're clear, prepare yourself for their attempts to convince you otherwise. And if you think it will be too hard to say things in person or on the phone, a kind and matter-of-fact email would work.

As far as how to phrase it, put yourself in the other person's shoes and think about how you'd like to hear the news. Use "I" language, which sounds less accusatory than "you." Avoid explaining too much (you don't need to have a why!) and consider ending it with how you'd like to keep in touch going forward.

Teaching Your Kids to Communicate Well

Mother and son talking to each other

Q: My 11-year-old daughter is upset with her grandmother (my ex mother-in-law) about something she overheard. She wants me to reach out and ask about it, but I feel like she needs to do this herself. What advice can I give her?

A: It's an excellent idea to encourage your daughter to try to work through this family interaction, rather than stepping in yourself. That is, unless your daughter truly doesn't feel she has emotional safety with her grandmother — in which case you may want to be present to support her.

First, explain that occasional conflict is part of every relationship, and reassure her that she will still have a relationship with her grandmother if she brings this up.

Then, you could share the benefits of active listening and being aware of one's body language. This way, she'll go into the conversation ready to hear her grandmother's thoughts, in addition to expressing her own. There's a chance she misinterpreted, so it's important to advise her to start by asking if what she overheard was accurate.

Finally, it could help to tell her that no matter how her grandmother reacts, she can choose how to respond — and that she will have you there to catch her when it's all over.

Managing Family Communication in Your Household

Mother and daughter hanging out in their pajamas

Q: I want my new partner to speak up around my kids, but I think she's afraid of the potential for judgment. We've had a lot of awkward family dinners when she comes over. Do I need to talk to the kids or her about this?

A: Your new partner may not be used to the kind of family life you and your kids have. She's probably aware of how important your children are to you and she could be worried about causing problems unintentionally. 

That said, it's important to talk about this and find out how she's feeling.

In a moment when it's just the two of you, try to ask if there's anything you can do to make her more comfortable in your home. Dr. Patricia Papernow, a psychologist and Director of the Institute for Stepfamily Education, says it’s important to remember that a stepparent is the outsider in an established family system. She may be worried about not fully knowing some unspoken family rules, or feel unsure of what to talk about with your kids. 

Above all, keep in mind that your partner's behavior is likely a sign of how much she cares for you. It's best not to force her to start talking more in your household. With patience and time, she'll adjust.

Q: My three teenagers were never excited about having a stepfamily, but now that it's official, I notice how hostile they're being towards my new husband's kids. It seems like none of them have time to form solid bonds, because of their various custody arrangements. How can I encourage my kids to speak more kindly to their stepsiblings? 

A: Overcoming this family communication challenge with your kids begins with understanding the root of this behavior. They're probably experiencing a lot of complicated feelings, and some of them may come out in unhealthy or unkind ways. 

Rather than trying to set harsh rules about their relationship with their new siblings, focus on your kids' emotional health and establishing a sense of security for them. That might mean spending more time with them individually, reigniting old traditions or routines they love, or just letting them know there's an open invitation to talk — and making sure they have opportunities to come to you when you're alone.

Getting back to these basics could be the trick, but if things don't improve, you may want to consider family therapy or reach out to others who have successfully blended families.

Stay Open to New Lines of Communication

Even if none of the above scenarios describe what you're going through, the interpersonal communication skills we've discussed could contribute to your family's well-being — if you're open to it.

Developing good communication across both sides of a divorced family takes work. It won't happen without making a conscious effort to build healthier family communication patterns. You can be the model that you'd like to see!

Chelsea Williams

Chelsea is a twice-divorced mom of two boys. She is happily single parenting and doing her best to balance two simultaneous co-parenting relationships. Despite the complications, Chelsea can see the beauty in her story and believes healing is possible for the whole family.