My son is sick. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s a doozy. We have been to the doctor three times this week so she can keep a close eye on how he is recovering from this respiratory infection he is fighting.
Earlier this week, his dad sent me a message asking if he could stop by and check on him. “Of course,” I said. Who am I to stop him? Is it comfortable when he comes by? Not really, but this is his son too. His stepmom texted me to check on him, and I let her know the ins-and-outs of what had been going on. Did I worry she was judging how well I was handling the situation? Nope, she was genuinely worried about his well-being, not how I was handling it.
Co-parenting is exactly that — both sets of parents parenting the child or children. It’s not about one set doing any better than the other or comparing each other’s styles or abilities. It’s not about who does what at any given time, and it’s definitely not about the parents. Too often, divorced families tend to focus on the discord that went on between the parents, and the ones that truly suffer are the children. Co-parenting involves focusing on the children and their needs, not as pawns to be played against each other.
Here are some great tips regarding the dos and don’ts of co-parenting:
Commit to making co-parenting an open dialogue with your ex. Arrange to do this through email, texting, voicemail, letters or face-to-face conversation. There are even websites where you can upload schedules, share information, and communicate that so you and your ex don’t have to directly touch base.
Maintain consistent rules that are agreed upon by both households. As much as they fight it, children need routine and structure. Issues like meal time, bed time, and completing chores need to remain consistent. The same goes for school work and projects. Running a tight ship creates a sense of security and predictability for children. So no matter where your child is, he or she knows that certain rules will be enforced. “You know the deal. Before we can go to the movies, you gotta get that bed made.”
Commit to positive talk around the house. Make it a rule to frown upon your children talking disrespectfully about your ex, even though it may be music to your ears.
Agree on boundaries and behavioral guidelines for raising your children so there’s consistency in their lives, regardless of which parent they’re with at any given time. Research shows that children in homes with a unified parenting approach have greater well-being.
Create an “Extended Family Plan.” Negotiate and agree on the role extended family members will play and the access they’ll be granted while your child is in each other’s charge.
Recognize that co-parenting will challenge you, and the reason for making accommodations in your parenting style is not because your ex may want “this” or “that,” but for the needs of your children.
Be aware of slippery slopes. Be aware that children will frequently test boundaries and rules, especially if there’s a chance to get something they may not ordinarily be able to obtain. This is why a united front in co-parenting is recommended.
Be boring. Research shows that children need time to do ordinary things with their less-seen parent, not just fun things.
Update often. Although it may be emotionally painful, make sure that you and your ex keep each other informed about all changes in your life, or circumstances that are challenging or difficult. It is important that your child is never, ever, ever the primary source of information.
Go for the high notes. Each of you has valuable strengths as a parent. Remember to recognize the different traits you and your ex have — and reinforce this awareness with your children. Speaking positively about your ex teaches children that despite your differences, you can still appreciate positive things about your ex. “Mommy’s really good at making you feel better when you’re sick. I know, I’m not as good as she is.” It also directs children to see the positive qualities in his or her parent too. “Daddy’s much better at organizing things than I am.”
Burden your child. Emotionally-charged issues about your ex should never be part of your parenting. Never sabotage your child’s relationship with your ex by trash-talking. Never use your child to gain information about things going on, or to try to sway your ex about an issue. The main thing here is to not expose children to conflict. Research shows that putting children in the middle of your adult issues promotes feelings of helplessness and insecurity, causing children to question their own strengths and abilities.
Jump to conclusions or condemn your ex. When you hear things from your children that make you bristle, take a breath and remain quiet. Remember that any negative comments your children make are often best taken with a grain of salt. It’s always good to remain neutral when things like this happen. Research shows that your child can learn to resent and distrust you if you cheer the negativity.
Be an unbalanced parent. Resist being the fun guy or the cool mom when your children are with you. Doing so backfires once they return to your ex. It sets into motion a cycle of resentment, hostility, and a reluctance to follow rules for all involved. Remember that children develop best with a united front. Co-parenting with a healthy dose of fun, structure, and predictability is a win-win for everyone.
Give in to guilt. Divorce is a painful experience and one that conjures up many emotions. Not being in your child’s life on a full-time basis can cause you to convert your guilt into overindulgence. Understand the psychology of parental guilt and how to recognize that granting wishes without limits is never good. Research shows that children can become self-centered, lack empathy, and believe in the need to get unrealistic entitlement from others. Confusion while trying to understand the dynamics of need versus want, as well as taming impulsivity becomes troublesome for children to negotiate too.
Punish your ex by allowing your child to wiggle out of responsibility. Loosening the reins because you just want to be a thorn in your ex’s side is a big no-no. “I know Mommy likes you to get your homework done first, but you can do that later.” “Don’t tell Daddy I gave you the extra money to buy the video game you’ve been working towards.” If you need to get your negative emotions out, find another outlet. Voodoo dolls (just kidding!) and kickboxing can yield the same results, but with less of a parenting mess. Remember, work before play is a golden rule — and one that will help your child throughout their lifetime. Consistency helps your child transition back and forth from your ex — and back and forth to you too.
Accuse. Instead, discuss. Never remain quiet if something about your ex’s co-parenting is troubling you. If you don’t have a good personal relationship with your ex, create a working business arrangement. Communication about co-parenting is extremely vital for your child’s healthy development — no finger-pointing or “you keep doing this” kind of talk. The best approach when communicating is to make your child the focal point: “I see the kids doing this-and-that after they return home from their visit. Any ideas of what we can do?” Notice there’s not one “you” word in there. No accusatory tone or finger-pointing either.
While successful co-parenting is a challenging work-in-progress, ultimately everyone can benefit from the effort put in — especially and most importantly the kids.
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