Why is co-parenting important?
There are a number of reasons why co-parenting benefits divorced, separated, or never married families:
- It helps children deal with all the changes that happen when parents are no longer together;
- Children need both dad and mom to participate in their lives;
- Kids will do better and be happier when they have the love and support of both parents;
- Your kids need to see that parents can respectfully talk to one another;
- Parents will feel more involved in their children’s lives;
- Parents can help keep little misunderstandings from becoming big conflicts.
Co-parenting during and after divorce is a different skill than co-parenting while being married, and so it takes practice to become a good co-parent. Plus, it may not be easy to work with a former spouse or partner, especially right after divorce or a break-up.
Here are some tips and strategies for making co-parenting work.
- Think of the co-parenting relationship as a new relationship. This new relationship is entirely about your children (not about the adults). Doing what is best for your children must remain a priority. Being a responsible co-parent means sometimes putting your children’s needs above your own.
Stay kid-focused. There may (and will) be times when you’ll want to lash
out at your ex-partner, or bad mouth him/her in front of your child. Parents
who yell, scream, argue, and bash their ex-partners when their children are around
are putting them in harm’s way.
If an argument seems imminent, call or talk to your ex-partner when your child isn’t around. Bad-mouthing an ex-partner makes children feel like they have to pick sides, that there’s something wrong with their other parent, or that there’s something wrong with them (remember, your child is 50% you and 50% your ex-partner).
- Vent to a friend. It may be tempting to vent to your child, particularly if your child seems like he/she can handle it. This should never happen and can be quite confusing and damaging to your child. Friends, family, therapists, and/or clergy can be called when negative emotions need to be vented. Exercise with a friend or pet can also help.
- Practice relaxation techniques. Dropping your shoulders, breathing deeply, standing tall, counting to 10, and/or thinking of a relaxing place can help you relax. When you relax, you may be less likely to engage in conflicts with your ex-partner, especially in front of your children.
- Never use kids as messengers. When you tell your child to tell the other parent something so you don’t have to speak to your ex-partner, you’re putting your children in the middle of the conflict. Children cannot be placed in the middle, so you’ll need to call, email, or text your ex-partner yourself. Some parents like using emails and texts because you can edit what you say as well as keep a record of your communication. Take time to re-read the text or email before you hit send. If angry or upset, it is wise to count to 10, calm down before firing off angry words that can escalate an argument.
- Pretend your ex-partner is a business associate. You shouldn’t expect to be best friends with your ex-partner. You can be a successful co-parent by imagining that your former spouse is a business associate. You may not care for this new business associate, but you need to work with him/her in order to protect the business (i.e., your child’s well-being). Speak and write to your ex-partner with respect and neutrality.
- Meet and/or talk consistently with your co-parent. Communication with your ex-partner will help your children know that you and your ex-partner are a united front. This can be very difficult early on in the divorce process, but this will help kids feel more stable in a new situation.
- Keep conversations kid-focused. When you do talk with your former spouse, conversations should be kept to discussing children’s needs. Refer back to #6, Pretending your ex-partner is a business associate.
- Aim for consistency. Kids handle divorce better when both parents maintain somewhat similar rules and schedules across households. This doesn’t mean both households should have the exact same rules and schedules! But the more consistent the two households are, the more stable and less anxious children will feel. Rules for behavior, curfews, and punishments for misbehavior as well as schedules for bedtime, meals, and homework can help children manage transitioning between two homes.
- Learn to handle disagreements . Disagreements will come up. Respect can help. This includes being considerate, being flexible, and taking your ex-partner’s opinions seriously. Lines of communication should remain open. If issues cannot be solved within the couple, seek the help of a mediator. Learn to let the little things go. Arguing over every minor topic can be draining, so save your energy and let them go. Finally, compromising can help settle disagreements. The “winner” of the compromise should be the children, not either one of the adults.
For more information:
Contact Jessica Troilo, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, WVU Department of Children Development at Jessica.Troilo@mail.wvu.edu or
Jane Riffe, Ed.D., WVU Extension Service, Families and Human Development Specialist at Jane.Riffe@mail.wvu.edu or www.ext. wvu.edu