In my capacity as an outpatient psychologist, I have worked
with children of all ages for over twenty years. Usually parents
drag their kids into my office complaining of a litany of bad
behaviors, ranging from not cleaning up their rooms, to getting
bad grades, hitting their siblings, or worse, stealing, fighting
or doing drugs. I work with parents to change their children's
behavior by changing the way the parents approach the children.
This article explores co-parenting after the divorce and how kids
experience it. This is Part I of a two-part series.
Most divorced couples with children want to remain actively
involved in their children's lives. Co-parenting means sharing
parenting responsibilities with an ex-spouse living in a separate
household. Co-parenting is a conscious decision by both parents to
put the children's sense of security first and to work out an
amicable relationship for the sake of their kids. Co-parenting
plans, often worked out during the divorce process or post-divorce
counseling, should be clear, practical and considerate of both
Co-parenting plans, also called "parenting plans" or
"parenting partnerships," are gaining popularity because of their
benefit for the kids. Most experts agree that children adjust
better to divorce when both parents continue to be active in their
lives and when parents avoid putting the children in the middle of
personal feelings and conflicts. In some states, it is now a
mandatory part of the divorce process to file a co-parenting or
shared parenting plan.
Co-parenting is difficult enough when parents are married and
living together. Imagine how much more exponentially challenging
it is when parents attempt it from afar. Separate parents trying
to raise common children is a nightmare for scheduling and for
dealing with daily events such as doctor visits, sports events,
even parent-teacher nights. To compensate, some parents keep a
journal, making entries about their experience(s) with the child,
or their thoughts about the child's behavior, or what needs to be
done before a certain time (homework assignments, play date
preparations, etc.). This journal is given to the receiving parent
at drop off time, who presumably is now "on board" and who,
presumably will follow through on important events, issues, etc.
This rarely happens, but it is good in theory, so try anyway.
Some parents prefer to communicate with each other via email, as
that is the least emotionally charged form of communication and is
relatively quick. Email has the added advantage of documenting
communication (for court cases) and helps to keep things civil.
(However, in my two decades of working with families who have gone
to court many times for custody and other issues, I have not once
ever heard of a judge who actually was interested in or who took
the time to read the many documented communications about or between
parents. While expensive attorneys tout the importance of such
information, judges have little time and usually rely on other
sources, such as Declarations and reports from Family Court Services
One thorny area of contention is when last-minute changes occur.
Teens are very good at upsetting routines, especially around social
events. For example, your teenager is scheduled to "visit" with you
for the whole weekend, but at the last minute is invited to a sleepover
near the other parent's home. Not attending this event seems like
social suicide for your teen. At this age, it also is (almost)
essential to the formation of self-esteem. What to do? You feel
cheated. After all, it was supposed to be your time to have your
child. Do you compensate? Bargain with the other parent? Can you
have the child another time to make up for the time lost? Are you
big enough to give up something for the child? This requires the ex's
to actually work together--again, a sometimes-daunting experience.
When do the parents assert their individual rights and when do they
yield to the needs of the child?
To get over this hump, parents can initiate post-divorce
counseling. This is a request I receive or make to warring "ex's"
more and more. It helps to address parental malfunctions or
meltdowns, plus helps to recognize the very clear and now more intense
needs of the child. The younger the child, the more this is needed
when it comes to setting rewards and other structure in the home(s).
Older children, especially teens, respond less well to such structure,
but there is still a very strong parental need to deal with acting out,
as teens are very capable of creating havoc in either home. It helps
parents to know the cavalry is just over the hill.
For more on this subject, continue to Part II.