- Elizabeth Junker, LMSW
Cohesive Co-Parenting: How to Make it Work
Divorce: something most newly married couples never dream could happen to them. The happiness, giddiness, and warm fuzzy feelings they have for each other could never go away, right? Unfortunately, as we know, this is not always the case.
Ideally, partners get married and grow old together, but, in the difficult situation when two people go their separate ways, it has the potential to be a very positive change. There is nothing wrong with developing into a new person, recognizing you have different needs, or realizing that happiness may come from being alone or with someone else entirely. However, divorce has a very negative connotation to it when children are involved.
If you find yourself in a situation where you and your spouse have decided to go your separate ways, and you realize that it is better for both sides to separate, the next question you may ask yourself is, "What now? How do I make it work with my ex-spouse to properly co-parent our children?”
The first step is recognizing that things will be different from now on. There will no longer be one home where everything is taken care of, and everyone gathers for family dinners or holidays. There will now be two homes, each with its own rules and expectations. As one can imagine, this is going to be extremely difficult for the children involved.
In therapy sessions with kids who have divorced parents, I often hear phrases like "I hate it when mommy says mean things about daddy" or "I hate having to go back and forth from mom's to dad's house.” “I always lose my things and it's so annoying keeping track of my schedule." The most difficult cases are when the parents are not on speaking terms. This opens up a lot of opportunities for miscommunication and, most of the time, does more harm than good for the children. The feelings that come up in therapy for children of divorced parents are invalidation, anger, loss, and sadness. No parent wants their children to feel this way if they can avoid it.
Here are some tips on how to ease the transition for kids and successfully co-parent with your ex-spouse:
Set ground rules for communication between the adults: Bad communication (or no communication) opens the door for issues that never needed to be there. Practicing active communication skills can involve deciding how often you will communicate, what type of communication it will be (e.g. text, email, or phone call), and what topics you will communicate about (e.g. children, family, or legal matters). Always avoid making one child the “messenger” or “go-between” and talk directly to each other. When both parents can agree to communicate in a healthy way, it sets the tone for how their children will behave and act around their parents. It also models effective communication skills that they can use when they encounter difficult conversations with others in their lives.
Agree not to speak negatively about each other: This will be difficult, but it's important that your children feel as though they can come to either one of you with anything and know that they won't get in trouble or cause further relationship problems. It's also important that you don't talk badly about your ex-spouse to other people around your children. This will only make them feel as though they need to take sides and can never win. Kids are always listening even when we think they’re not! When parents are able to put their differences aside for the sake of their children, it shows them that even though things are different now, the children still feel they have the same love, support and foundation as before.
Communicate openly with your children: Let them know what is going on and be honest with them while still insulating them from things they don’t NEED to know. They will likely have a lot of questions, and it is important to answer them calmly and in a way that they can understand. Be optimistic, future-oriented and hopeful. Giving your children a positive outlook on the situation will help them to feel more secure and confident in what is happening. When communicating with your children, make sure to take their age into account. A 17-year-old will be able to handle more complicated information than an 11-year-old. Before sharing any financial or legal information, consider if it’s truly necessary for the child to have this information and possible impact of sharing these details.
Try to maintain a sense of normalcy: If possible, keep your children involved in their activities and routines. If you move too far from their previous activities, seek to find similar ones for the children in the new location. If on Sundays you would normally go out to get ice cream, continue to get ice cream on Sundays. This will help them feel secure and stable during a time that can be quite chaotic.
Try to maintain a sense of consistency: One thing kids mention in sessions that is especially confusing is having different rules in different houses. Making sure that both parents are on the same page in regards to their children is very important with co-parenting. If at all possible, try to sit down with your ex and determine consistent rules on things like screen time, rewards, chores, and punishments. Although these differences might be a factor leading to the divorce, try as much as possible to have similar rules in each home. For kids, rules = safety.
Make sure that you are taking care of yourself: This is probably one of the most important things that you can do for yourself and your children. It's very difficult to take care of others if you don't have anything left of yourself. You are the foundation that your children are depending on for care and stability. Seek out support from friends and family or consider joining a support group specifically for those going through a divorce. This can be an extremely difficult time, and it's important to have people who understand what you are going through.
Seek out support from a therapist: Talking to a therapist can be beneficial for all members of the family. A therapist will be able to provide you with guidance on how to communicate effectively with your ex-spouse and work through any issues that may arise. They can also act as a neutral third party to help the flow of communication from one parent to the other. Additionally, a therapist for your children can help to monitor their emotional well-being and make sure that they are able to process their feelings and emotions in regards to the separation and changes they are experiencing.
While co-parenting and divorce can be trying for both parents, it is absolutely possible to make it work. If your children are able to adjust and find comfort in the fact that you and your spouse still care for them, that will make life much easier for everyone involved. Show your children that they can overcome, cope, and adjust to big changes. Just take it one day at a time and things will settle down into a new normal. You've got this!