Co-parenting After a Separation or Divorce (page 5)
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.
Co-parenting guidelines for managing our children’s education
Considering that children spend a large amount of time in school or doing school-related activities, you will want to work with your ex to make those experiences positive ones. Sometimes teachers and staff members play a major role in maintaining a stable environment for your kids. Let them know about changes in your child’s living situation. Here are some guidelines for co-parents:
- Ask your children's teachers or school administrator to send all correspondence to both parents.
- Inform the other parent of any changes in class schedules or extra-curricular activities.
- Be polite to your spouse at school events or sports events. Rude behavior or comments and can be distracting or humiliating to kids.
- Share your children's schoolwork with the other parent.
- Keep adequate school supplies at each parent’s home.
- Share information with your ex before parent-teacher conferences.
- Be objective. Do not criticize or blame the other parent during meetings with teachers.
- Ask teachers for suggestions for helping your child with schoolwork.
- Calendar any action steps recommended by the teacher and follow up on them.
Co-parenting financial issues
Unfortunately, most families have less money after a divorce. The cost of maintaining two separate households can strain your attempts to be effective co-parents. But there are ways to make co-parenting easier.
- Create a realistic spending plan for yourself and kids.
- Make prompt payments of support and alimony. This eliminates a source of parental conflict and shows the kids that you are caring for them.
- Allow your children to visit your ex even when the support check is late. Doing otherwise could backfire and trigger court action against you.
- Do not ask your child to deliver cash or support checks to your ex.
- Keep receipts and accurate financial records for any expenses shared by both parents.
- Discuss finances with your ex when kids are not present or cannot hear phone conversations.
- Avoid excess spending on kids to compensate for the divorce.
- Be gracious when your ex provides your children with vacations or opportunities that you cannot provide.
Effectively managing children's medical needs
Children who have chronic health conditions or disabilities will benefit greatly when their parents work as a team. Effective co-parenting can help parents focus on the best medical care for the child, and it can help reduce anxiety for everyone. Here are some tools.
- Choose one parent to communicate primarily with health care professionals, or attend medical appointments together with the child.
- Keep a file of your child's visits to doctors and any recommended treatments. Be willing to share the information with your ex.
- Be honest when discussing your child's health problems, try not to inflate them or minimize them to manipulate your ex.
- Transfer medications to your ex-spouse, not your child, at trade-off times. Include written instructions on dosage and side effects with the medication.
- Be consistent about medications and treatment.
- Inform your ex if treatments or medication dosing has been irregular so that any changes in your child's health condition will be understood and managed properly.
- If your child's illness becomes worse during a visit to your ex's home, look for information and facts; avoid over-reactionary responses.
- Cooperate with your ex about special foods or comforting personal articles that could be sent to the other parent's home while your child is recovering from an illness.
Tips for discipline and household rules
Strong differences in child rearing styles often contribute to marital problems, and after a separation or divorce these unsolved problems will need to be addressed on some level. Co-parents should discuss these issues to find areas of agreement and to come to terms with areas where they agree to disagree. Some basics:
- Aim for some consistency in schedule such as meal times, when homework is done, and bedtimes
- If a child has been disciplined in one household (as in no TV for a week), attempt to understand the other parent’s decision and honor it if possible
- Where the rules are different from one home to the other, acknowledge those differences and make sure the rules in each household are clear to the kids
Co-parenting suggestions for holidays and special events
Custody arrangements made through a court often include plans for holidays. As co-parents, you should aim to be flexible and fair with holiday scheduling. For example, some kids would prefer to spend one-half day with each parent rather than only see one parent on a holiday. Other kids and parents find this too fragmented, so they alternate attending holiday events.
One of the first steps to successful co-parenting during holidays is to take care of your emotions. Some newly divorced people consider holidays or special events an exciting opportunity to celebrate in a new, more meaningful way; but many parents and kids experience lots of strong emotions at these times. Anger, jealousy, shame, guilt, or fear may surface or be repressed and trigger depression or anxiety. This can steer you off course from your best co-parenting plans. To help yourself and your kids, take some time to share those feelings with a trusted individual. Talking to a friend or a professional can release some of the tensions and make the holiday time more positive.
You could also read about this issue in such articles as 10 Holiday Tips for Divorced Parents.
If your child is having a special event, such as a graduation party or religious rite of passage, and you haven't been invited to your ex's, create your own celebration for your child, and include friends and loved ones. Let your child know its OK to have a good time with the other parent. If the occasion calls for the child to give a gift to the parent, help your child find and purchase an appropriate item. Make plans to do something loving for yourself after your child leaves to celebrate with your ex.
Reprinted with the permission of Helpguide. © 2001-2008. All rights reserved.
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