During a divorce, with emotions running high, it can be easy for parents to forget the truly innocent parties in this process – the children. They did not ask for the upheaval to their lives and the need to have separate households and two of everything. They will have all sorts of emotions, from confusion to fear to guilt. Keeping the children in the best physical and emotional health should be the parents’ paramount responsibility. But it can be hard.
We hear the word co-parenting often in the context of divorce. It seems a strange word – both parents are full parents, and the prefix “co-“ seems like a demotion of sorts. However, the concept of co-parenting is a combination of cooperation and parenting. How do two people who could no longer live together now work cooperatively as parents?
It begins and ends with putting the needs of the children first. Whatever emotions the parents feel about their marriage and each other must take a backseat to the pressing concerns of the children.
Both parents must reassure the children that they are loved by both parents and will have a warm and welcoming relationship with both parents after the divorce. Beyond that, the children need a sense of consistency and reassurance. How can parents achieve this?
One excellent idea is to create a Co-Parenting Agreement. Some courts actually provide some form of this agreement in a Parenting Plan, but one crafted personally by the two parents has the best chance of lasting because it will be tailored to the needs of a specific family. In addition to the custody schedule, the Co-Parenting Agreement should address how to work together for the children, getting as detailed as possible to make sure everything each parent wants or needs is in the agreement. Parents should pay particular attention to how to communicate with each other and the children, how to make decisions together, how to resolve differences, key rules to observe in both households, mutual goals for each child, handling extended family, and structuring activities and events where both parents should or must be present.
As you customize your own unique Co-Parenting Plan, it’s important to provide your kids with consistency and structure, providing the foundation they need to become autonomous. Being able to effectively communicate is key. Use positive, open communication with the other parent to solve problems to keep conflict at a minimum. No matter what, never put your kids in the middle of a parent conflict. Also, let go of past resentments toward the other parent. Feelings of anger, hurt, betrayal and loss are important when you are married and discussing marital problems. However, once divorced, it is important to let go of the part of you that was a spouse and solely focus on what is left from that marriage – being a parent to your children. The difference is important as parents don’t need to like each other. Instead, they simply need to be civil toward each other in front of their children. By so doing, you are demonstrating your love for your children is greater than your need to get even with your former spouse.
When drafting a Co-Parenting Plan, don’t let your emotions cloud your judgment. To be objective, you must keep emotions away. Shift your marital relationship as a spouse to a business-like relationship with the other parent to accomplish this goal. If you are unable to develop a Plan without help, consider hiring a mediator. Taking this step instead of proceeding to a trial lets your children know that their parents are communicating and sharing information as a united front. This act will prevent children from trying to individually manipulate their parents and pitting them against each other. It will also send the message to your children that you both recognize that your children need a healthy relationship with both parents. The best co-parents recognize that by strengthening each other as parents they are strengthening their children’s relationship with each parent to assist their children in transitioning to a two-home family. As co-parents, you should never restrict your children’s communication with the other parent. Also, you should be accessible to your ex and keep the line of communication open to support your children’s needs.
When you do disagree with the other parent, try to resolve disagreements peacefully. Take a step back and try to see things from the other parent’s perspective. Don’t draw a line in the sand and stand firm on a position. Doing so leaves no room for negotiation or generating options to resolve an important issue affecting your children. Instead, choose to be a role model for your children and demonstrate good problem-solving skills. This action will make sure that both parents know the issues facing their children, they will raise issues with each other, discuss the issue, and do any necessary research to bring more information to the table and come to a decision. In short, you and your former spouse should show up as a united front for your children and support their emotional needs. Keep in mind the psychological impact high-conflict interactions have on kids. It’s simply not healthy. Children need to know that their parents can heal from the loss of their marriage and can move on and parent them with love and understanding. They also need to feel comfortable that regardless of what home they’re currently residing in that they are loved, supported, and have parents that are interested in their life. Beyond the Co-Parenting Agreement, each parent needs to support the relationship of the other parent with the children. Do not denigrate the other parent; try and speak positively of the other parent when that parent comes up in conversation; assure the children that they have open access to the other parent. Also, keep the children out of adult decisions. Do not use the children as messengers. Put the welfare of the children first.
Finally, because co-parenting can be challenging given the emotions each parent may harbor for the other parent, consider counseling or therapy, individually or together. The healthier you and your former spouse are emotionally, the better chance the children have of a smooth transition into a new way of living. Parenting can be an enormous challenge when a relationship ends, but experts say parents can still work together as a unified front to create a consistent, committed co-parenting plan that works for everyone.
Should you need the assistance of an experienced divorce and child custody attorney in Creve Coeur and O’Fallon or have questions about your divorce situation, know that we are here to help and ready to discuss those questions with you.