There can be few experiences more painful in life than divorce. Divorces involving children are particularly fraught, with the tradition dictating that the mother is granted custody while the father gets visiting rights. However, recent years have seen the rise of co-parenting — a far more balanced approach which emphasizes the role of both parents in the children’s upbringing.
The sudden breakdown of the family structure after a divorce can be traumatic for children, who commonly experience feelings of abandonment, confusion and loss. Sadly, parents who remain adversarial may compound this trauma.
Without the cooperation of co-parenting, they often find themselves parenting in parallel — a situation which does little to reestablish stability in their children’s lives. The bitterness that so often goes with divorce can make it extremely difficult for ex-partners to put their animosity aside going forward.
Nonetheless, after a divorce, co-parenting is the ideal outcome on myriad levels. Children can benefit hugely, emotionally and psychologically, from spending as much (or nearly as much) time with each parent. And practically speaking, if both parents are working, joint custody takes a good chunk of the pressure off.
If you are a divorced or soon-to-be-divorced parent, the following guidelines will help you co-parent successfully, no matter how acrimoniously you may have split.
Adopt a professional attitude.
Think of your ex-partner as a work colleague. You are going to be working together at a very important job, the upbringing of your kids. Even though your personal connection is now over, the working relationship must be smooth and amicable if it is to succeed.
So keep communication business-like and to the point. Keep your tone cordial and respectful. Focus on the children, and don’t let your personal issues come into it. If there is still some hostility, use email rather than phone calls or texting. Phone communication is more intimate, and can stir up damaging emotions. Only call when absolutely necessary.
Framing your points as requests (“Perhaps we could/should…?”) rather than statements (“You should/should not…”) will help defuse any potential conflict. Plus, as in the workplace, having an email record of your conversations is a helpful backup in the event of misunderstandings.
Set up a parenting plan.
Before the final split, sit down together, either alone or with a professional mediator such as a counselor, and draw up a firm plan that outlines your schedules and division of responsibilities. Be flexible, though. If from time to time an extended visit with your ex takes up some of “your” time with your child, be gracious about it. Let the petty things go. It’s not worth the distress it will cause to make a fuss.
Consistency is key.
Kids need structure. Your children are being shuffled between two households, so consistency is key. Enforce the same rules regarding homework and chores. Help your children feel secure within the same predictable framework of boundaries and expectations. Similarly, try to keep to the same schedules and routines, such as mealtimes, bath and story before bedtime.
You and your ex-partner may disagree on some of these rules, but remember that your children’s equanimity is at stake. Keeping schedules the same will go a long way to creating a stable home environment, no matter which parent they’re with.
Be positive about each other.
Never, ever trash-talk your ex or your ex’s new partner in front of your child, tempting as this may occasionally be. You’re only creating a situation of confusion and conflict and setting up your child for distress. Always speak respectfully and positively about your ex in your child’s hearing, and make it clear that you expect the same from your child.
Don’t be tempted to use your child as a go-between to carry messages to your ex. It’s imperative to shield them from the drama of your separation as much as possible. Speak to your ex directly and prove to your children that you can still present a united front, even though your lives have diverged.
Find a mediator.
In the immediate aftermath of divorce, feelings of rancor are often overwhelming. It can be almost impossible to set up a successful approach to co-parenting in these circumstances. At such times, a trained relationship counselor or parenting specialist can be an essential ingredient in the co-parenting mix.
Co-parenting may not be easy, but with a clear sense of direction and determination to put the needs of your children first, you can achieve a steady, stable upbringing for your children.