Parenting in the 2020s is tough! There are a host of challenges and issues that most of us never had to face when we were growing up. Why does my 13-year-old need her own Instagram account? How many texts can a 15-year-old send in a day? Is it true that your 9-year-old is really “the only one in his class” without a smartphone? And what is Tik Tok anyway???
The challenges of parenting are compounded when you layer on the complications of co-parenting with an ex-spouse. During my time as a mediator, I have seen both extremes. I have worked with clients who do a great job of co-parenting. It’s not easy, but they have made a conscious decision to make their children’s emotional well-being their #1 priority, and they work hard at making the co-parenting relationship work. Unfortunately, there are other parents whose co-parenting is characterized by ongoing conflict and strife. The marriage crashed and burned, the divorce was nasty, and now co-parenting just means the fight continues until the youngest is out of high school.
Child Psychologists all agree; divorce takes an emotional toll on children. But they also agree that the greatest mitigating factor to the emotional trauma of divorce is the degree to which the parents can work together as co-parents. The higher the degree of cooperation between the parents, the better the children can adjust to the “new normal”.
Five Keys to Co-Parenting Effectively
1. Remember, when it comes to the kids, you and your ex are on the same team, and share the same goals.
In the short term (the first 12-18 months after the divorce) your primary responsibility as a parent is to help your kids adjust to their new reality. They are most likely going to be transitioning between 2 homes, and it is not uncommon for them to feel unsettled and uprooted. Reducing (or eliminating!) the drama between the 2 of you will go a long way in helping the kids make that adjustment. Agree that for the sake of the kids, your interactions will be civil and respectful.
In the long term, you both want the same thing. As parents, divorced or not, we want to see our kids “launch well”. We want them to move into adulthood with everything they need to be successful in life- to be self-confident, emotionally resilient, and responsible. This means you are both on the same page when it comes to setting expectations and establishing boundaries. You are working together to raise your kids to become healthy, well-adjusted adults.
2. Resolve to keep your “stuff” between the two of you.
Let’s be honest, you divorced for a reason, or more likely, for any number of reasons. More than likely, there are feelings of resentment, anger, and perhaps even betrayal. You will need to find a safe place to process those feelings. Find a good counselor or therapist, talk to a pastor, but don’t bring your kids into the mix. They don’t need to know the specifics that led to the divorce.
One of the most difficult things for children of divorce to work through is the feeling that they need to choose between their mom and their dad. Divorcing parents can either foster that feeling or protect their children from it. When you speak poorly of your ex in front of your kids, remember, most likely, their experience with that person is different than yours; and you are demeaning a person who is one of the two most important people in their life. Resolve to take the high road. Better yet, when you are drawing up the parenting plan promise each other that you will not speak negatively of each other to or in front of the kids. And no matter how hard it is, honor that commitment.
3. Find ways to communicate what needs to be communicated.
It sounds funny, because chances are, the inability to communicate well played a significant role in the breakdown of the marriage. How do you change that post-divorce? When communicating with your ex, be aware of the emotional triggers that produce an emotional response. It is all too easy to revert to the way you communicated when you were married, which, in your case really didn’t work all that well! The reality is, most communication with your ex-spouse is filtered through layers of hurt, pain, and suspicion. It’s easy to assume there is an agenda on the part of the other person. As an unbiased outsider, I find that is rarely the case. As I tell my clients, the key to communicating well is to make a conscious effort to say what needs to be said in a way that makes it easy for the other party to hear and to process.
The key is to focus your communication on the kids and sharing the information that is pertinent to them. You need to find a system that works that allows you to communicate the stuff that needs to be shared. A shared online calendar is something that many co-parents have found to be useful. As your kids get older, they can take on some of the responsibility of maintaining the calendar. They can plug in their practice schedule, recitals, and games.
4. Clarify financial obligations and expectations up front.
For many co-parents, money is sore point. Usually, the parenting plan has spelled out the child support amount. But child support is designed to ensure your kids have the necessities of life-a roof over their heads, clothes on their back, and food on the table. It is not designed to cover music lessons, soccer registration, car insurance, or a $200 prom dress. These are expenses that are typically shared in some way; usually based on the income level of each parent. A good parenting plan will include the cost-sharing formula for these ‘extra-curricular’ activities. If it wasn’t in the original parenting plan, it can be re-visited and addressed as the kids get older.
5. If possible, consider having an occasional co-parenting conversation with your ex-spouse.
This is a chance to have a civil conversation about where your kids are at, and, as parents, anticipate and talk about what’s coming. Your co-parenting will be much more effective if you are able to sit down together and talk about things like driving and dating and social media. If having that conversation with your ex-spouse over a cup of coffee seems far-fetched, then consider meeting together with a professional mediator. A skilled mediator will create a safe place for you to share your thoughts and feelings and will keep the conversation focused and positive. A mediator will often “interpret” what is being said and will help each party see things from the other party’s perspective. The goal is to create a shared co-parenting plan where you are both on the same page when it comes to the big stuff. I have clients who ask me to facilitate a semi-annual “check-in” where they talk through whatever needs to be addressed regarding their kids.
Like it or not, if you have kids together, the divorce does not end your relationship with your ex. Most likely, the parenting plan requires that you work together as co-parents at least until your youngest reaches the age of 18. Even then, I tell my clients that life has a way of pushing them back together. There are graduations and weddings and grandkids. You may be divorced, but you will always be mom and dad to your kids. If you have learned to co-parent well, there is a much greater chance that your relationship with your ex will be civil and respectful. Developing the ability and the necessary skills to co-parent effectively together has both short-term and long-term benefits for everyone affected by the divorce.
Dave Williams is a certified mediator in SW Washington. He helps divorcing couples develop a parenting plan that reflects the interests of everyone affected. He also works extensively with co-parents who are seeking to modify existing parenting plans.
He can be reached at www.cornerstoneresolution.com