All parents are co-parents. Every child has two parents, and from the beginning, we have to contend with our co-parent and all of his or her opinions, attitudes and behaviors.
Whether or you are married or not, whether you are co-habitating or living separately from your child’s other parent, sharing parental responsibility is hard work. It can be fabulous, rewarding, messy and heartbreaking – and it frequently asks more of us than we are prepared to give.
Parents who live together face many of the same tough questions as those who parent apart – How much junk food? How much screen-time? What bedtime is appropriate? How to pay for a sport, a summer camp or a cellphone? Why are you, dear co-parent, “always” late (or overly controlling or too lenient or too strict?)
Parents who live together, married or not, may be more likely to work collaboratively, but not always. There are married parents living in high-conflict households, in which the children suffer from frequent exposure to parental fights.
Conversely, there are two-household families that parent together beautifully, providing a respectful, consistent and loving baseline of parental support for their shared child, or children.
However, parenting together after divorce presents special challenges that can increase the stress and decrease the fun for parents and kids alike. Positive co-parenting may be particularly difficult in the immediate aftermath of the divorce.
Painful, unresolved feelings can be overwhelming, as parents find themselves having to develop a working relationship with a person that used to share their life, bed and checkbook.
The introduction of a new significant other can then add a whole new set of challenging feelings for parents and children alike. Parents should be patient, with themselves and their co-parent, as everyone involved learns to navigate their new roles, and should avoid making sudden or significant decisions until both parents and children have had a chance to heal and stabilize.
Though every family is unique, here are some overall guidelines for successful co-parenting:
• The children have a right to two parents. They need to feel full permission to love and be loved by both parents. Regardless of feelings about the co-parent, one needs to work every day to communicate respect and appreciation of the other parent’s role in the children’s lives.
Kids are very sensitive to nonverbal cues and tone of voice, as well as the words, and they may be particularly emotionally sensitive in the aftermath of the divorce.
• The children’s needs come first. Every time there is a conflict with the co-parent, one must take a good hard look at his or her own motivations, and make sure the children’s best interests are front and center.
There may be good reasons for being upset, but parents absolutely must not use the children, directly or indirectly, to punish the other parent. Take time to cool off, get perspective and get support before attempting to resolve the conflict.
• Keep the children out of the middle. Don’t ask them to pass messages, don’t argue in their presence and don’t ask them to advocate for a “side” of an issue. They need to be kids, free to have their own thoughts and feelings, protected from grown-up problems.
It may be especially tempting to draw an older child into an argument, particularly if they want to talk about it. The best gift the parent can give the child is to listen with a neutral, supportive tone, and then assure him or her that the parents will work together to resolve the issue.
• Set the children up for success. Help them track their schedule with age appropriate tools, such as a wall calendar, and communicate a positive attitude for managing plans and belongings. Be proactive about getting the necessary school books, rain coat, ski gear, etc. to the other parent’s home, to make it easy for the other household to function well.
Give plenty of fair warning to the co-parent of any significant change on the horizon, particularly if it includes introducing a new significant other and/or sibling into the family system. Think of it as being a part of a larger network of support for the children, and put energy into being the best team player possible.
• Make, and keep, clear agreements. This provides consistency for the children, and builds trust and resilience in the co-parenting relationship. Find effective methods for communicating needs, and make a point to accommodate the needs of the co-parent whenever possible.
Be thoughtful about how to both respect the boundaries of separate households, and share relevant information that will allow the children’s needs to be met. Write down any significant decisions, and be sure to update all the legal paperwork, when making changes to the parenting plan or child support agreements.
• Get help when you need it. Everyone hits pockets of turbulence on the co-parenting journey. The occasional conflict is to be expected, and probably the struggles with a co-parent are – no surprise – just like the ones that were there before the divorce.
As divorce wounds heal, new muscles for managing inter-parental conflict will develop, and it may even be easier to make decisions from the distance of separate households. However, if decision-making is consistently a battleground, if tensions are mounting, and/or children are suffering, the family needs outside support.
Get counseling to help with healing, and get mediation to help with communication and decision-making. Getting help is not a sign of failure – it simply means the co-parents are willing to take responsibility for making positive change, and investing in happy, healthy children.
Adriana Elliot is a N.H. Certified Family Mediator and director of Cheshire Mediation LLC in Keene. She welcomes calls or emails about co-parenting, communication and conflict resolution at 603-358-0009 or email@example.com. Visit online at www.cheshiremediation.com.