Let’s face it, the last thing you may want post-divorce is your ex back in your life, sharing the one thing you may not want to share, your children. Co-parenting can be very challenging not only for you and your ex, but especially for your kids, who end up being the ones traveling back and forth between two households.
Each divorce is different, some are more amicable and some bring out the worst in people. I’ve witnessed normally kind, understanding people turn on each other and use their kids against each other in the aftermath of their divorce. The anger continues to control them, they wallow in it while the kids grow more resentful and resistant each day.
And I’ve also seen divorced couples put their differences aside in order to make the best of the situation and help their children continue to feel loved and safe. If you’re co-parenting your children, that is the goal. Granted, it can be challenging not letting past hurts resurface and tempers flare, especially if you’re dealing with an ex who behaves more like a child and is hard to reason with.
An agreeable, shared parenting plan can make a world of difference in helping the kids transition and adapt to their new reality. Here are a few guidelines to help you work out a co-parenting plan that will help your children feel at home in both households.
Your children will benefit from having two loving parents in their life.
Children instinctively crave the love of both their parents, whether they’re with that parent full time or not. Having both parents willing to provide love and guidance will help nurture a meaningful relationship with each of them, and serve as an example for the kids’ future relationships.
Your kids will witness and learn conflict resolution skills.
Watching divorced parents put their differences aside, compromise when making challenging decisions, and handling disagreements in a constructive way will show your kids that it’s better to work together respectfully rather than to run away from problems.
Although your marriage may end, commitment to your children does not.
Co-parenting can only be as effective as each parent’s commitment to loving and providing for their children. The joint responsibility of raising your kids, educating them, taking care of them when they’re sick, and providing financial support don’t end when the divorce papers are signed.
You, Your Ex, and the Co-Parenting Plan
Your attorneys may have worked out a custody agreement that serves the kids best, but it’s still up to you and your ex to create an effective plan to implement it. Recognize that coordinating two households means you’ll have to account for each other’s new schedules as well as the kids’. Write out your parenting goals together and plan out your schedules with the kids ahead of time.
Your house, your rules, right? Kind of.
Keep one thing in mind, the more rules you implement, the harder they will be to enforce, especially when one household is relaxed and the other is more strict. Try to find a few rules that can be shared across both households to create a sense of familiarity and consistency for the kids. And talk with your children about any other rules that may be important in your house, but not your ex’s and that it’s important to respect both. As long as your kids feel like both households can be their safe space and they’re welcome and loved in both, they will eventually adapt to any differences in rules.
Your kids are not your personal messengers.
Let’s not put the pressure on the kids to pass on questions or messages between mom and dad. Their brains are already stressed from adapting to their new life, and getting tangled into their divorced parents’ conversations will only lead to miscommunication and unnecessary assumptions. Communicate with your ex directly and don’t let too much time pass before resolving an issue.
Keep your kids away from the drama.
Remember playing good cop bad cop as a kid? Yeah, let’s not do that with our kids. You and your ex may still hate each other, but turning your kids against each other or preventing them from seeing their extended families will only build resentment and can ruin your long term relationship with your kids.
Have a routine, but be flexible and open minded.
Life is unpredictable, no matter how well we structure it. When things come up and schedules change, be flexible and help each other out by compromising and adjusting. And be prepared for half the scheduling hurdles to come from your kids, who often have an uncanny way of remembering they need to be somewhere an hour ago.
The drop-off pick-up dance.
Take your, your ex’s, and your kids routine schedules into consideration when coming up with a mutually convenient (and fair) drop-off and pick-up plan. If your kids are in school, see if the school can assign them to two buses, one to take on the days they’re with you, and another bus to take when they’re with your ex. And keep in mind that drop-offs tend to go more smoothly than pickups, especially when the child favors one house over the other.
Involve your kids in the process
In the process of deciding what’s best for our young humans who rely on us for love and security, we sometimes forget that they have their own preferences and opinions and want to be heard and valued for them. Include your kids in the process so they feel empowered and like they’re still an important part of the family. Give them a heads up before leaving the house to go to the other parent’s house so they have time to gather their favorite toy or book. My older stepsons traveled with their playstation and literally the entire library of games between both houses. That was their security blanket. My youngest stepson always had to know exactly which day and what time he would be at which house, and keeping that schedule consistent was his security blanket. We learned early on that changing the days without involving him in the discussion first would result in tears, protesting, and frustration on both sides. As your children get older, check in with them for suggestions on what can be changed and what is still working well.
Be happy to see your kids.
This sounds obvious, but depending on the stress level in our lives, it can be challenging. Be happy to see your kids when they walk through the door, and keep a welcoming, positive attitude while they’re with you. Children pick up on their grown ups’ energy and feelings.
Make travel between both homes as natural as possible
Eliminate any unnecessary packing by keeping basic things, such as pajamas, change of clothes, toothbrushes, and other necessities available at both houses. Think about how cumbersome it can be to pack for a weekend away, then unpack and put everything away when you return. Imagine doing that every other weekend.
Balance free time with planned activities.
Kids love to do fun stuff, and they also love lounging around unbothered. Help them get moving and spend quality time together by planning some fun activities. Go for a hike or biking on nearby trails, go out to the movies, go to the beach. And be prepared for lots of groaning and a few eyerolls…until you get to your destination. Balance activities together with some quiet time, especially after school or active events. Just like us grownups, kids need some R&R to rest their brains.
Keep a family calendar in a visible spot and plan ahead.
Note any appointments, doctor visits, days off work or school so you and your kids will know ahead of time where everyone is or should be. Communicate any changes to the schedule, especially with younger children, as that can be an added source of insecurity and stress for them.
Check in, Adjust, Adapt…Repeat
Remember, children grow older and their needs change with time. Just when you settle into a routine that seems to work, your child will shift into the next phase of development and you may need to adjust to the situation. In their younger years, children will likely be more attached to their mom, but as they get older they may start asking to have a sleepover at a friend’s house instead. Or your teen may get a part time job that will change your chauffeuring route and times. Check in with your kids and your ex regularly to make sure everyone stays on the same page, needs and feelings are communicated, and you can help your kids adapt to any changes.
Growing up with divorced parents doesn’t have to be traumatizing. With some work, it can be an example of an understanding and mature relationship that will help your children grow up stronger and better-prepared for their own grown-up lives. And most importantly, collaborating with your ex and keeping an agreeable relationship can help keep the bond between you and your children strong.