As a divorce attorney, I know that co-parenting with your ex isn’t the easiest thing to do. I’ve seen the worst co-parenting situations you can imagine – from a micromanaging mother thrown in jail for defying a judge, to a narcissistic father who absconded to Mexico with his children.
And through the years, I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t.
There are no two ways about it. Parenting as a married couple is hard enough. Trying to do so with an estranged spouse is significantly more difficult.
However, based on my experience dealing with difficult co-parenting situations, I have some tips you can follow.
Here are my 6 recommendations for successful co-parenting with your ex.
Don’t Put Your Children in The Middle
The number one mistake that separated parents make is putting their children in the middle of their interactions. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using your children as your personal messengers during a divorce. Asking your child, “Hey, can you please tell your mom I’ll be picking you up at 6 instead of 5?” is much easier than dealing with your ex directly, especially if your relationship is less than amicable. Although that request may seem like no big deal to you, for your child it’s significant.
Each time you relay information to your ex through your children, it puts them in the difficult position of trying to diffuse any negative reaction. There’s a reason the expression “don’t shoot the messenger” exists. It’s natural for people to take their frustrations out on the person relaying negative information, even if that person is your child.
Children already feel as if they are being pulled in two different directions. Living in two houses, splitting holidays, going on different vacations, and having different rules isn’t easy. The last thing your child should feel is the need to mediate disputes between his or her parents. Divorce is stressful, to say the least. What you may not realize is that much of that stress is unloaded onto your children.
Sometimes, without noticing it, parents also begin to use their children as pawns in their divorce. I once had a client that manipulated schedules and communication to fluster his ex-wife. He would ask his daughter to tell her mother about abrupt changes in the schedule and even surprise vacations. It was the daughter, however, who would bear the brunt of her mother’s anger and frustration. The stress that the daughter experienced resulted in severe stomach pains and extreme forms of anxiety. Although the father only wished to upset ex-wife, his daughter ended up being collateral damage.
Direct communication between parents is vital, not only for clarity but for your children’s health.
Sweat the Details
Setting forth a detailed parenting plan or custody schedule in advance will go a long way towards reducing friction between you and your ex.
Although it may be difficult, promptly after your split you should try to sit down with your ex to create a custody schedule and set expectations. Who will have the kids on which days? What time do they get picked up? At pick up, will you go to the front door or stay in the car? What happens when the kids have activities after school? You will need to address holidays and vacations in great detail as well.
Although these details may seem tedious, ironing them out in advance will make the transition to a new life as seamless as possible for you and your children.
Have a Set Schedule
Having a set custody schedule brings a sense of normalcy back into your children’s lives and makes your life easier. When the children know where and when they should be each day of the week it gives them a sense of control.
Consistency is also crucial. Layout a calendar in each household that clearly sets forth which days of the week the children will be at each parent’s house. Include school events, doctor’s appointments, sports, recitals, and all other extracurricular activities to limit confusion.
Do not schedule an appointment or sign your child up for an activity before speaking to the other parent. If a practice or rehearsal happens to fall on a day where you do not have the children, the other parent may not cooperate if he or she did not agree in advance.
Over-communicate. The best way to stay organized is to make sure each family member knows what is expected of them, and when.
Finally, even if there is a lack of consistency between the two households, try to maintain it in your own home. If you are dealing with a difficult parent, rise above. If you stick to your plan, always arrive on time, and follow the schedule. Your children will benefit in the long run.
Expect the Unexpected
Although consistency is key, circumstances will arise from time to time that will require you to deviate from your custody schedule. Before chaos has a chance to take over, set some ground rules. Having a backup plan in advance can avoid confusion if original plans go awry. Make sure to discuss with the other parent what to do when one of you becomes sick, traffic causes delays, or a work emergency arises. For example, if a parent gets sick are the kids expected to stay with the other parent? What if the parent is out of town, do they stay with their grandparents or does the other parent have a “right of first refusal”?
Although these things may not happen often, it is important that you have a plan for when they do. When in doubt, refer back to your original schedule.
Establish Simple Guidelines
The more you and your ex-spouse can establish consistent rules and routines for your children, the less likely they are to pick sides or play one parent against the other. Sit down and agree on guidelines for things such as homework, chores, bedtime, diet, phone, and social media use. If one parent is more lenient, it may cause the children to favor that parent, causing conflict between the two homes.
Beware of your children trying to manipulate you. They may try to convince you that they are allowed to do certain things or eat certain foods at their other parent’s house. Although that may be true, communicate with the other parent before you get upset or make rash decisions. You may need to just accept that your children might be wearing different clothes or eating things you wish they weren’t. Life isn’t perfect.
If life at both households follows similar guidelines and each parent accepts that life with the opposite parent may vary from time to time, your children will be better behaved and respect you both.
Don’t Expect Perfection
When you were together, parenting was divvied up according to schedules, availability, and what each of your roles were in your children’s lives. Maybe mom made breakfast and dad was in charge of drop off. Or maybe mom was the main disciplinarian and dad was the comforter.
But now, you are in charge of every aspect of their care while the children are with you. This transition takes time, and it will be hectic and frustrating while you adjust. Setting schedules and coordinating activities is easier said than done. Your children might forget their football cleats or their ballet slippers at their other parent’s house. You’ll just need to roll with it. It may seem inconvenient and even frustrating to have to encounter your ex-spouse when you weren’t planning on it, but kids will be kids. Placing blame on the other parent or even the kids doesn’t fix the situation, it makes it worse. Always be the bigger person.
Co-parenting with your ex may not be easy, and divorce may throw a wrench in the family dynamic, but it is important to keep in mind that it should not reshape the relationship your child has with you or your ex. As long as your children’s safety and happiness are put first, everything else will fall into place.