>> Co-Parenting After A Separation or Divorce
CO-PARENTING AFTER A SEPARATION OR DIVORCE
If you’ve decided to separate or get a divorce,
your next most important decision could be about co-parenting.
People who separate but continue to work cooperatively
as parents have a very positive effect on their children’s
development and adjustment to living in two separate
households. It can be difficult to manage your emotions
while co-parenting and it may beneift you to seek
additional support from a therapist.
WHAT IS CO-PARENTING?
Despite beginning with a sense of joy and commitment,
about 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce.
Even though they will no longer be together as a couple,
most people with children want to continue being good
parents and to remain involved in their children’s
lives. Co-parenting means sharing parenting responsibilities
with someone living in a separate household.
However the decision was reached, a divorce can be
a crisis and a major loss for the adults and children
involved. Upon separating, each parent has a dual
task: to make the adjustment to being a single person
as well as to being a single parent. At the same time,
they are not exactly single parents, if they intend
to work out a co-parenting agreement to remain involved
in their children’s lives.
BENEFITS OF AN AMICABLE CO-PARENTING
RELATIONSHIP FOR YOUR CHILDREN
Kids whose divorced parents have a cooperative and
- are more likely to adapt better to the
- are less likely to have long-term negative
effects after the divorce
- benefit when they see their parents modeling
ways to solve problems, cooperate, show
flexibility and demonstrate compassion
- are provided with a sense of security
Through your attitude and actions, they may see that
they are more important than the conflict that ended
your marriage. In essence, your children may understand
that your love for them prevails.
But there are some cautions to amicable co-parenting
RECIPES FOR SUCCESS AT CO-PARENTING
- Kids may feel confused and build fantasies
- If there has been much conflict in your
relationship with your ex, your children
may have misgivings about a parent's sudden
friendliness and suspect negative motives.
It may help to tell children that you've
made a decision to focus on having a friendly
relationship for their sake, and to make
it clear that the marriage is over.
Many aspects of co-parenting are the same as parenting
in one household:
- Be respectful toward the other parent:
don’t express critical or hostile
feelings about the other parent to the children
- Resolve conflicts with the other parent
privately, not with the children present
- Discuss major issues as adults and arrive
at some agreement or mutual understanding
before discussing with the children
- Don’t make a child your confidant
– youneed family, friends or a therapist
for that role
- Don’t make a child a messenger
between you and the other parent
- Assure your child that you will listen
to feelings and meet needs in this situation
just as you would in other difficult family
In addition to these basic parenting issues, the couple
must somehow find ways to do what was probably a challenge
in their relationship: communicate clearly and effectively
with each other. Working together to develop a co-parenting
arrangement is essential to its success. Such an arrangement
is possible where both parents keep their children’s
best interests in mind and where both are able to
find a way to work cooperatively as parents.
Many experts agree that children adjust better to
divorce when both parents continue to be active in
the children’s lives without putting the children
in the middle of their personal feelings or conflicts.
SITUATIONS WHERE CO-PARENTING
There are some severe problem areas where co-parenting
is often not an option:
- Families with a history of domestic violence/spousal
- A parent was engaged in child abuse
- A parent has substance abuse problems
or severe mental illness
- A parent refuses to participate, or moves
out of town
One other barrier to co-parenting is when couples
have so much conflict and anger that they are unable
to set aside those emotions. It is often a major challenge
to keep our feelings about divorce from contaminating
our parenting role and responsibilities. While it
may not be easy, it can be done. Each parent can start
by finding constructive ways to work out personal
feelings about the divorce by getting support from
friends, taking a class, reading, or going for counseling.
It is possible to attend to your own needs while also
attending to the children’s needs, and refusing
to put your children in the middle of adult conflicts.
TO GET STARTED ON CO-PARENTING
Soon after the decision to divorce or separate is
clear to both parties, you need to inform the children.
Schedule a “family meeting” with both
parents and all children present. This may be followed
by the parents meeting with each child separately.
It is unlikely that all the details of the divorce
will have been worked out, such as custody arrangements
and finances; but it is best that the parents have
come to a basic agreement that they will both continue
to be parenting the children, and that they intend
to do it in a way that serves the best interests of
the children and meets children’s needs. An
initial discussion with the children may include the
following actions and content:
- Keep the discussion simple and
- Try to model the cooperative
relationship you strive for as co-parents:
stay reasonable, keep conflict to a minimum
and don’t discuss each other’s
problems or faults
- Don’t give mixed signals
by being overly friendly with each other.
Make it clear that the decision is definite
and that reconciliation is not an option.
- Assure the children that you both
will continue to love them and
be a part of their lives
- Tell them that the divorce or separation
is not their fault
- Tell them they will not have
to take sides and are not expected
to choose one parent over the other
Acknowledge that feelings of hurt, anger, guilt or
fear are part of the process, and that it’s
OK to talk about these feelings.
- Let them know the extent that you expect
to provide continuity in their lives (for
example, if they are going to stay in the
same school, or the same neighborhood, or
continue to visit grandma on Saturdays).
- Assure them that they will be provided
for, though there may be some financial
hardships having two households to support
instead of one
If you find you are having difficulty implementing
a cooperative relationship with your ex, you can benefit
by going to a professional therapist or connecting
with services that are offered at little or no cost
through family service organizations or religious
groups. There is also a great deal of useful information
online with details on specific co-parenting issues.
There are numerous issues that will need to be worked
out through discussions between the parents. Ideally
it will be possible to keep some of the children’s
familiar routines or patterns while developing new
ones with the change to two separate households. Parents
should discuss decision-making rights and responsibilities
with regard to their children, and have a means set
up for dispute resolution in case it is needed. Major
areas for co-parents to plan for:
tips for custody and visitation schedules
- Custody or visitation schedule
- Children’s medical needs or concerns
- Discipline and household rules
- Holidays and special events
First of all, divorcing parents must work out a schedule
that is fair and practical, and that takes into consideration
each parent’s strengths and availability.
guidelines for managing our children’s education
- Establish a routine for visitation
and transfer from one household
to the other.
- Stick with your schedule but
prepare to be flexible: for example,
events with the mother’s family should
be planned during the mother’s regular
visitation times, but if a special occasion
does occur during the father’s usual
visitation time, the child should be encouraged
- Each parent should be supportive
of continuing contact with extended family
such as cousins or grandparents.
- Help children feel a sense of
belonging in each home: Consider
having a set of clothing, personal items
and toys for your child at each parent's
home, to avoid problems with forgotten items.
- Prepare for transfer times:
have a place where kids can put items they
want to take to the other parent's home.
Be prompt and respectful of each other as
children are transferring from one parent
to the other.
- Don’t use transfer times
for adult discussions: discuss
issues separately on the phone or through
letters or email. If it is necessary to
exchange basic information such as a child
needing to take a medication, consider putting
it in writing and discussing it before the
- Allow your children time to adjust
in each household. To the extent
possible, parents should adopt similar guidelines
about such items as discipline and bedtimes,
but there are bound to be some differences
in rules or routines and these should be
openly acknowledged. When your child first
arrives at your home, try to gauge the best
way for the child to ease back into your
home whether it’s some alone time,
or playing a game or going for a walk with
Considering that children spend a large amount of
time in school or doing school-related activities,
you will want to work with your ex to make those experiences
positive ones. Sometimes teachers and staff members
play a major role in maintaining a stable environment
for your kids. Let them know about changes in your
child’s living situation. Here are some guidelines
Co-parenting financial issues
- Ask your children's teachers or school
administrator to send all correspondence
to both parents.
- Inform the other parent of any
changes in class schedules or extra-curricular
- Be polite to your spouse
at school events or sports events. Rude
behavior or comments and can be distracting
or humiliating to kids.
- Share your children's schoolwork
with the other parent.
- Keep adequate school supplies
at each parent’s home.
- Share information with
your ex before parent-teacher conferences.
- Be objective. Do not
criticize or blame the other parent during
meetings with teachers.
- Ask teachers for suggestions
for helping your child with schoolwork.
- Calendar any action steps recommended
by the teacher and follow up on
Unfortunately, most families have less money after
a divorce. The cost of maintaining two separate households
can strain your attempts to be effective co-parents.
But there are ways to make co-parenting easier.
managing children's medical needs
- Create a realistic spending plan
for yourself and kids.
- Make prompt payments of support
and alimony. This eliminates a
source of parental conflict and shows the
kids that you are caring for them.
- Allow your children to visit
your ex even when the support check
is late. Doing otherwise could backfire
and trigger court action against you.
- Do not ask your child to deliver
cash or support checks to your ex.
- Keep receipts and accurate financial
records for any expenses shared
by both parents.
- Discuss finances with your ex
when kids are not present or cannot
hear phone conversations.
- Avoid excess spending
on kids to compensate for the divorce.
- Be gracious when your
ex provides your children with vacations
or opportunities that you cannot provide.
Children who have chronic health conditions or disabilities
will benefit greatly when their parents work as a
team. Effective co-parenting can help parents focus
on the best medical care for the child, and it can
help reduce anxiety for everyone. Here are some tools.
Tips for discipline and household rules
- Choose one parent to communicate
primarily with health care professionals,
or attend medical appointments together
with the child.
- Keep a file of your
child's visits to doctors and any recommended
treatments. Be willing to share the information
with your ex.
- Be honest when discussing
your child's health problems, try not to
inflate them or minimize them to manipulate
- Transfer medications to your
ex-spouse, not your child, at trade-off
times. Include written instructions on dosage
and side effects with the medication.
- Be consistent about
medications and treatment.
- Inform your ex if treatments
or medication dosing has been irregular
so that any changes in your child's health
condition will be understood and managed
- If your child's illness becomes worse
during a visit to your ex's home, look for
information and facts; avoid over-reactionary
- Cooperate with your ex
about special foods or comforting personal
articles that could be sent to the other
parent's home while your child is recovering
from an illness.
Strong differences in child rearing styles often contribute
to marital problems, and after a separation or divorce
these unsolved problems will need to be addressed
on some level. Co-parents should discuss these issues
to find areas of agreement and to come to terms with
areas where they agree to disagree. Some basics:
suggestions for holidays and special events
- Aim for some consistency in schedule
such as meal times, when homework is done,
- If a child has been disciplined in one
household (as in no TV for a week), attempt
to understand the other parent’s decision
and honor it if possible
- Where the rules are different from one
home to the other, acknowledge those differences
and make sure the rules in each household
are clear to the kids
Custody arrangements made through a court often include
plans for holidays. As co-parents, you should aim
to be flexible and fair with holiday scheduling. For
example, some kids would prefer to spend one-half
day with each parent rather than only see one parent
on a holiday. Other kids and parents find this too
fragmented, so they alternate attending holiday events.
One of the first steps to successful co-parenting
during holidays is to take care of your emotions.
Some newly divorced people consider holidays or special
events an exciting opportunity to celebrate in a new,
more meaningful way; but many parents and kids experience
lots of strong emotions at these times. Anger, jealousy,
shame, guilt, or fear may surface or be repressed
and trigger depression or anxiety. This can steer
you off course from your best co-parenting plans.
To help yourself and your kids, take some time to
share those feelings with a trusted individual. Talking
to a friend or a professional can release some of
the tensions and make the holiday time more positive.
If your child is having a special event, such as a
graduation party or religious rite of passage, and
you haven't been invited to your ex's, create your
own celebration for your child, and include friends
and loved ones. Let your child know its OK to have
a good time with the other parent. If the occasion
calls for the child to give a gift to the parent,
help your child find and purchase an appropriate item.
Make plans to do something loving for yourself after
your child leaves to celebrate with your ex.
Doug Russell, L.C.S.W., Jaelline Jaffe, Ph.D., and
Rosemary Clandos created this article. Last modified
Reprinted with permission from http://www.helpguide.org/.
C 2008 Helpguide.org. All rights reserved.
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