Much has been said about co-parenting lately, particularly in light of such high-profile celebrity splits as those involving Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner and Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale, who've all publicly agreed to co-parent in spite of their divorces. Psychologists and other experts agree that children generally make it through divorce easier and are better adjusted in the end if they can maintain a relationship with both parents. The question, of course, becomes how to do that with your child's other parent following a divorce, particularly if it was bitter and hotly contested.
Putting the focus on the children
Even the most devoted of parents can find themselves, when in the midst of a divorce with emotions running high, getting caught up in the end of their marriage instead of focusing on the children. This is not to say that it isn't important to apply due attention to the successful resolution of the divorce process, but successfully guiding the children through must be paramount. Children, especially younger ones, simply don't have the emotional intelligence to process their feelings about a divorce, and they may find themselves adrift if their parents don't provide much-needed support.
What does this mean for you as a parent? It is of vital import that you, both during the divorce itself and moving forward, provide as much stability and structure as possible, as well as a positive example of a "united front" with your child's other parent. This will let the children know that you love them and are devoted to their needs in spite of all the upheaval. Children often internalize blame for a divorce, but having a positive co-parenting relationship can offer much-needed reassurance that the split isn't their fault, and that you love them just as much as you did before.
Dos and don'ts
A few things can make the co-parenting relationship successful or not, depending on how you approach them. It is important to minimize conflict between your former spouse (or soon-to-be-former spouse) and yourself, particularly where the children are concerned. You should:
- Maintain discipline rules and standards that existed before the divorce proceedings; if a child would have been grounded for missing curfew prior to the divorce, then those same consequences should apply now
- Never use your child as a "go-between" to pass along divorce-related information. If you cannot communicate civilly amongst yourselves about matters that don't pertain directly to your children (alimony, property division, etc.), then communicate through your divorce attorneys, not your children. Above all else, avoid the temptation to fight in front of the children, or to belittle your child's other parent in their presence. This could feed a child's sense of vulnerability or fear that you'll stop loving him or her.
- Establish - and follow - guidelines for transferring physical custody from one parent to the other. The same goes for moving a child's belongings from location to location (if duplicates can't be purchased and left at both households). Set up methods to handles transitions, and follow them. Remember that your children need structure and reassurance now more than ever before.
- Unless you have been awarded sole legal custody, don't make big decisions about the child's schooling, medical care, religious upbringing or general welfare without input from your child's other parent. Doing so is likely to erode trust and create more conflict in the future. Your children don't need to be exposed to that sort of negativity, and neither do you if the situation can be avoided.