“Should we stay together for the kids?” is probably one of the most common thoughts people in distressed marriages go through. While many people do end up staying together just for the kids, some chose to separate and lead a life as divorced parents to their children. But not without a constant struggle with dilemmas, guilt, and frustrations.
Not only do divorcing couples go through their own trauma – the heartbreak, the divorce settlement tug of war, the anxiety about alimony and child support – there is also the never-ending worry for the kids. “Are we being selfish?” “Will I be causing irreparable damage?” “Am I doing enough?” “Will my kids be at a disadvantage to other kids?” “Will my kids forgive me?”
Well, children of divorce are NOT at any disadvantage in comparison to kids brought up in intact families merely because of their parents not being together. It is uncoordinated, often conflicted, parenting that causes the damage. A conscious effort from you and your ex-partner’s side can make you into smart co-parents who can raise healthy children just as efficiently as you would when married. Read on for our tips for divorced parents to handle shared custody effectively. But first, let us look at the challenges of co-parenting.
Challenges Of Co-parenting As A Divorced Couple
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Dr. Anthony Charuvastra, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine categorizes post-divorce parenting into three categories:
- Conflicted: Marked with constant arguments and disagreements
- Parallel: Negligible communication between parents. The two households become two disconnected spaces for the child
- Cooperative: Parenting is cooperative, communicative, and flexible. Despite two households, the parenting experience is singular, or that of unity and consistency
Most divorced parents start their co-parenting journey in a conflicted or parallel mode, as there are many natural obstacles or challenges of co-parenting as a separated couple. (The aim is to transition to cooperative parenting.) We share with you the three most prominent ones which lead to most other problems when a couple treads on this arduous path.
1. Conflict or resentment between the divorced couple
Divorce is a legal process, but it cannot be separated from the emotional experience of heartbreak, disappointment, broken dreams, anger, frustration, and resentment. Even though parents believe that they would like to do their best for their kids, it is hard to let go of these negative feelings toward one’s ex-spouse.
A 25-year landmark study on the effects of childhood divorce, which followed 93 now-adult children for about 25 years, shows that 50% of the female parents and 30% of the male parents were still intensely angry with their former spouses. This means that divorced parents often engage or feel inclined to engage in hostile behavior toward each other. This may look like the following:
- Undermining each other
- Criticizing or questioning each other’s decisions
- Overriding each other’s requests or instructions
- Making negative comments or gestures in front of the child
- Becoming competitive with the ex-spouse
It can be naturally difficult for many couples who have divorced to be united as parents. To put their issues and baggage aside and start an amicable conversation aimed at better coordination and cooperation. However, every bit of good parenting involves ex-couples communicating with each other to respectfully negotiate, compromise, and support each other. Old resentments can easily come in the way of that.
2. Complications of blended families
It’s apparent that divorce alters the family structure permanently and children are often left clueless, with no say in the decision. For a child, understanding the dynamics between their parents and their respective new partners or spouses can be extremely confusing.
Introducing step-parents and step-siblings into a child’s life, without adequate counseling and the parents going through sensitivity training, can make a child feel resentment toward the new family, seeing them as threats. They may think that the new family is to be blamed for the separation of the biological parents. All this, on top of feelings of isolation and othering!
Additionally, blended families may make it difficult for a child to experience what they need the most – consistency and routine in their life. After all, the more adults involved, the more parenting styles there would be.
3. Instability from a lack of consistencies
“My parents are getting a divorce” is a thought laden with confusion and anxiety for a child, due to the uncertainty it brings into their life. There are bound to be inconsistencies in both conflicted and parallel types of post-divorce co-parenting. When parents divorce and there exists a lack of communication between them, it is easy for the child’s living environment to be divided into two spheres – two separate schedules and lifestyles, in two different households.
Think of things as routine as wake-up time, a nighttime routine, screen timing, or diet plans. If one parent decides to reduce their child’s sugar intake while the other liberally provides them with cookies or soft drinks, this not only confuses the child regarding healthy habits, or good values, it may make them prefer one parent’s company for the other for the wrong reasons.
10 Tips For Divorced Parents To Handle Joint Custody Effectively
To see their parents getting divorced is one of the most difficult experiences of a child’s life. It also has long-term effects on their well-being. However, we don’t say this to persuade you into staying in an unhappy marriage, or an abusive marriage marked by emotional torture and domestic violence. Enough research shows that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) at home are traumatic events for kids, with long-term effects on their health and well-being. It is better for parents to separate than to live together in toxic relationships.
On one hand, a growing body of research points to the adverse effects of childhood divorce. Children whose parents divorced had a higher probability of dropping out of school, poor academic performance, trouble fitting in with peer groups, mental health problems such as stress and depression, behavioral problems, delinquencies, impulsive behavior, and suicide. On the other hand, despite what most children of divorce statistics will tell you, the reality is not all bleak and weary.
A psychologist who followed 1,400 families and about 2,500 children during the course of her research over three decades said that the negative effects of divorce on children are exaggerated while the positive effects are ignored. According to the study, 70% of adult children of divorce say divorce is an acceptable solution to an unhappy marriage, even with children.
This shift is possible if parents make a sincere effort and prepare themselves to handle shared custody of their children effectively. Here are 10 tips that may help you do so.
1. Keep your child’s needs at the center
The only way to successfully navigate resentment against your partner and do “the right thing” is to keep your focus on your child’s needs. In fact, this is one of the positive signs during separation which show that a couple can prioritize what is important.
If your partner refuses to compromise on something, and this upsets you, you may feel inclined to get into a duel with them. This may lead to a stalemate with your partner when the need of the hour is making important decisions about something that concerns your child. However, if you keep your attention fixed on what’s best for your child, you will make the right call and do whatever is necessary. Think of it as a necessary sacrifice in the relationship that you are making for your child.
What to do: Talk to your partner reasonably when faced with a conflict and remind them of their primary responsibility. Hopefully, they too will have the child’s interest in their heart. However, regardless of their response and their commitment, keeping this in mind will at least ensure good parenting from one end.
Related Reading: 12 Tips To Be A Successful Single Mother
2. Keep conversations related to your child separate
Accept that the bitterness between you and your ex is not going to vanish any time soon. Be prepared that the feelings will keep rushing back and may influence every conversation, every little disagreement, and every tiny decision you have to make with your ex. Know that this is going to happen, and be mentally prepared to push those feelings aside and not let the conversation with your ex-change lanes.
What to do: Tell your ex-partner about your decision to not allow your child’s interest to get sidestepped by your issues. Prepare a response beforehand for such a situation, “We must not digress”, or “We still have one thing in common. Let us focus on (your child’s name)”, both to remind your ex as well as yourself of your primary responsibility.
3. Work on your communication strategy with your ex
The key to successful co-parenting is the ex-spouses’ ability to communicate with each other. You will have to devise a plan as to how you communicate with each other with the least amount of conflict. This is one of the most important co-parenting rules for divorced couples.
What to do: Work to your strengths, work on your weaknesses. This is how you can do it:
- If it’s difficult seeing each other in person, perhaps you would quarrel less if you texted
- Maybe you should meet in public, a café, or a park, where you can keep the conversation professional, your business being your kids
- Keep your tone with your ex cordial and business-like
- Keep a day of the month to discuss schedules
- Write on a piece of paper the routine you would like your partner to stick to (if you’re the primary caregiver) so that they can refer to it later; or ask for a schedule if your ex has primary custody
4. Honor your agreed parenting style and schedule
Many parents engage in competitive behavior with their ex. They try to win their child’s approval by flouting the rules set for their ex. Sneakily becoming the “good cop”, they leave the other parent to become the “bad cop”. Not only can this be viewed as unfairly manipulating or jeopardizing the relationship of your child with the supposedly “strict parent” by becoming the “fun parent”, but you are also confusing the child’s understanding of good habits and values.
A broken family or broken home will only look broken to your child when they notice discrepancies in the family values of their parents. Besides, a lack of consistency inhibits the child from feeling grounded and secure.
What to do: Following the same wake-up, bedtime, and meal schedules as in the other household helps kids feel safe, giving them a sense of uniformity and normalcy. If your child tries to manipulate you into getting their way (yes, kids do that!), put up a united front and insist on the same “rules” as the other parents.
5. Co-parenting does not mean equal parenting
Each divorced parent is a unique individual, both in the sense of their personality, values, preferences, etc. as well as their circumstances. It will, therefore, be beneficial to not see “co-parenting” as “equal parenting” as that is usually not possible. Parents do not need to always share parenting tasks equally for effective co-parenting.
What to do: Play to your strengths and understand what each co-parent can offer. If one parent is more financially stable, they can help the child secure better education, or better healthcare through child support or otherwise. An outdoorsy parent can offer an adventurous experience to the child. A parent with a job that involves going away for weeks at a time, may be available less regularly to the child. However, they may like to spend a long week with a child at a stretch.
Do not forget each parent offers the best to their child, and in whatever shape or form it may be, its value for the child cannot be undermined.
6. Be flexible
Effective co-parenting needs to be established on some rules for consistency but there has to be equal space for flexibility as well. Co-parenting is a long process, an integral part of life. (Divorced at 50, you would still be co-parents to your adult child, even though you might not have to “parent” them in the formal sense of the word.) Which is why a lot will keep changing.
For example, there might be an unavoidable change in your partner’s or your child’s visitation schedule. Even if you hate it and feel angry, the change might be more favorable to your child. You should be flexible in such cases. However, neither co-parent must make a habit of breaking promises.
What to do: In the case of teenage kids, who will have more control over their own schedule, you will have to prepare yourself to be more accommodative for last-minute changes. Kids that age will have a more prolific social life and there might be many last-minute changes.
7. Do not bring your child in the middle
Divorced couples who do not pay attention to being responsible co-parents, frequently end up communicating things through their children. By asking your child to spy on their other parent for you, complaining about your ex to them, criticizing them, and blaming them, you are forcing your child to pick sides. Your child will hate to be in the middle of things and would blame you for trying to create a rift between them and their other parent.
What to do: To avoid this worst parenting mistake, always discuss any issues directly with your ex-partner. A sense of family cohesion can only be created if your child sees you and your ex as a team that is invested in them. This will not be possible if you try to alienate your ex from that team.
Never say negative things about your ex to your child. This, of course, does not hold in the case of an ex who was abusive toward the child. In such a case, you might have to gently shield your child from them and that may involve telling your child about their abusive parent.
Related Reading: The Top Rules Of Separation In Marriage To Make It Successful
8. Make important decisions together
Regardless of your marital status, when parenting, you will be faced with many decisions related to your child, both big and small. While you can let go of the small stuff, make sure to make the important or big decisions together.
By big decisions, we mean decisions related to education or health, or shared expenses. Do this as sincerely as possible. Wherever it is not possible to discuss in advance, such as in the case of an emergency medical intervention, divorced parents should inform and keep each other in the loop.
What to do: Pick your battles. Let go of some small disagreements at times, so that you both can come together and agree on the big stuff. So, if your ex insists on an additional pizza night when your child has already had another, let it go. The next disagreement you have may be of more importance.
9. Seek support through co-parenting therapy
Co-parenting therapy and other supportive services can be great tools for divorced parents to come up with an effective strategy to raise the kids together in this difficult time. It provides you with the skill to raise a child together when separated. It may help you put your hurt aside and come together in a civil way for the benefit of your child.
In the case of blended families, a professional family counselor can guide you with the right way of introducing your child to your “new” or “other” family. If a child doesn’t respond well to these changes, one should also be open to individual therapy for the child and find a child psychologist who is adept at and experienced in handling issues your child may be struggling with.
What to do: You can consult a counselor pre-divorce to learn techniques to break the news to your kids and help them transition from an undivided family to a divorced family. Post-divorce family therapy can help you with conflict resolution so that you can move to a cooperative style of co-parenting as soon as possible. It can help you with easy and effective communication, the best parenting strategies, and things such as visitation schedules and custody arrangements, etc.
10. Do your bit even if joint effort with the other parent is not possible
While most parents would be on board to battle with their egos and develop a strong co-parenting plan with their spouse, it is possible that you have an ex who refuses to cooperate or understand. At the same time, some parents may find it unimaginable to work with a former spouse due to their traumatizing history with the ex. To them, peace after a toxic relationship involves staying no-contact with their ex.
What to do: In such cases, our best advice is that you continue to stand your ground and do your best for your child in your parallel parenting. One parent’s behavior can influence the other without having to put it in words or communicate it deliberately. Your efforts can increase the likelihood of the other parent putting in the required effort in the co-parenting relationship.
Dealing With Children At Different Stages As Divorced Parents
The needs of a child differ depending on their development stage and age. As divorced parents, you need to know how frequently a 3-year-old child needs to see both parents, versus a 13-year-old. Or what your priority needs to be when parenting a toddler versus a middle schooler. This is why post-divorce co-parenting counseling is a dynamic process.
Your co-parenting strategy will change as your child ages. Let us look at how children’s needs differ with age and how you should be dealing with children at different stages of their lives as divorced parents:
1. Baby – Birth to 18 months
In the case of babies, one parent usually takes on the role of the primary caregiver, whom the baby attaches to in these early stages of growth. This usually is the mother, more so with the breastfeeding requirement. This means at this stage your co-parenting schedule will require the following aspects:
- Babies need consistency and a predictable routine with regular feeding, sleeping, waking, etc
- At this stage, the second parent can meet the child frequently but for a shorter duration of time. Frequent contact will allow for a bond to develop between the baby and the secondary caregiver
- Babies grow quickly during this time and go through several milestones that both parents would like to witness. Plan your schedule and have a communication arrangement in a way so that you can include and celebrate this aspect of your parenthood journey
- Overnighters are usually discouraged during this time as the baby is more attached to the primary caregiver
- Custody arrangement can be tapered gradually to increase time with the secondary caregiver’s parent
Related Reading: 5 Ways Our Married Life Changed After A Baby
2. Toddler – 18 months to 3-4 years
By the time a child reaches the age of a toddler, a predictable routine is gradually and gently thrust upon them by the parents. And toddlers thrive on this routine. The second thing to note in this phase is your child’s high energy and their demand to expend it. Keeping these two factors in mind, the following points are worth noting when co-parenting a toddler:
- The secondary caregiver has gradually matriculated to being the second primary caregiver at this stage. The non-residential parent can now spend more time with the child and the period between two visits can be cut down to 2-3 days
- Overnighters can be included during this time of phase of the joint custody
- Both parents should follow the same sleep, wake, play, and eat schedule
- Both living environments should have enough sensory play equipment or interactive toys to engage the toddlers’ high-energy play instinct
3. Preschooler to Middle Schooler – 3-4 to 8-9 years old
Like babies and toddlers, preschoolers too need consistency in their routine. However, what is most interesting is that at this stage kids begin to have much more emotional growth. They may get upset or excited when leaving one parent for another. Be cautious when dealing with kids this age. Toxic parenting today can affect their future. Social interaction with their peer group also becomes imperative at this stage. Keeping these developments in mind, here are a few things to note when dealing with preschooler children of divorce:
- Children at this stage can be away from each parent for 4-5 days at a time. The custody schedule should be prepared accordingly
- Both parents should ensure that the child has access to kids their own age
- Many children at this age will look at other children and other parents and feel angry about their living situation. But they will not be well-versed to express their emotions, and as a result, they might act out. Both parents should prepare themselves to handle such adjustment issues including talking to the child about their feelings after consulting with a child psychologist or a family therapist
4. High schooler or Tween – 9-12 years
At this age, be prepared to let go of control of your kid’s schedule. School-going children would have many other things keeping them busy. Studies, homework, activities, friends. At the same time, these kids would be more flexible to changes in your schedule as well.
However, you should be careful to not unknowingly distance them by giving and taking too much space. Even though they might demand independence, school-going kids, younger and older, crave the same security that babies do. Routine and discipline provide a predictable cushion to fall back on. Note the following:
- School-going kids can get involved in the preparation of the visitation schedule. They will have an opinion on when would they like to be with which parent
- They are curious at this stage and more adept at emotional vocabulary. It’s a good time to talk to your kids about the divorce, their emotions, how they have been dealing with it, and get them to express themselves
5. Teenagers – 13-18 years
By now, your child is all grown up. As much as teens crave independence, there is no other time suited for your intervention, guidance, and support, as this can be a confusing time for them. Depending on each child’s maturity, you can expect different responses.
At this age, young adults lead a life of their own. Friendships become extremely important. Approaching adulthood, they inch closer to milestones like sex, alcohol, and learning new skills such as driving. To navigate through your child’s teenage years as a divorced parent, pay attention to the following:
- They can stay away from one parent for a long time. Regardless, every child needs some form of connection with the parent, no matter the physical distance. A parent can regularly keep in touch with teens through phones, letters, emails, etc
- Be prepared to hone your capacity for flexibility and patience. You will need that when raising a teenager, given the never-ending changes in their plans
- Have a common consensus with your partner on the issues your child will be handling at this stage. What is your opinion on dating, sex, driving, and on things like body art, politics, and activism? How does each of you plan to talk to your child about these issues?
- Children who have witnessed divorce are more perceptible to mental health issues and behavioral issues
- There are three kinds of post-divorce parenting – conflicted, parallel, and cooperative. Either the parents are in constant conflict or decide to raise the kids in a parallel manner with no coordination to avoid conflict or co-parent in a cooperative way
- The conflict between ex-spouses, the complexity of a new family dynamic, and the lack of consistency pose the biggest challenge to co-parenting as a divorced couple
- Therapy for the co-parents and the children can help kids adjust to separation and offer them the support they need for this transition
- Divorced families can work on the same co-parenting principles as that of two-parent families, that of cooperation and communication
Co-parenting relationships are separate from marital relationships. Many married couples are not parents, and many parents might not be married to each other. We say this because you must not feel disheartened by the challenges faced by parents who are divorced or separated.
Parenting is a difficult task in any case, and growing up with divorced parents doesn’t need to be any different than growing up in an intact family. You can pull this off effectively with the right planning and sincere effort.