When a couple with children separate or divorce, finding a way to co-parent successfully can be challenging. Even if the separation is the best course of action for a couple, powerful emotions inevitably accompany the end of a relationship. Although there may be a relief and a sense of hope for new beginnings, it is more typical to feel anger, grief, hurt, confusion, numbness, or temporary despair.
In the midst of disentangling shared lives, roles, routines, finances, and responsibilities, strong negative emotions can make it hard for one or both parties to do what is best for their children, particularly during a tumultuous, uncertain time. This includes working together to create a new normal, containing criticisms and complaints about the other parent, and focusing on the children’s vulnerability and need to feel loved and safe.
Continuity in parenting and structured routines is important when parents separate. If continuity is difficult, try to find ways to help the children understand and make sense of the lack of continuity. For better or worse, moving from sharing roles and responsibilities in a two-parent household to being co-parent in different households requires a degree of maturity and selflessness that can seem out of reach when hurt and resentment run deepest, as is often the case in the wake of a split. It is precisely, at this juncture, when partners may be feeling emotionally out-of-control, lonely, and a bit like orphaned children themselves, that a new type of alliance between them can act as a protective factor for their children.
Changing the dynamic with your spouse from marital antagonists to task-focused collaborators takes time and will be a work in progress after any separation. Sometimes, it only happens in fits and starts. Often, finding shared parenting ground with your ex will require deep breathing during communication, trial and error, self-compassion, forgiveness, and determination as you move through multiple adjustments, compromises, disappointments, and triggering events. Despite challenges you and your ex will face in this process, it’s important to set your joint sights on a higher set of priorities that transcends grievances in the interests of a greater good: your children’s ongoing physical and mental health.
10 TIPS ON HOW TO CO-PARENT EFFECTIVELY
Here are 10 practical ideas to try out if you are serious about setting the stage for a productive co-parenting relationship (these suggestions presuppose that neither parent is a danger to themselves or others):
- Understand your unconscious parenting style and how it may be a reaction to or a repetition of the way your own parents parented you. Are you authoritarian, authoritative, or permissive? It is important to find ways to make your co-parenting style a conscious choice.
- Take a co-parenting class. Many community centers and law firms offer classes on how to Co-Parent, sometimes for free.
- Read a co-parenting book. There are many great books out there with helpful insights and tools on how to be a co-parent.
- Listen to parenting audios. There are many parenting and co-parenting audio programs available for download at nominal fees on the internet or for rental at public libraries
- Communicate regularly with your ex, even if it is through texts or email, to coordinate schedules and keep each other informed of school events, lessons, medical issues, or other relevant information.
- Notice what your ex is getting right. Express gratitude and appreciation through texts, email, or in person. For example: “I’m so grateful for the notes you write to me and put in our daughter’s backpack keeping me posted on the stuff you think I should know about your time together.” Apologize when you do or say something you regret.
- Talk to your ex about the pros and cons of your routines, find common ground, and agree to keep certain parts of the children’s routines consistent between households. Co-create a co-parenting agreement, something that helps unite you in your intentions, vision, parental rights, obligations, and mutual goals. You can also co-create a co-parenting mission statement, post it on the refrigerator, or make it a daily reminder as a screensaver
- Find ways to support each other that will allow for greater consistency while permitting flexibility. Examples: providing a few frozen homemade meals at drop-off for the parent who hates to cook, or keeping the children on the other parent’s sleep schedule even if that requires extra effort.
- Discuss the rules that vary between households with your children, and explain why you and your ex have different views about these rules. Express your belief that your child has the ability to respect both sets of rules, just as they might whisper when they are in a library and laugh loudly when they are at a playground. Give your children space and time to share their feelings about the inconsistencies.
- When a serious difference or grievance arises, figure out a way to work through it respectfully. Learn to contain and compartmentalize your negative emotions in your children’s presence. Avoid making negative statements, judgments, or even indulging in subtle innuendoes about your ex’s wrongness, badness, or inferiority.
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