For the vast majority of adults, divorce is an unsettling experience, and it is even more so for children involved in the process. Although it is usually the case that prior to a marital breakdown two adults have grown apart, a child never grows out of the need to feel safe and loved by both parents. In a challenging situation such as divorce, a young child needs extra support and reassurance. But because parents are often preoccupied with issues pertaining to the crumbling marriage and feel overwhelmed, the child might suffer from parental neglect and be left to “fend for themselves”.
As a result, divorce usually shakes a youngster’s trust in his/her parents, causing distress and emotional pain. However, divorce does not always have long-term adverse psychological consequences for children. Donald Wertlieb, Ph.D., founding director of the Tufts University Center for Children and the Center for Applied Child Development, conducted research involving 200 Boston families, 40 of which went through a divorce. He studied the effect of divorce on children 2-5 years after their parents’ separation. Dr. Wertlieb found that children who had returned to a ''consistent, reliable family routine'' fared better than other peers of divorced parents. He also emphasized that joint custody with a “collaborative spirit” helps prevent the negative effects of divorce on a child’s personality development.
Thus, if you and your ex are committed to providing a favorable environment for your kid(s) after you part ways, you have to make every effort to mitigate the pain your offspring goes through and stay involved in their life. Psychologists believe that healthy co-parenting produces the best outcomes in children of divorced parents.
What is co-parenting?
Co-parenting, also known as shared parenting or joined parenting, is a method of child-rearing that presupposes active participation in upbringing from both parents, despite them being separated or divorced.
Shared parenting is by no means easy. What lies behind it is ongoing communication, reciprocal interaction and conflict management. Taking into account that in many cases divorce happens because of miscommunication, disagreements, incompatibility and bitter clashes, both adults have lots to work on; they must learn how to communicate in a cooperative manner.
They have to put aside their differences and episodes of “falling out”, and act in the best interest of their child. A successful co-parenting setup requires a clear plan that both adults stick to. It involves spending time with the little one and finding common ground with regard to raising the child.
By sharing parental responsibilities and participating in your child’s life, you can gain the following benefits:
- Cohesion. A set routine is crucial for a child’s development. When a child views stable parental authority and a consistent schedule at mom and dad’s houses, he/she feels secure and confident. This is particularly important for toddlers and young children.
- Emotional stability and mental health. Showing your child that both you and your ex-partner care for the little one forms the basis for a positive parent-child relationship and healthy child development. When a kid feels that his parents are coping well with post-divorce life, he does not assume responsibility for what has happened. On the contrary, children before age 7 or 8, and sometimes older, tend to think that the divorce you’re going through is their fault. As a result, they can become anxious, withdrawn or engage in “parentification” – trying to offer support to their distressed parent.
In the aftermath of a divorce, particularly one with an ugly ending, battles over child custody or the splitting of assets, and continuous parental conflict, children are prone to anxiety, panic disorders, and even depression. Parental separation is also associated with a higher rate of depression later in life.
Shared parenting, however, reduces the risk of a divorce’s dire consequences on the child and facilitates resilience.
- Healthy relationships with both parents. In split families with single-parent arrangements, children tend to form a deeper relationship with one parent and weaken bonds with the other (usually non-residential) parent. Because mothers are given child custody more frequently than fathers, it is usually the father-child bond that is negatively affected. A 1985 study in the USA revealed that 20% of divorced fathers had not seen their children during the past year and 25% of men had not communicated with their children for 5 years.
At the same time, more and more statistics indicate the importance of having a father figure in life. The presence of an involved father positively influences a child’s emotional and psychological well-being, facilitates behavioral adjustment and leads to academic success early in school. Thus, neither the mother nor the father’s role in raising a child can be overstated.
- Settling conflicts. Through good communication with each other, parents show their children how conflicts can be resolved. In this way, the young ones learn how to cooperate with others in difficult situations. They also become better at problem-solving later in life.
It goes without saying that co-parenting can be implemented easier in amicable divorce cases. But what about marital breakdowns that are accompanied by resentment, conflict, and condemnation?
Are there situations in which co-parenting is inadvisable?
In the majority of situations, the answer is “No.” However, for many years, researchers held the consensus opinion that in situations where the adults have not reached a consensus as far as parenting arrangements go and continue to fight with each other, the child will not benefit from shared parenting. It was believed that the child’s exposure to an ongoing conflict would be damaging and could outweigh any advantages of spending time with each parent.
Nonetheless, recent studies indicate that what was actually affecting children and exposing them to more conflict was frequently transiting between homes. When the kids moved a lot between their mom’s and dad’s households, they witnessed a lot of parental conflicts. However, with a lower frequency of transitions, and in situations where conflicting parents tried to shield their offspring from fights, the negative effects disappeared.
Dr. Linda Nielsen, professor of Adolescent and Educational Psychology at Wake Forest University, has analyzed 54 studies on the effect of shared vs. sole physical custody and come to a conclusion that even children who are exposed to high, ongoing conflict in families with shared custody do not have any worse outcomes than kids from sole custody families. She explains these findings thusly: having a strong relationship with both parents offsets the harm of high parental conflict and even poor co-parenting.
The International Council on Shared Parenting (ICSP) also holds the opinion that co-parenting is the healthiest way to raise a child.
The First International Conference on Shared Parenting, organized by the ICSP and held back in 2014, came to the following conclusions:
1. Co-parenting, as a post-divorce parenting arrangement, is optimal for child development and well-being, including for children of high conflict parents.
2. Shared parenting presupposes shared decision-making and joint responsibility from mothers and fathers towards their children.
3. Courts should give shared parenting orders even if one of the adults opposes it.
4. These statements should apply to the majority of children, except for families with child abuse and family violence.
5. Centers offering mediation services are crucial in guiding parents on effective co-parenting.
6. The legal determination of parenting after divorce should view shared parenting as an optimal arrangement for the majority of children of divorce, and in their best interests.
Various studies have shown that half of first-time family violence occurs after separation when courts have awarded sole custody arrangements to one parent. Fathers tend to be more hostile towards their ex-wives if they feel under threat of losing contact with their children. This leads to more conflict and sometimes violence.
Thus, unless your parent is abusive or can cause direct harm to your offspring, you have to understand and acknowledge that involvement from both parents in a child’s life is key to a happier childhood and future.
5 Barriers to ?o-parenting
While children generally benefit from co-parenting, parents often want to shy away from it. The majority of divorced adults have various issues with shared parenting. Obviously, there were reasons that caused the two people to separate. Perhaps they were not able to get along, or things like infidelity, lack of trust, financial problems or differences of opinion were involved. No matter the reason, divorce is hardly ever amicable. But even in cases of amicable divorce, collaborative parenting is not easy to achieve. Here are the key factors that hinder healthy co-parenting.
Barrier #1 - Strong emotions such as anger, hurt or hostility
A lot of divorced people cannot communicate effectively with their ex-spouse. They might attack their former partner or adopt a defensive stance. Some people find it difficult to control their emotions, while others suppress their feelings. Rather than being focused on what’s good for children, adults tend to concentrate on their personal trauma and get engaged in long-running battles.
Barrier #2 - Difference of opinion on what’s best for the kids
Some parents develop extreme differences in their approaches to parenting. A child can get mixed signals when one parent is too strict and the other one is overindulging, or if the rules set by each parent differ greatly. For example, if mom never buys them junk food while dad regularly takes them to McDonald’s, the child gets confused. Due to different parenting styles, parents often undermine each other’s authority and cause suffering in their children. For a successful co-parenting setup, it is important to come from the same place and be on the same page.
Barrier #3 - Not working as a team
A post-divorce situation requires co-management. However, many couples do not seem to realize that the other partner is equally attached to the youngster(s) and misses their little one(s). Non-cooperative parents avoid interacting with their ex deliberately, in an attempt to limit the amount of time that their former spouse spends with the kid or diminish the importance of that parent’s role in child-rearing. This sort of behavior can have negative effects on children.
Barrier #4 - Being driven by guilt
Sometimes divorced adults feel bad for letting their children down and not being able to save the family. To compensate for the pain caused, many parents become overindulging and forget to set boundaries for their kids. It is not healthy for your child’s development if you and your husband grant your kid any wish. This behavior may lead to your child becoming self-centered and insensitive to other people’s feelings and needs.
It’s okay if your child is angry with you for some time when you tell them “No” or “Not this time”. It’s not okay to spoil your kid by giving him/her material rewards as a way to redeem yourself.
Barrier #5 - Blaming the other parent
When blaming another person, you subconsciously duck your share of responsibility for the situation. Playing the blame game or condemning your ex can make your kid feel you’re also attacking them. If both parents throw shade at each other in front of their child, the little one can suffer from low self-esteem and develop a sense of unworthiness.
Co-parenting Tips for Divorced Parents
First and foremost, be prepared: shared parenting is never easy. Shortly after separation, things are likely to go awry. However, if your end goal is raising a happy child, then you have to make that joint effort to create favorable conditions for said child’s development.
If you are taking your first steps on the road to effective co-parenting, you may find these tips useful.
Create a Detailed Co-parenting Plan
The vast majority of experts believe that having a written agreement on co-parenting is very useful. Although there is no set format for a co-parenting plan, it usually covers the following areas:
- Major and minor decisions about child-rearing including school, extra-curricular activities, free time, medical decisions, emergency situations, etc.
- Visiting schedules. An agreement should answer the following questions: Does the transition between homes happen every other day or every other week? Who is responsible for the child’s arrangements? How will you act if there is an unexpected schedule change?
- Residential arrangements.
- Details regarding vacation time and holidays.
- How information between parents is exchanged (e-mail, phone, in person).
- Finances. It is obvious that child support depends on the particular custody arrangements. But when it comes to unforeseen expenses, who will cover them?
- Future relationships. At which stage can you introduce your new partner to your child? Should you do that at all?
In order to prepare a plan like this, psychologists suggest that each parent make a draft proposal and then compare lists. Alternatively, divorced couples can use the services of a mediator or a parenting coordinator. Parents can undertake a survey in which they outline how they see themselves spending time with their child. A mediator helps develop a co-parenting plan based on both parents’ answers, strengths, deficiencies, and skills needed to carry out the plan.
Try to Develop a Consistent Plan at Both Homes but Don’t Push Too Hard
Because children need a set routine and structure, coordinated rules at both households and a similar parental approach to things such as bedtime, meal times, chores, school, curfew, and hobbies is strongly encouraged. Consistency gives kids a sense of security and predictability. They also pick up quickly what is expected of them, what is strictly forbidden and what they can get away with.
On the other hand, some differences in household rules and structures are almost inevitable. The majority of experts share the opinion that discrepancies in schedule are not as harmful as prolonged parental conflict. In other words, it’s better if a child goes to bed earlier/later at dad’s/mom’s house than watch his/her parents fight over the “right” bedtime. Besides, provided that they are not blatantly contradictory, different rules can teach your kids flexibility.
When it comes to discipline, however, the same rules and system of consequences for broken rules should be enforced at both parents’ homes. For example, if your ex takes away a certain privilege, it’s better if you follow through with that restriction. Your kid should know what privilege will be taken away if he or she misbehaves. The same set of rules should be applied both at mom’s and dad’s place. Even though it can be hard, don’t give in to your child’s begging or complaints.
Don’t Let Anger or Hurt Prevent You from What You Need to Do
It’s normal if you and/or your ex is overwhelmed with feelings. However, co-parenting is not about displaying your intense emotions. It’s about your child’s future, well-being, health and stability. Just because your marriage did not work out does not mean that you should stop trying to be good parents for your children. Set aside whatever feelings are bothering you and try to focus on what your child needs. Never divert conversations with your child to your personal needs, opinions about the past or the blame game.
If you are dissatisfied with your ex’s approach to parenting, try to stay diplomatic and don’t let emotions overwhelm you. Peacefully discuss your concerns and voice your expectations. Remember that you cannot entirely control your ex nor your children’s behavior. Therefore, don’t be too pushy; doing so can cause unnecessary resentment. Show your ex that you are eager to cooperate with him/her and try to be patient. In order to stimulate your communication with the former spouse, ask for their opinion on a matter that you don’t feel strongly about. In other words, do not burn bridges. Try to build bridges and keep your communication business-like.
If interaction with your ex reopens old wounds and is way too painful, discuss your feelings with a friend or family member, or apply for professional help. Try to let go of anger, disappointment or sadness. Don’t get stuck in those emotions. And never unload your worries on your child.
Find the Middle Ground in Situations of Conflict
If you and your ex have strongly opposing views on something, try to reach a compromise. Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Alan Ravitz advises couples “to be open-minded about the possibility that the other person is right.” He suggests that people try giving in to their partner and testing hypotheses for some time. If things do go wrong, you can always go back and implement plan B. A mid-point agreement which none of the adults is in love with, but tolerates, might be a fair decision as well.
If reaching an agreement seems next to impossible, or conversations are getting overly heated, communication via email might save your nerve. When you are alone, you can let off steam (going jogging, screaming out loud or taking time off might be helpful) and then write an email to your ex. Just make sure that you are calm, cool and collected.
Don’t Fight in Front of Your Child
It’s normal for parents to argue on certain issues for some time before they reach a compromise. However, you have to present a united front to your little one. If there is a risk of a fight, do not discuss matters that could send tempers flaring when your kid is around.
First of all, a parental fight is disturbing to a child. It’s also worth remembering that whenever you start a fight, this usually means that you are going against your former partner instead of focusing on what your child needs. As a result, children can become manipulative when they know that parents don’t see eye to eye on certain matters. For example, your 13-year-old son wants to stay overnight at his friend’s place. He knows that his mom is strongly opposed to him sleeping over. But he remembers that dad said in an argument with mom that she was overly strict to the child and called out her rigidity. The son might negotiate an overnight stay at his friend’s by convincing his father. This, in turn, can lead to a bigger parent-child conflict.
Don’t be a Disney Dad/Mom to your child
This brand of parental behavior is arguably the least healthy for your parent-child relationship. Treating a kid like a same-age buddy, allowing them to do whatever they want, giving countless gifts, taking them to the amusement park, etc., is fun, but let’s be honest: it is not particularly responsible as far as parental roles go.
Even if you don’t see your child often enough and want them to enjoy themselves, try to encourage responsibility, enforce discipline, teach them something new and stay consistent with scheduling.
You can still be on good terms with your little one even if they know that it’s their responsibility to make their bed, clean the bedroom and do chores. You can still have an exciting evening out, but your child needs to know that if they disobey or don’t complete a school assignment, a trip to the movies could be canceled. In the end, parental responsibilities are not limited to entertainment only. A limited dose of fun is fine but, as the Greeks said, “nothing in excess”.
Never Put Your Child in the Middle
A lot of people use kids as pawns without even realizing it. They might communicate messages to the ex-spouse through the child so that the former husband/wife knows they are happier/better off now.
Instances of behavior in which one parent becomes overindulgent just to be a thorn in their ex’s flesh are also quite common. For example, phrases such as “I know mom tells you to brush your teeth/make your bed/do your math homework first, but in my house you don’t have to do that.” or “Dad never takes you to the movies but I’ll always make sure we do that every week” are a big no-no.
Some adults go as far as to talk trash about the other parent in an attempt to sabotage the child’s relationship with them.
This behavior can make your ex-spouse angry, jealous and hurt. What you are doing, in fact, is also a great disservice to your child. By putting children in the middle, you want them to side with you and undermine your partner’s parenting approach. As a result, the kid gets confused, helpless and insecure. Seeing as deep inside they feel that they are extensions of their mother and father, they start questioning their own strengths and abilities.
Make Home Transitions as Smooth as Possible
With joint custody and co-parenting, transitions are unavoidable. Moving from one place to another on a regular basis can be hard for children. Try to make this experience as easy as it can possibly be. Here are our tips that you may find helpful.
1. Prepare your kid in advance. Your child should always know who is going to pick them up from school/sports and where he/she will spend the night.
2. Pack in advance and don’t forget about your child’s favorite things. Allow toddlers to take their favorite toys/blankets/pillows/books with them. Alternatively, you can buy the same toys for your household. It is also wise to keep toothbrushes/pajamas/hairbrushes at both houses. This will not only give your little one a sense of security and stability, but also decrease the risk of leaving something important behind.
3. Don’t break promises. If you promised your child a night out/vacation/sporting event together, try to keep to your word.
4. Psychologists advise dropping off kids at your ex-partner’s but not picking them up – if possible. This way you will not interrupt or curtail the farewell.
5. Allow some space. When your child comes to your house, let them adjust before starting any activities. Remember that transitioning between households can be stressful for your youngster.
6. If your little one refuses to visit the other parent, try to find out the reason for that, and then resolve the issue with your ex.
7. Don’t create situations in which your child has to choose between you and your partner. Say only positive things about your former husband/wife or don’t say anything at all. Teach your child to be respectful towards your ex-spouse.
8. Be on time. If you agreed to drop off/pick up our little one at a certain time, stick to the schedule. Don’t make your kid wait for you and get stressed.
Keep Your Ex Updated
Though it may be hard, try to tell your former partner about any important changes in your personal situation or your child’s life. Be it a new job that requires more time, a new food allergy, parent-teacher conferences, doctor’s appointments or problems at school – you need to be on the same page about issues that affect the children. Communicate messages directly over the phone, e-mail or in a personal meeting. Your youngster should never be the source of information.
Remember That You Are All in the Same Boat. Try to Cooperate In Order to Get Ashore
Whenever you feel tired, drained or hopeless, remember that every member of your family has been impacted by the divorce. Although it might not be apparent, your ex is probably fighting his or her own demons. It’s not easy for you, and it’s also hard for your children and your former spouse.
Co-parenting can and will be challenging. No matter how tough it can get, remember that you are doing it for your child, and you should never throw in the towel. Your end goal should be raising a happy son/daughter, done through letting go of the painful past and not allowing the divorce to get on top of you.
Therefore, do not succumb to the turmoil of emotions and hostility. Try to remain civil and tactful. Look at your long-term goals and disregard the little flare-ups and bugaboos that can make you upset. What may look like a victory today (like winning a verbal argument with your ex-spouse) might be of no importance tomorrow.
Try to build the bridges whenever you see a chance. For instance, encourage your little one to prepare a present for your ex’s birthday or other holidays. Praise the other parent in front of your child for something nice they have done.
Whether you wish it or not, you are tethered to your former partner by a child, or children, whose happiness, confidence, empathy, positive mindset, strength, curiosity and many other traits you can cultivate. And it’s always in the best interest of your kid that you do so in cooperation with your former partner. In the end, what matters in a successful co-parenting arrangement is that you and your ex both demonstrate loving, supportive and authoritative parenting. And, believe it or not, it will not take long to see results.