Co-parenting After a Separation or Divorce (page 2)
If you’ve decided to separate or get a divorce, your next most important decision could be about co-parenting. People who separate but continue to work cooperatively as parents have a very positive effect on their children’s development and adjustment to living in two separate households.
What is co-parenting?
Despite beginning with a sense of joy and commitment, about 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Even though they will no longer be together as a couple, most people with children want to continue being good parents and to remain involved in their children’s lives. Co-parenting means sharing parenting responsibilities with someone living in a separate household.
However the decision was reached, a divorce can be a crisis and a major loss for the adults and children involved. Upon separating, each parent has a dual task: to make the adjustment to being a single person as well as to being a single parent. At the same time, they are not exactly single parents, if they intend to work out a co-parenting agreement to remain involved in their children’s lives.
Benefits of an amicable co-parenting relationship for your children
Kids whose divorced parents have a cooperative and cordial relationship:
- are more likely to adapt better to the divorce
- are less likely to have long-term negative effects after the divorce
- benefit when they see their parents modeling ways to solve problems, cooperate, show flexibility and demonstrate compassion
- are provided with a sense of security
Through your attitude and actions, they may see that they are more important than the conflict that ended your marriage. In essence, your children may understand that your love for them prevails.
But there are some cautions to amicable co-parenting relationships:
- Kids may feel confused and build fantasies about reconciliation.
- If there has been much conflict in your relationship with your ex, your children may have misgivings about a parent's sudden friendliness and suspect negative motives. It may help to tell children that you've made a decision to focus on having a friendly relationship for their sake, and to make it clear that the marriage is over.
Recipes for success at co-parenting
Many aspects of co-parenting are the same as parenting in one household:
- Be respectful toward the other parent: don’t express critical or hostile feelings about the other parent to the children
- Resolve conflicts with the other parent privately, not with the children present
- Discuss major issues as adults and arrive at some agreement or mutual understanding before discussing with the children
- Don’t make a child your confidant – youneed family, friends or a therapist for that role
- Don’t make a child a messenger between you and the other parent
- Assure your child that you will listen to feelings and meet needs in this situation just as you would in other difficult family situations
In addition to these basic parenting issues, the couple must somehow find ways to do what was probably a challenge in their relationship: communicate clearly and effectively with each other. Working together to develop a co-parenting arrangement is essential to its success. Such an arrangement is possible where both parents keep their children’s best interests in mind and where both are able to find a way to work cooperatively as parents.
Many experts agree that children adjust better to divorce when both parents continue to be active in the children’s lives without putting the children in the middle of their personal feelings or conflicts.
Situations were co-parenting isn’t possible
There are some severe problem areas where co-parenting is often not an option:
- Families with a history of domestic violence/spousal abuse
- A parent was engaged in child abuse
- A parent has substance abuse problems or severe mental illness
- A parent refuses to participate, or moves out of town
One other barrier to co-parenting is when couples have so much conflict and anger that they are unable to set aside those emotions. It is often a major challenge to keep our feelings about divorce from contaminating our parenting role and responsibilities. While it may not be easy, it can be done. Each parent can start by finding constructive ways to work out personal feelings about the divorce by getting support from friends, taking a class, reading, or going for counseling. It is possible to attend to your own needs while also attending to the children’s needs, and refusing to put your children in the middle of adult conflicts.
To get started on co-parenting
Soon after the decision to divorce or separate is clear to both parties, you need to inform the children. Schedule a “family meeting” with both parents and all children present. This may be followed by the parents meeting with each child separately. It is unlikely that all the details of the divorce will have been worked out, such as custody arrangements and finances; but it is best that the parents have come to a basic agreement that they will both continue to be parenting the children, and that they intend to do it in a way that serves the best interests of the children and meets children’s needs. An initial discussion with the children may include the following actions and content:
- Keep the discussion simple and straightforward
- Try to model the cooperative relationship you strive for as co-parents: stay reasonable, keep conflict to a minimum and don’t discuss each other’s problems or faults
- Don’t give mixed signals by being overly friendly with each other. Make it clear that the decision is definite and that reconciliation is not an option.
- Assure the children that you both will continue to love them and be a part of their lives
- Tell them that the divorce or separation is not their fault
- Tell them they will not have to take sides and are not expected to choose one parent over the other
Acknowledge that feelings of hurt, anger, guilt or fear are part of the process, and that it’s OK to talk about these feelings.
- Let them know the extent that you expect to provide continuity in their lives (for example, if they are going to stay in the same school, or the same neighborhood, or continue to visit grandma on Saturdays).
- Assure them that they will be provided for, though there may be some financial hardships having two households to support instead of one
If you find you are having difficulty implementing a cooperative relationship with your ex, you can benefit by going to a professional therapist or connecting with services that are offered at little or no cost through family service organizations or religious groups. There is also a great deal of useful information online with details on specific co-parenting issues.
There are numerous issues that will need to be worked out through discussions between the parents. Ideally it will be possible to keep some of the children’s familiar routines or patterns while developing new ones with the change to two separate households. Parents should discuss decision-making rights and responsibilities with regard to their children, and have a means set up for dispute resolution in case it is needed. Major areas for co-parents to plan for:
- Custody or visitation schedule
- Children’s medical needs or concerns
- Discipline and household rules
- Holidays and special events
Each of these areas is addressed in sections below. Any good co-parenting plan will have to allow for flexibility--for changing needs and circumstances. The Online Resources below include articles on developing a co-parenting plan.
Some states have made this mandatory; for example, Missouri requires filing a parenting plan with the court as a part of the divorce process. (See Developing a Parenting Plan: A Guide for Divorcing Parents.)
Co-parenting tips for custody and visitation schedules
First of all, divorcing parents must work out a schedule that is fair and practical, and that takes into consideration each parent’s strengths and availability.
- Establish a routine for visitation and transfer from one household to the other.
- Stick with your schedule but prepare to be flexible: for example, events with the mother’s family should be planned during the mother’s regular visitation times, but if a special occasion does occur during the father’s usual visitation time, the child should be encouraged to participate.
- Each parent should be supportive of continuing contact with extended family such as cousins or grandparents.
- Help children feel a sense of belonging in each home: Consider having a set of clothing, personal items and toys for your child at each parent's home, to avoid problems with forgotten items.
- Prepare for transfer times: have a place where kids can put items they want to take to the other parent's home. Be prompt and respectful of each other as children are transferring from one parent to the other.
- Don’t use transfer times for adult discussions: discuss issues separately on the phone or through letters or email. If it is necessary to exchange basic information such as a child needing to take a medication, consider putting it in writing and discussing it before the actual transfer.
- Allow your children time to adjust in each household. To the extent possible, parents should adopt similar guidelines about such items as discipline and bedtimes, but there are bound to be some differences in rules or routines and these should be openly acknowledged. When your child first arrives at your home, try to gauge the best way for the child to ease back into your home whether it’s some alone time, or playing a game or going for a walk with you.
Reprinted with the permission of Helpguide. © 2001-2008. All rights reserved.
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