Co-parenting after divorce is rarely easy. Often, the breakdown of the relationship will have been an emotional and stressful one, and you may have negative feelings towards your ex-spouse.
Where relationships break down, the division of the assets can lead to conflict, from whom keeps the TV to who stays in the home. But, where children are involved, discussions need to extend to, and focus on, the wellbeing of your children.
Remembering that your children have a right to see both parents, and (assuming there are no welfare issues) will benefit from having contact with both parents, ensuring their needs are met and they retain close relationship with both parents. Therefore, a collaborative approach to co-parenting is essential.
Joint parenting can be fraught with stress, especially if you have a contentious relationship with your ex-spouse. Many emotions will fuel your negative feelings from your concern over your ex’s parenting abilities to being worried about child support and other financial matters. You may feel worn out due to the conflict, upset, angry and let down over the breakdown of the relationship.
However, by making shared decisions regarding your children and interacting in a calm, polite, and courteous manner, for the sake of your kids’ wellbeing and happiness, it’s possible to overcome the perceived co-parenting obstacles and nurture a genial working relationship with your ex. Our top tips for co-parenting can help you be calm, be consistent in your behaviour, and progressively work through any conflicts which in turn can make co-parenting an easier task which will hugely benefit your children.
Co-Parenting Top Tip #1 – Set aside your emotions
Your marriage may be over, and for whatever reasons there may be for this being the outcome, you will likely be feeling a whole host of emotions including sadness, anger, frustration or a combination of them all plus myriad other emotions too. Setting aside these emotions may be the toughest part of your separation, but also the most crucial when it comes to doing what’s right for your children.
Co-parenting is not about your feelings, those of your ex, or about using your children as weapons to hit back and hurt your ex. Co-parenting is about your children’s happiness and wellbeing.
‘Let what’s best for your children lead your behaviours’
- Let off steam somewhere else. Use your network of friends and family to ‘let off steam’, or recruit the skills and experience of a professional, like a counsellor or therapist. By venting elsewhere, you can focus on only delivering positive messages to your children which will help them maintain an unbiased relationship with both parents. Reminder: Vent elsewhere and not in front of your children.
- Stay focused on your children. You’re sad, angry, resentful, and that’s understandable, and you probably have a whole host of arduous tasks to complete as a result of the separation. But staying focussed on ensuring you are always putting your children’s best interests first will help you re-set your thoughts and behaviours so that when it comes to the practicalities of co-parenting, you are the model co-parents. Reminder: Put aside your emotions and put your children first. Be the model co-parents.
- Don’t use your children as the messenger. The conflict is between you and your ex. Involving your children in any way at all can crease resentment in your children towards either parent. They may feel resentful that you are using them to deliver uncomfortable messages, or they may form a dislike for their other parent and essentially start to take sides. Neither of which fits with the objective of building an effective co-parenting model that enables your children to thrive. Tip: Use other forms of communication to discuss and debate topics such as date swaps, special occasions, schooling matters etc.
- Don’t speak ill of your ex. Well, this isn’t quite true. Of course you can speak ill of your ex, this is part of you ‘letting off steam’. But importantly and specifically, don’t speak ill of your ex to your children. Embroiling them in your issues and feelings toward your ex will make them feel like they have to choose between one parent or the other. It puts them in a very difficult position and does not foster the need for the children to have a great relationship with both parents. Tip: You don’t need to sing your ex’s praises, but speaking positively about them with your children will help them feel happier about your separation.
Co-Parenting Top Tip #2 – Improve your communications with your ex
The ultimate goal is to establish, as an absolute minimum, conflict-free communication with your ex. There are many ways you can approach communicating. You just need to find the right one for you and nurture it so that each and every form of communication is productive, purposeful and peaceful.
Treat all communications with your ex with regards to your children (or on matters that might affect your children) as having the highest purpose: you children’s wellbeing.
Before having contact with your ex, be sure of it’s purpose. Be sure on how your actions and words might affect your children. Take a deep breath, make notes if that helps you stay on track, and approach the discussion with confidence and dignity. Your approach will help curate a standard for all future discussions and together your effective co-parenting will fall into place.
- Make requests not statements. Instead of making a statement, try to frame as much as you can as a request. This way your communications won’t be misunderstood as demands. A demand can be received as a confrontational way of seeking to get what you want whereas a question will appear more collaborative. Tip: frame requests with “Would you be willing to…?” or “ Can we try…?”.
- We have two ears and once mouth. Listen. Adopting a more mature way of communicating that is conducive to effective co-parenting is to be able to listen more. Whether you agree or disagree with your ex, lead the discussion by demonstrating great listening skills. Show that you are listening and understanding. You don’t need to agree with what’s being said or requested. But listening first will gain respect and will hopefully be reciprocated. Reminder: listening doesn’t signify approval. It signifies collaboration.
- Keep your cool. Remember that you will need to foster a great co-parenting relationship, that includes great communication, for the duration of your children’s childhood. You are in this for the long haul. Things will not always go to plan and discussions might get heated, especially if you are disagreeing on an important matter such as which school your children should attend. In such situations, you need to show restraint. Losing your cool won’t help the situation and may even work against you. Tip: Learn to recognise the buttons your ex tries to push and learn to coach yourself in how best to respond.
- Keep your conversations child-focussed and do not deviate. Given the opportunity, you might find that you or your ex wishes to capitalise on your discussion to raise non-child related matters. These matters may well be worthy of a discussion, but at a different time and place. Don’t fall into the trap of confusing subjects. Reminder: Treat all communications with your ex with regards to your children as having the highest purpose.
Co-Parenting Top Tip #3 – Co-parenting is a team effort
You can’t do this alone. But neither can your ex. Co-parenting in its definition is parenting as a pair, as a team, as your children’s parents, and it’s essential that you are a team player. Parenting is full of some pretty big decisions and decisions that will present themselves throughout your children’s childhood, therefore parenting as a team is paramount in making this little project a success.
Teamwork requires great communication, appreciation, respect, understanding and, as hard as this may be, compromise.
Having a diverse exposure to life and it’s challenges and opportunities is healthy for children. As their parents you can show them by example how compromise works. But also, given they are a minor, your authority reigns and this is where consistency kicks in. It’s no good your children having an xBox curfew of 8pm with one parent if it’s midnight with the other.
- Try to align rules. Rules don’t have to be exactly aligned, but on the more important features of life it’s wise to have a consistent set of rules that apply across both households. This might include bed time, time spent on electronic devices, when homework is to be done, and what time they should be in the home on an evening. Tip: Involve your children in making and agreeing such decisions as it’s these what will directly impact them and will also demonstrate collaboration and compromise.
- The infamous ‘naughty step’. If your children have been disciplined at one home then try to adopt the same consequences. This maintained consistency across both homes means that neither home is a ‘better home’ than the other and again demonstrates that both parents are aligned in the parenting approach. Note: this can be applied to good behaviour as well as bad. Rewards for good behaviour should be consistent across both homes.
Not all ‘team work’ work is bed time, behaviour and rules related. There are other, more important, co-parenting decisions to be made. These include tending to your children’s medical needs (such as vaccinations and trips to the dentist) and education (such as which school they attend and how they travel to and from school).
Co-Parenting Top Tip #4 – Make transitions easy and conflict free
Typically, when a relationship breaks down, one parent will remain on the ‘family home’ whilst the other seeks new accommodation. This can give the impression to the children that their ‘home’ is the former ‘family home’ and they are simply visiting the other parent. Breaking down this assumption sits with both parents. The children will have two homes, both equally safe and both equally theirs. Your communications need to be tailored to support this.
When your children move between homes the ‘hand over’ can be a stressful time for the children so you play a huge part in making this transition as smooth, stress-free, and normal as possible. The reunion with one parent is a separation from the other and in the early days, and especially where the children are young, this can be upsetting and confusing for your children.
- Be open about the plans. A plan will be in place for when your children will be with you and when they are with their other parent. Sharing this plan with your children gets them involved and part of the process. Prior knowledge and awareness of the pending transition will allow them process it for longer rather than it being sprung on them on the morning of transition. Tip: Print out the plan and stick it to the fridge.
- Pack a bag of belongings. You children will have items at both homes that are personal to them. A teddy, a toy, or a book for example. These belongings belong to the children and not to the home. Allowing them to transport their belongings between homes can demonstrate a trust between the parents and means that the children can hold close their possessions, reinforcing that their two home are indeed their homes. Tip: Involve your children in packing their bag. They will no doubt choose different things each week.
- Home from home – But of course! When your children are with you, they must feel and know that this is their home. This is especially difficult if this isn’t the former ‘family home’. But to give it a home-from-home feeling whilst your children settle into the new arrangement, do things to make it obvious that it’s their home. Sometimes it’s just the small things like them having simple things like a toothbrush, wash-bag, books, favourite games and movies on hand and visible. You can involve your children in the process of acquiring the items too. Tip: Doing this will hugely help in the packing up process simpler.
- Establish a routine. When your children arrive at home, especially if this home isn’t the former ‘family home’, then having a set routine that eases them into their unfamiliar surroundings can help them settle. Maybe play a game, watch a TV programme together, or bake a cake. Whatever you choose to do, make it a special and re-occurring moment. Remember: Kids thrive on routine so do this every time they are home with you.
In summary, co-parenting is more challenging than parenting, and we all know how challenging simply being a parent is without the added complication of a relationship breakdown. You’ll get it wrong, lots of times, and that’s okay. This is a journey and a new journey for you all. You’ll likely take a few wrong turns, blow a tyre, scratch your bumper and run out of fuel BUT you’ll learn valuable lessons as you do.
These top tips are just a few useful ideas on how you can approach a life of co-parenting. The Internet is awash with helpful tips from very credible sources. Of course, you often can’t beat speaking with a professional and if co-parenting isn’t working out and you need a more formal arrangement put in place then our expert family law team are on hand to help.
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About Shelley Wales
Shelley is a Family Law Solicitor at Thornton Jones Solicitors. Shelley joined the Thornton Jones Family Law team in September 2018 after honing her skills in family law at Ramsdens solicitors where she spent 10 years. Shelley is a qualified Family Mediator and is working towards full accreditation. She specialises in dealing with the financial aspects of divorce and separation, and has a real interest in unravelling the finances of unmarried couples through the Trusts of Land and Trustees Act 1996. Shelley is a member of Resolution and is committed to resolving family disputes in a non-confrontational way wherever possible.