After two years of hearings, depositions, meditations, and negotiations, Megan and Nate finally had a settlement agreement on their divorce. The process was grueling and their three kids were tired of the fighting. But now it is over and everything can return to some sort of new normal. Or can it?
As if things weren’t bad enough during the divorce, now Megan and Nate began the hard part of the process: co-parenting. But what exactly is this? Co-parents are a child’s legal parents or guardians. There are many combinations of co-parenting. A biological parent with a grandparent guardian, two biological parents, or adoptive parents are just a few examples.
As co-parents, Megan and Nate are expected to make decisions together as to their children’s best interest for medical needs, education, discipline, activities, summer camps, and other matters. The problem is that Megan and Nate did not agree on these things when married and now they have to agree on them after a divorce. Here are some tips for how to successfully start co-parenting.
- It’s all about the kid’s best interest. One of the things Megan and Nate struggle with is failing to recognize is the importance of the other parent in the kid’s life. Given the worst case scenario, even if the the other parent is incompetent, it is better that a child know who that parent is. Otherwise, the child is likely to imagine the other parent as some magical fairy-like godparent who will rescue them from their current parent. There are special circumstances in which this rule does not apply, such as abusive behavior, where the child’s safety is at risk.
- The rules should be the same. This is a difficult one as Megan and Nate’s parenting issues was one of the any reasons they divorced. So the recommendation is not about specific discipline but rather general expectations. For instance, house rules could include: be respectful, be kind, or be patient. These expectations should apply to all members of a household, including parents and step-parents.
- Plan ahead. Most parenting plans include specific guidelines for the transition of kids, days of the week schedule, holiday, and vacations. But kids forget these things easily and usually don’t look at an online calendar before asking their parents. To reduce frustration, Megan and Nate each put up an annual calendar in their homes with the days clearly marked as to where the child is staying.
- Communicate via internet. Even simple matters quickly escalate unnecessarily when Megan and Nate communicate. There are several online co-parenting websites such as www.ourfamilywizard.com which allows all communication to be recorded including changes in medical, time sharing, or school matters. This is a useful tool for everyone especially if issues need to be mediated in the future. Megan and Nate learned to resist the urge to verify things verbally as that usually led to an old argument. Always confirm with an email or text message.
- Keep kids out of the middle. There are several ways that Megan and Nate unintentionally encouraged their kids to be in the middle of the divorce. Their kids already felt this way organically which sometimes resulted in them taking on adult-like responsibility. This is not good from a developmental or psychological perspective. Parents should be careful not to use their kids to communicate with the other parent even for simple matters. Most especially, they shouldn’t tell the kids they can’t talk about the other household. Kids are a product of both parents and as such, they can’t divide themselves in two.
- Avoid false hope. Parents should not confuse kids by letting them believe that their parents will reunite. Unfortunately Nate was guilt of this while Megan was adamant that it would never happen. The problem is that their kids already secretly wanted this because they felt divided, not divorced. Giving kids false hope backfires as the only lesson a child learns is not to trust the parent who is making the claims. If the parents do reunite, the kids shouldn’t be told until things are completely resolved and the reunion is coming to fruition.
- Be honest. Depending on the age of the child and the nature of the divorce, eventually all kids want to know why their parents separated, as did Megan and Nate’s kids. Parents shouldn’t lie or avoid the conversation. Rather, answer only the question that the child asked in its simplest form. “We divorced because we were not able to agree on key issues,” is an example. Regardless of the fault or innocence of either parent, blame should not be assigned. As a child ages, more information can be given but only if they ask. This is also the perfect time to reinforce the notion that the divorce had nothing to do with the child. “You are not responsible for the divorce,” needs to be stated as many times as possible without irritating the child.
- Be cautious of who is introduced to the child. Megan moved forward with her life and begin to date again. However, this process is for adults only and not children. Kids can latch onto an adult very easily, especially when that adult is presented as safe and inviting. If the relationship deteriorates, a child will have a hard time disconnecting with the new person. In some cases, this can feel like a mini-divorce. When the adult relationship becomes serious, introduce them as a friend first to ensure compatibility. Parents who continue to date someone whom the child dislikes will face defiant behavior in the future.
- Step-parents are assistant parents. The word step-parent carries a negative connotation thanks to Disney movies such as Cinderella and Snow White. The name is also not role-specific and leads to confusion over the boundaries of parenting. Rather, when the term assistant parent is used, that immediately identifies exactly what the new parent’s role is in the family unit. They are to assist the legal parent in whatever fashion is requested. In other words, the assistant parent does not make parenting decisions, the legal parent does. This simple guideline eliminates many of the frustrations of a blended family.
- Act like an adult. There will be many times that both parents, assistant parents, new siblings, and extended family will have to be present at the same time. This includes sporting events, graduations, and weddings. Notice that this does not include birthdays which are often best celebrated separately. When Megan has to be in the presence of Nate, they started to see this as a business meeting of sorts. It is not unusual to have business meetings with people who are untrustworthy, incompetent, or unreasonable. Pointing these things out, however, is unproductive. Eventually Megan and Nate made the decision to act professionally in front of the other parent, their relationships, and the kids.
Kids learn more from what a parent does rather than what is stated. All of the above guidelines are beneficial for other relationships in the future. Parents who treat co-parenting as a valuable life lesson will reap the benefits of a healthy adult relationship later.