Tips on Better Co-Parenting
Almost every job I’ve ever had has involved working with children and adolescents. Naturally, I have had the pleasure of interacting with the parents as well. From camp counselor to middle school teacher to professional nanny, I’ve had a unique window into the challenges of parenting.
Based on my observations, parenting is hard and divorce can complicate it. Navigating life after divorce is exhausting. Although many changes occur in divorce, the parental role is a permanent role that does not change. You and your co-parent’s responsibility to your children remains constant. Remember throughout this process that your children are depending on you for their needs to be met. Assuming there is no history of abuse, co-parenting has been shown to be the most effective approach to raising well-adjusted children of divorced parents. In fact, studies have confirmed that the continued involvement of both parents could increase the financial stability of children’s environments, as well as reduce parents’ stress and mental health symptoms. If the parents are less stressed, the kids will be also.
The quality and nature of parents’ post-divorce relationships are inextricably linked with children’s emotional and behavioral well-being. If the parents’ relationship is rife with conflict, young children are at higher risk for anxiety, aggressive behavior, and poor social skills.
So how do you do this whole co-parenting thing? Is it worth it?
According to Florida State University’s Successful Co-Parenting After Divorce curriculum, there are four main co-parenting principles:
- Children have good relationships with both parents
- Both parents are involved in meeting their children’s needs
- Parents don’t argue in front of their children
- Parents don’t place children in the middle of a conflict
Some of the positive impacts of healthy co-parenting on children include:
- Feeling of stability, which allows for easier adjustment to divorce and results in higher self-esteem.
- Continued relationships with both parents, freeing children from choosing a side on issues of conflict.
- Limit feelings of responsibility for the emotional and social needs of parents.
- A higher level of health, due to strong parental support.
- Higher grades, better social skills, and higher rates of high school graduation.
- Social competence and healthy communication skills due to parents who are sensitive to their needs and emotions.
- Lower likelihood to smoke, drink, and use drugs in adolescence due to a higher level of parental involvement.
Practical Tips for Co-Parenting:
Co-parenting is not always easy, so here are a few tips to help ensure a positive experience for your children.
- Focus on the best interests of your children. Do not fixate on interpersonal issues between you and your partner. Keep the needs of the children in mind at all times.
- Establish consistent routines and rules across the two households. Children crave routine and structure (whether they realize it or not!) and keeping things consistent will lessen the push-back from children. Consistency breeds security. In changing environments, it is good for children to have consistent expectations.
- Commit to openly communicating with the co-parent. It may be helpful to set up a weekly meeting, phone call, or email to make sure both parents are on the same page. Remember not to argue in front of the children.
- Speak positively about the co-parent and encourage children to do the same. It can be easy to vent about difficulties with your ex, but save that for a therapist or friend. Your children are not there to tend to your social and emotional needs.
- Provide opportunities for kids to exercise their autonomy. Children do not have control over whether the parents divorce or even whose house they’ll be at this weekend. It is important to honor the child’s individuality by giving them choices when possible. It can be as simple as allowing them to choose between two different menu options for dinner, picking out their own clothes, or choosing which chair they get to sit in today. Any amount of control can be helpful in an ever-changing world where adults make most of the decisions.
- Talk to your children and reassure them the divorce is not their fault. Kids can internalize the outer stress. Kids are concrete thinkers and need to hear the truth very straightforwardly. If your child asks questions about the divorce, validate their feelings, continue to reassure them that they are loved and remind them it is not their fault. The kids (and you) may be grieving the loss of what was. Allow time and space to heal.
- Extend grace to yourself. You are doing the best you can. Take a deep breath, apologize when you need to, and start again each day.
Most of all, remember to ask for help when you need it. Seek out counseling, family support, or community support. You are not alone.
Ferraro, A. J., Malespin, T., Oehme, K., Bruker, M., & Opel, A. (2016). Advancing co-parenting education: Toward a foundation for supporting positive post-divorce adjustment: C & A C & A. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 33(5), 407-415. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10560-016-0440-x
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