Making Co-Parenting Work: What You Need to Know

Divorce can affect kids negatively. Here's some good advice on successful co-parenting strategies.

For parents, thinking about divorce can bring stress and guilt because the emotional ramifications that can come from legal separation with children. How will the kids react? Will you damage them? And what will your life look like after divorce? Actually, making the decision to co-parent with your soon-to-be ex spouse could be one of the best decisions you ever made. How is that possible?

Firstly, if you are thinking about getting a divorce, you need to hire a qualified family law lawyer who can make it easier for you to navigate through this difficult time, especially in a hotly contested, high-conflict divorce or a complex divorce involving high-net worth individuals.

To help you start the divorce process, an attorney can give you pertinent information on the best way to deal with parenting arrangements, child support, alimony and how to protect your assets.  Also, it may be time to think about a “divorce team,” which features not only a divorce lawyer, but a family therapist as well as a financial planner and perhaps a tax consultant.

What is Joint Custody?

Most legal separation with children cases involve joint custody. This is when one parent is designated as the primary residential parent and where the children spend more than fifty percent of their time. Usually, the “primary” parent receives child support from the other parent.

With joint custody, the parents agree to consult with each other on vital issues such as education, recreational activities, religious upbringing and health issues in advance so these decisions will not create a deadlock.  However, either parent has the right to petition the court to change a decision for the best interests of their children.

Think of Starting Life Anew!

For those who have already gone through a divorce or those who wonder what their life might look like afterward legal separation with children, think of it as a makeover to a new you. Sure, you can get depressed angry and frustrated, but you will also have the opportunity to change and make your dreams come true.

When it comes to your kids, you are beginning life in a completely new way with your ex. This is the time to look beyond any painful history and focus on your children. Whether you’re talking to each other at drop-offs or pick-ups, coordinating schedules or discussing ways to solve problems, it’s time to make a fresh start so you can have a close relationship with your children.

Although your marriage may be on the rocks or completely over, parenting is not and your priority should be what’s best for the kids. This is especially true when children live in separate houses for a weekend, a whole week or a month or every other day.

Judith Wallerstein in her book Second Chances: Men, Women & Children a Decade After Divorce summarizes a comprehensive study of the effects of divorce on children. Her study determined that, ten years after divorce, children who were allowed continuous access to both parents were less apt to feel rejection, loss, and low self-esteem.

When you co-parent, your children should realize both parents love them despite the change in their living arrangements. In this way, children adjust to your divided households and adapt more quickly to your divorce.  Also, co-parenting means better cooperation between the parents using similar discipline and rules, which leads to the children feeling less stress and more secure in their new lifestyle.

Co-Parenting Advantages

On weekends or vacations when the other parent has the children, there’s no need to spend money for childcare or rely on a relative or friend to take the children.  You’re free to socialize with friends, attend a concert, browse antique stores and flea markets, go out on a date, take a leisurely stroll on the beach or travel to places you’d never be able to visit with the children in tow.

When you’re emancipated from parenthood for a day, a weekend or a week, you can live a single life by hanging out with friends at your favorite dining spot, the glory of sleeping in until 10 a.m., enjoying a quiet night at home and reading a book without interruption or whooping it up on the dance floor.

Dating is now a real option when the kids are gone from the house.  When you meet someone who interests you, you can get to know the person without all the kid craziness. Then, when you’re ready, you can introduce your kids to your date.

Image a clean house!  You can actually keep your living space neat and clean for a whole day, a weekend or possible week.  Just think! You can organize your closets and do some deep spring cleaning without the little ones getting in the way.

Grocery shopping and cooking is much easier when the kids are with your ex.  You get to spend more time shopping for yourself without the kids tagging along and you don’t have to cook large meals and make snacks either.

However, there are a few downsides too.

Co-Parenting Costs

Paying for two households is definitely more expensive than maintaining one. Children need double clothing, toiletries, medications, furniture, toys, TVs, and other items when they live in two households.  These expenses add up quickly, so think about putting away some money for any much-needed items for your new house.

Unfortunately, your child support may be reduced when you co-parent, which could have a significant effect on your finances. If you earn more than your ex, you may end up as the one who has to pay more.

Co-Parenting and Transportation

At times, transporting the kids becomes problematic.  Who’s going to pick-up and drop-off or take the children to the doctor or the school play? It works best when transportation issues need to be worked out in advance.

However, life isn’t simple. Things come up at the last minute, which usually leads to frustration and disappointment.  It may take some time and some trial and error, but both parents need to learn flexibility so their children won’t become irritated and feel insecure.

Home Life: Rules, Schedules and Discipline

Children thrive on living under some basic expectations and consistency. However, living in two homes instead of one may make your child feel like there’s really “no home” at all.  To help solve this dilemma, it’s best for each child to have a space in yours and your ex’s house that’s their own.

Rules can vary from house to house, of course. To create the most harmony, maintain consistent guidelines in both houses for such issues as bedtime, homework, internet access, TV programs and curfews.

Discipline can be tricky when the children go from one house to another, but they need to know there are consequences when rules are broken.  If a child loses out on an activity or TV privileges when at your ex’s house, learn to make the same restriction apply at your house.

Schedules are an important part of co-parenting and can often lead to difficulties if one parent doesn’t follow the pre-set plan.  This can make your child’s adjustment to having two homes complicated.  Also, consistent schedules, which are planned in advance and kept “promises,” help to make your children feel confident in their new spaces.

Missing Items

This one is especially irksome: missing clothes and school items.  When a child travels between houses, things often get lost and may remain missing for some time. When the clothes do come back, they may have out grown them or be dirty.  Help your children pack before going to your ex’s house so you can remember what they took with them and what needs to come back.

Moving Forward

Of course, there are pros and cons to co-parenting, but parents can work together effectively to give the children stability and a close relationship with both parents.  It is possible to have a cordial working relationship if you can come to some kinds of consensus with ex.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you go forward into your new life:

Communication is the key to a good relationship with your ex and it will last your children’s entire childhood, maybe even longer.  It may prove to be a tough task, but you don’t have to meet face-to-face.  Use technology such as emails, text messaging, phone and voice mails to establish a communication system.

Keep your conversations limited to your kids.  Apply restraint by failing to overreact to your ex if he or she tries to push your buttons.  If you let this happen, it can become a major source of friction and taint your relationship with your chuildren.  Another important communication point: never discuss your disagreements in front of the children. If this is impossible, seek a therapist to help you communicate with your ex.

Don’t use your kids as a messenger system.  Call or email your ex about issues rather than putting your children in the middle of your relationship with your ex.

Keep all those hurtful and painful things about your past relationship with ex to yourself.  If you need to talk, find a friend or make an appointment with a therapist to let out all your negative feelings.  Children shouldn’t have to choose which parent is “right” and which one is “wrong.”

Remember, co-parenting is a team effort so be honest and straightforward about important issues that affect your children well-being. Cooperation and communication without major battles allows for better decisions and greater congeniality with your ex.

For more information on co-parenting, joint custody and child support, visit Divorce and Children.

Also see Co-Parenting Agreement.