Working together with your ex to productively parent your children together after a relationship ends (often called “co-parenting”) can be a challenge. But this work is so worth it. Multiple studies show the importance of a positive, productive coparenting relationship to children of divorce. When divorced parents are able to parent together respectfully, with low conflict, low hostility, and more cooperation and agreement, kids just do better! They have better overall mental health and higher self-esteem, do better in school, and have fewer behavioral problems. They also tend to have higher-quality relationships with their dads and more involvement with them.
Of course, strong coparenting can’t solve every divorce-related issue. But it makes a big difference to kids. Following these expert-backed guidelines and suggestions can help you and your former partner work together so that your children are able to thrive.
- Keep parent-parent conflict away from the kids.
This rule is perhaps the most important. Though there are bound to be issues you and your ex don’t agree about or are still struggling with, keep these conversations private and between the adults. The kids are likely to have seen more than enough conflict already.
- Respect the law.
It may seem like it goes without saying, but each of you needs to respect the law and the terms of the divorce and separation when it comes to child support and visitation. If this condition isn’t met, you can expect problems.
- Communicate consistently about schedules, routines, activities, and changes.
Both parents need to know what children are involved in and when, and to be aware of each other’s planned trips and activities. Parents also need to know about changes in each other’s lives, such as new jobs or new partners. You may want to consider having a regular time to check in about these issues, whether by phone, email, or even in person. It may also be useful to share calendars electronically, using a tool like Google Calendar or another app or website designed for this purpose. Think carefully about what method of communication works best and seems to be most neutral for the two of you.
- Shield kids from legal details and the mess of divorce.
Keep legal documents, emails, letters etc. out of reach of the kids, and don’t discuss these topics more than is necessary. A general overview is useful (don’t keep big secrets), but don’t drag kids into all the nitty-gritty, especially about issues like infidelity.
- Don’t make children play messenger or ask them to be your intermediary.
Though it can be hard at times, be mature and responsible enough to communicate with your ex yourself about any questions or concerns you have. Don’t try to find out what’s going on or get gossip from your child—this makes him or her feel caught in the middle.
- Work on developing a neutral, business-like relationship.
Many experts suggest viewing your former partner as a challenging business colleague. While you may not want to “work with” them, you simply must remain professional and power through. Keep in mind, too, that not every remark or behavior needs a response.
- Know what triggers you--and what triggers your ex.
Does it drive you crazy when your ex comments about the state of your house? Does he hit the roof every time you look sideways at his new car? Make a mental note to avoid the topics as much as possible, and to try to deflect if they come up. These triggers may be linked to old issues from the marriage—which is over!
- Be happy for your child (or at least neutral!) when he or she gets to see the other parent.
Also remember that if your child complains about going to see your ex, he or she may be trying to show love and loyalty to you. If you feel concerned, ask questions neutrally at another time.
- Don’t allow one parent to be a “vacation” while the other is the daily grind.
This problem often develops when one parent has primary custody while the other sees the children more rarely, but it’s not fair to anyone. Children need to experience excitement and the mundane with both parents. To do otherwise is destabilizing.
- Be flexible.
Your ex is going to need help and assistance sometimes due to changes in his or her schedule or needs. If you work with them, they’ll hopefully extend you the same courtesy.
- Honor your child’s relationship with his or her other parent.
Communicate to your child that his or her relationship with the other parent is important to you and you support it. Even if you currently can’t find much good to say about that person, he or she is your child’s mother or father. Out of love for your child, respect the primacy of that bond.
- Be prepared for change.
Your child may ask for changes in custody and visitation arrangements, especially as he or she gets older. Don’t take this as an insult; the reasons may have nothing to do with you. Instead, consider whether the request is reasonable and whether it works for all of you.
- Polish your communication skills.
Communication can be difficult even between two married parents who adore each other--let alone two exes with baggage. To make things easier, practice using key communication skills, like speaking nondefensively, using I-statements, and avoiding contempt and stonewalling.
- Consider parenting classes, counseling, or mediation, as appropriate.
Many states require some basic “parenting after divorce” classes, which can certainly be helpful, but may not be enough. Local libraries, places of worship, community centers, and Extension offices may offer more classes and resources. Counseling is also available from a variety of sources. Finally, if your divorce is still in process, know that some families find that the new field of divorce mediation has been extremely helpful. A divorce mediator is a neutral third party who facilitates a fair settlement and frequently helps parties avoid the expense and stress of a court-litigated divorce, which could damage your co-parenting relationship for years to come.
Developing a strong coparenting relationship will take time and effort, but it’s worth it. Take the long view and work together, and your children and the both of you will benefit.
By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida
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