Digital Parenting and Shared Custody: 6 Tips for Setting Boundaries with Your Ex
Parenting in the digital age can be daunting in all circumstances, especially when parents aren’t on the same page. But if you have shared custody with a former partner who doesn’t agree with your digital parenting philosophies, it can be especially challenging. The six tips at the end of this article will help you navigate this delicate situation.
Unique challenges of digital parenting with shared custody
Parents naturally worry when they aren’t with their kids. They wonder if their kids are safe, loved, respected, and well taken care of while away. As kids get older, parents wonder if their children are making good decisions on their own and if they are being kind and respectful of others.
It can be especially hurtful and worrisome when a parent feels that their children aren’t getting the same support and love when they are with the other parent. The parenting choices of a former spouse may remind you of resentments and fears you experienced in the marriage. That makes addressing the situation even more challenging.
A big concern for many parents is when they notice a lack of screen time boundaries at the other parent’s home. This can feel scary, and parents worry about exposure to pornography, along with a host of other potential negative effects of unfiltered or unlimited media use.
And those concerns are warranted. The amount of time a child spends using a screen or engaging in digital media should be something to be aware of. Screen time is linked to obesity, irregular sleep, poor school performance and more. What can be especially damaging is consistent exposure to pornography. Over 50% of teens report being exposed to pornography once a week, mostly online. Having open conversations, healthy routines, and digital media boundaries are an important part of a parent’s responsibility to protect children from unneeded harm.
These facts, along with personal experience, are why many parents are concerned when they find that an ex-spouse is not trying to protect their children in the same way. A hard fact of life is that you cannot control other people. As children adjust to divorce, they need you to be a consistent parent who is aware of what you can healthily control.
6 Tips for navigating shared custody within your control
1. Communication for co-parenting
The ability to communicate with your ex-spouse for the purpose of co-parenting is crucial. Communicating well isn’t just saying what you want and expecting it will happen. It sounds more like making requests, expressing your hopes for the children, listening, and compromising.
Allow space for expression without casting judgment. As a couple who may have been together for several years, it is likely that you both already know where each of you stands on media use generally, but communicating what you feel is important and how that is actually executed is an important part of co-parenting. It is best to remember that you aren’t trying to win anything, you simply want to communicate what you plan to do and why.
Staying open will allow you and your ex-spouse to build understanding. Odds are you won’t perfectly agree, and that may cause fear and trepidation, but communicating needs and wants is a start to having a coordinated plan. In some cases, coordination is just not possible, and you will have to rely on creating a safe environment at your own home and keeping the conversation open with your children.
2. Keeping conversations open with children
Ask your children what they want. Ask them how screen time is affecting them. Allow them the space to express how they feel about the media they are consuming. Celebrate the things they say that are healthy without expressing negative feelings and attitudes toward the thoughts you might disagree with. Then make sure you express how you feel about screen time and keep it focused on yourself. It will help if you use I and me, not you and we. Let them hear how you feel without making them adopt how you feel.
Here's what that might sound like:
“I’m grateful I have smart devices in my life. It helps me stay in touch with others and have something fun to do. But I have also learned that it can distract me from doing things I know make me happy, like actually spending time with those I love. I also know I sometimes see things in the shows I watch or on the internet I don’t like–such as someone getting hurt or sexual situations that make me feel uncomfortable.”
Follow that up with a question:
- What do you like about shows and the internet?
- What do you not like about it?
- Does anything make you uncomfortable?
- How does it help you? How might it hurt you?
- Do you have any rules for yourself when it comes to media, or do you want anything to change?”
Allow them the space to share what they think about the subject without jumping in with judgment. This builds trust and helps them feel understood.
It is important that children have a say in what their lives look like and feel like after going through a divorce that they didn’t choose.
3. Setting boundaries
After you have built some trust with open and safe communication, work on setting up clear boundaries to define the limits and keep everyone on the same page. Be willing to compromise with your children and with your ex; all the rules can’t just be yours.
Good boundaries are ones that everyone can agree on; however, as a parent you have the right to hold boundaries even if your kids or former spouse don’t agree on them. Boundaries are used for safety and if others can’t recognize what needs protecting, you use a boundary to make it clear what is needed to be safe.
Ask yourself what your boundaries are protecting; are you protecting time, relationships, innocence?
Knowing what you want to protect keeps you from just trying to control.
If you started off with open communication, you’ll likely already have a sense as to what your kids or ex-spouse might want for boundaries. When you know what boundaries you want to set, dig into what your kids and ex-spouse want. Anything they suggest that you already know you agree with, accept and celebrate the agreement.
Here are some boundaries to consider:
- No media/devices in private spaces such as bedrooms, bathrooms, or when home alone.
- When you or your spouse are with the children, you focus on having dinner with the kids without devices or media. Good boundaries can be supportive of good things and not just restrictions.
- Media time is a leisure activity for use after responsibilities have been taken care of. Adults must have their day prepared or planned for before turning to media. Children need to have schoolwork or chores completed.
- Downloaded apps are approved by a parent and have time limits for usage
Obviously, you won’t agree 100% and there is space for re-evaluating. If you find that you can’t come to an agreement with your ex-spouse, make it clear what you plan to do and why.
Here is a way you might approach that conversation:
“I hear you saying you don’t want to set this boundary and I understand that it is more work to enforce. I really want to protect the kids and I am worried if we don’t have this boundary and commit together on its enforcement, the kids could end up being exposed to pornography or content that they don’t understand or want to see. When we talked, you said you wanted to protect the kids as well. I think this is one of the ways we can do that, and I am going to have this boundary when they are with me.”
Remember that children may be doing their best to follow different boundaries in different households.
This can be confusing for them and defeating for you. Be patient with the process; your children are juggling multiple changes. The clearer and more consistent you are in your household, the more they know what to expect.
4. Stick to your values
Maybe in your household your kids have internet filters, time restrictions, and limits on certain apps, but in their other parent’s household they have no time limits, watch mature shows, and lack adult supervision. In this situation, it is common to feel like there is no use in even keeping the standards at your house.
Even when facing opposite beliefs with a co-parent, try to stick to your values. Show your children that you have integrity and that it really matters. You may be met with plenty of complaining or your kids comparing you against your ex. In the long run, years from now, your children may look back and appreciate your fortitude in prioritizing their welfare.
5. Modeling and consistency
You have likely heard or said yourself that children are like a sponge. They absorb everything we do and say. Children especially pick up on and adopt some of our negative behaviors and beliefs.
Modeling the behavior we want our children to adopt takes intentional effort.
We have to be aware of the messages we send our children by what we say, how we follow through, and how we deal with difficult emotions.
One of the first things you should make sure to avoid is casting judgment on your ex-spouse’s commitment or lack of commitment to healthy media/internet use when the children are with them. Remember, it is best to keep things focused on yourself and what you can do, rather than anyone else.
As your children return to you after being with their other parent, ask them how it was for them without making comments or having big reactions to how they spent their time.
You don’t want to shame your children for indulging in media when it is really your ex who you are upset with. The best scenario is when your children see the value in keeping their own personal boundaries regardless of which parent they are with.
Make sure that your children are seeing you keep your own boundaries. They are more likely to learn to follow through, be consistent with commitments, and live a healthy lifestyle if they see you doing it yourself. Being a consistent, boundaried person is a lifelong pursuit for many and can give you empathy for understanding that your children are doing their best.
When it comes to your ex-spouse, make sure they know when you see them keeping a boundary and thank them. You can also share with them how you are keeping the boundaries and the benefits you have seen from it.
6. Find Help
The best news is that you don’t have to do this alone. Wanting to help your kids is a desire most parents share and many people have been through a divorce. You can learn from their experience.
To get help you can:
- Find a support group
- Look for group therapy that centers on divorce.
- Tell your friends and family what you are experiencing.
- Ask for others who watch your kids to keep the boundaries and try to model them as well.
- Find ways to de-stress and reduce your anxiety such as exercise, gardening, and other hobbies.
- If your child is in physical or sexual danger, including an adult exposing them to pornography or being neglectful, this is child abuse and should be reported to child protective services.
Giving our children the protection they deserve and are entitled to should empower us to have the hard conversations that allow us to do just that. The order in which you approach protecting them isn’t going to be perfect. You may find that you need help and support for a time before you ever communicate with your kids or ex-spouse about what you want. Whatever is needed, it will take bravery and emotional maturity. Just like kids, parents are doing their best too and can start with self-compassion.
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"I really like the no-shame approach the author takes. It's so much more than just 'don't watch or look at porn.' It gave my children a real understanding about the brain and its natural response to pornography, how it can affect you if you look at it, and how to be prepared when you do come across it (since, let's face it... it's gonna happen at some point)." -Amazon Review by D.O.