Divorce can be hard on all of the parties involved, especially children. Separated and divorced parents will still need to communicate in order to make decisions about their kids. While it can be challenging to have a neutral relationship with an ex, it’s important to try and separate those feelings from your parenting duties.
We asked two experts, Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed., a Houston-based psychologist who specializes in family and child development, and Dr. Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, parenting expert, and author, for tips on how to co-parent effectively.
1. Have a Stable Visitation Schedule
Help your child adjust to the new living situation by establishing a regular schedule of when they get to spend time with each parent.
“It is important to never manipulate the timetables for visitation, vacation, homework, etc. The more consistent you are, the more stable your child will be in the midst of a very chaotic and emotional situation,” says Dr. Gross. "If you work together, focused on your child’s well-being, then your child will grow up, though wounded, well-healed.”
2. Keep Rules Consistent
Divorce will be an adjustment for your kids. Having a sold understanding of what’s expected from them can help them get used to a new living situation and routine.
“Ideally, co-parents should create a shared understanding about what the rules and expectations are,” says Dr. Michaelis. “If at all possible, the rules should be the same in both households, but I know that this is not practical, and so as long as the expectations are clear, children can generally roll with it.”
3. Allow Your Child to Have a Voice
Children don’t have a choice over whether or not their parents separate. But you can allow them to feel like they’re part of the decision process when it comes to your new living situation.
“Allow your children to have a voice in the day-to-day decisions. This can include helping to decide on the new sleeping arrangements, home décor such as sheets, blankets, pillows, and bedspreads, and where to go on spring break,” says Dr. Gross. This also means letting them have a voice when it comes to creating new family traditions. “When parents divorce, children often feel out of control because they didn’t have a say or any options in the decision to divorce. These small experiences of choice help your children feel invested in their new family.
4. Get Professional Counseling
Sometimes we can’t resolve conflicts on our own. Your child might feel more comfortable talking to a trusted third party about his or her feelings.
“In one case that I was asked to consult on many years ago, the parents of this young man truly despised each other. They had had a bad breakup where one of the people was unfaithful and much of the discord between them was being played out in their power dynamics over their son,” recalls Dr. Michaelis. “Specifically, the mother thought that the boy needed specific help for a learning disability and the father denied that this was a pressing need in the boy's life. They fought about who was going to pay for services and it was ugly.”
“I sat both of the parents down and explained that their anger towards one another was truly harming their child, who was a preadolescent. I told them that if they persisted, their son's adolescence would be extremely hard to endure,” he says. Dr. Michaelis encouraged them to participate in post-divorce family therapy so that they could resolve their issues as well as have a therapist present to act as a voice for the child's needs, with the mandate that his needs come before their own. “By mediating the situation in this way, they were able to navigate some of these thorny issues.”
5. Act in Your Adult
Ending a relationship is emotional, and having continued interaction with your ex can bring up frustrations and hurt feelings. It’s important not to let these take over.
“To act ‘in your adult’ means you do not burden your children with your own fears and negative emotions towards your ex-spouse,” explains Dr. Gross. Don’t constantly criticize them, and remember that they’re still the parent of your child. Because a child identified with both parents as being part of them, speaking negatively about an ex-partner can undermine your child’s self-identity and security. “It is also important to keep in mind, that your children are still children with developing brains,” she adds. “Young children think in concrete operations and cannot always understand the nuances of adult language; they may think that they are the cause of the divorce, and you have to help them understand that they are not.”
6. Learn to Get Along with Your Ex
Your child’s needs should come before yours and your ex’s. Finding a way to peacefully get along and parent together will make things easier for everyone.
“The key to resolving conflicts around parenting is to have a guiding philosophy that the child's needs come first,” says Dr. Michaelis. “If both parents can recognize that, and generally speaking, they both want what's best for their children, you are already a long way towards a healthy post-divorce situation.” Even if you have different takes on what’s "best" for the child, this doesn’t mean you’re not on the same team. If you both have strongly divergent beliefs, a third party — like a mediator or therapist — can help provide a solution. “Most, though not all, situations can be resolved peacefully,” says Dr. Michaelis.
“You can make a much better divorce than you had a marriage, by supporting one another in parenting and assuring your child that you will both always love him,” says Dr. Gross, “Because he is part of you both…even though you no longer love each other.”