Practical do’s & don’ts for successful co-parenting by parenting expert Sue Atkins
A divorce or separation can be a difficult time for everyone, including your children and other family members. Although you are no longer together, you are still parents and it’s vital that you put aside your differences and focus on raising your children to be happy, confident and resilient, together, despite living apart.
Co-parenting is NOT easy but it is worth it for the long-term wellbeing of your children.
It’s really important that you remember that divorce is a process NOT an event.
It’s a difficult and challenging time going through a divorce and co-parenting but for the sake of your children’s long-term wellbeing and mental health try and work together.
Co-parenting amicably with your ex will give your children stability and a close relationship with both of you.
Making co-parenting work
The key to successful co-parenting is to separate your past personal relationship with your ex, from your current, co-parenting relationship. This is difficult but important. It may help you to think of it now as a more ‘business’ like relationship and it’s helpful to start thinking of your relationship with your ex as a completely new one—one that is entirely about the well-being of your children, and not about either of you.
One simple tip is to put a photograph of your kids on the table or beside you when you are speaking to your ex about arrangements or events. It will focus you on what’s really important in the conversation and stop you from falling into blame, anger or resentment. Your marriage or relationship may be over, but your family is not; acting in your children’s’ best interest is your most important priority. The first step to being a mature, responsible co-parent is to always put your children’s needs ahead of your own.
Benefits for your children
Through your new co-parenting partnership, your children will notice that they are more important than the conflict that ended your marriage or your relationship—and over time they will come to understand that your love for them is your priority despite the changing circumstances as you ‘sing from the same song sheet’ and always have their best interest at heart.
Children whose divorced parents have a workable cooperative relationship:
- Feel secure . When a child is confident that both of their parents love them, they adjust more quickly and easily to divorce and everyone’s new living circumstances, and they have better self-esteem and self-confidence.
- Benefit from consistency. It’s important to try and find common ground for rules around bedtimes, technology and homework because if you adhere to similar rules, discipline, and rewards between households, your children will know what to expect, and what’s expected of them, and they will feel more relaxed and at ease, free from tension and anxiety.
- Understand the benefits of problem solving . Children who see their parents continuing to work together are more likely to learn how to effectively and calmly solve problems themselves.
- Have a healthy example to follow . By cooperating with their other parent, you are establishing a life pattern and blueprint for your children that they can carry into the future to build and maintain stronger relationships for themselves. You are a role model in everything that you do and say and in how you act – make sure you are being a positive one.
- Are less stressed and anxious . Children exposed to high conflict between co-parents are more likely to develop issues such as depression, anxiety and mental health issues. So, work hard at reducing tension.
Aim to be flexible
It benefits everyone to be flexible. Pick ups and drop off times can be a source of stress and anxiety for children so aim to be positive, upbeat and never criticise your ex in front of your children no matter what you’re thinking inside!
Also, your plans will also need to adapt as your child grows up and their needs and circumstances change – for example, when they start Secondary school or turn into teenagers.
Try to accept different parenting styles
Your former partner’s parenting style might change without you around and may even have been a source of conflict during your relationship. It might take some getting used to, especially if your former partner has different values or beliefs.
Take the longer-term view. They may eat popcorn and stay up too late on Fridays at your ex’s but during their time with you they go to bed on time, eat their broccoli and do their homework. Try not to sweat the small stuff.
As long as your child is safe and secure, different parenting approaches and styles can help your child learn that different rules apply in different situations.
Help your child feel connected and bonded to their other parent
If it’s not too upsetting for you, you could keep a framed photo of your family, or a photo of your child with your ex, in your child’s bedroom. You may have parted but they miss their other parent and may like to see a photo of them.
Do try to be positive about what your child is doing when they are at their other parent’s house – for example, ‘Wow, that looks like a great garden. What a fun weekend you’ve had building a den.’
Encourage your child to send messages, WhatsApp’s, texts or emails to their other parent when they are with you. Even if your child’s other parent lives far away, it’s good for your child to send and receive regular emails, phone calls, text messages or Skype calls. It keeps the relationships easy, relaxed and natural.
Keep your former partner up to date
Your child will benefit when their other parent knows what’s going on for them. You and your former partner could keep each other up to date by using a shared online calendar or app that lists your child’s weekly schedule, plus any special events. It shows respect for the other parent by keeping them in the loop.
Contact your child’s school to make sure your former partner gets duplicates of school records and newsletters so there is no misunderstandings or recriminations.
Plan ahead for tasks, activities and events
You might want your former partner to be involved in, or take responsibility for, tasks like doctor or dentist visits or school outings. If you’re on good terms you could plan to go to activities like parent-teacher interviews or school concerts together.
If you’re not able to go together, you’ll need to plan who’s going to which event, or how you’ll handle it if you’re both there.
Give your former partner some time to learn the ropes
If you did most of the caring for your children before your separation, your former partner might take a little time to learn about the practical side of caring for your children. It can be tempting to criticise, but pointing out the positives is much better for everyone.
Be prepared for your negative feelings
When your child is with their other parent, you might feel a sense of loss, loneliness and disappointment or even anger. It can help if you try to look at the positive side. For example, time apart from your child can give you a chance to rest, relax and pursue relationships, hobbies or interests. Never make your child feel guilty or responsible for your happiness as that is too much pressure on them and not fair or desirable.
Plan ahead as it can help you cope when your child is away. You could arrange to do some exercise, see friends for a meal, visit family, watch a film or take a long hot bath with a good book.
Create a Parenting Plan
A Parenting Plan will help you agree in advance on the kind of contact you’ll have with your child during weekends, birthdays or holidays. For example, you might let your kids have brief phone calls, emails or text messages when they are with you to their Mum or Dad. Be positive and put on a happy face for your child – this will really help them feel relaxed as they love being with both of you despite what’s happened between you.
Be boring . Research shows that children need time to do ordinary things with their less-seen parent, not just fun things.
Don’t sabotage your child’s relationship with their other parent out of your own negative feelings towards them. Your relationship may have floundered but they are still Mummy or Daddy to your child and they love them. Not only is it not fair to your child, often it can back fire and your child will end up resenting you for it rather than your ex-partner. It is really important for your child to have healthy relationships with both of you.
Don’t criticise, judge or speak ill of your ex-partner or their family in front of your children . When you put down your ex, your child feels as though you are putting them down as well. Children need to be allowed to be carefree and just be children and not feel burdened with grown-up problems.
Don’t make your child choose sides or burden them with negative things that they don’t understand or need to know.
Don’t use your child to manipulate your ex . The only one that gets hurt when you do that is your child. Being a pawn in a game that they don’t understand is not fair to them. Using your child as a bargaining chip is one of the worst things you can do in a co-parenting situation. Remember, your children are small or young people with feelings, emotions and choices of their own, they’re not objects.
Don’t Accuse – Discuss. Don’t always assume the worst and start a fight. If you find out about something that your ex may have done or said, first, wait until the iron is cold and ask for a calm discussion before jumping into angry and hurtful emotions and immediately starting a fight. Particularly not in front of your children. Good communication is what is best for your children long term, and they can sense conflict and negative feelings even when you don’t talk about it.
Never transfer your hurt and angry feelings towards your co-parent onto your children . Your kids are already dealing with the loss of the family unit and this new way of life. They need your support, love, and trust to navigate these new choppy waters of life.
Co-parenting requires lots of cooperation and the mindset to make it work for the good of your children. It requires letting go of angry reactions to differences between you and that can take time.
To be a great co-parent you will need to learn to put aside resentments from the past and learn good, frequent, transparent communication and the ability to negotiate differences, rather than flair up in old negative patterns of reactivity.
Excellent co-parenting isn’t easy, but the rewards of your children’s healthy development make it worthwhile.