The lives of millions of families are impacted by divorce or separation every year. The overriding concern for most parents is how to protect their children. Studies show that children do best when they continue to have an ongoing stable relationship with both parents. This means when parenting is shared and kids get to live in both houses.
Family life is pretty hectic these days and managing your children's schedules can feel overwhelming at the best of times, especially when you are handling it from two separate homes. Here are some tips and suggestions to help you manage parenting after separation or divorce:
Despite everybody's best efforts, children will often blame themselves for their parents' separation. It's important to keep telling them that it is not their fault and they didn't do anything wrong. They need to know that you will both continue to love them and that you will both always be there for them. It helps if you take the time to explain that you and your former spouse don't make each other happy anymore and that you will much happier living apart. They don't need to know all the grown up details that caused the separation, just that it's the best thing for your family and that it's a difficult decision that you came to together. You need to present a united front even if you still have hurt and angry feeling you are processing.
Parenting after separation is most successful when you are able to maintain a civil, cordial and professional relationship. This may take time and practice but it's worth it for your children. This doesn't mean that you need to become friends; you just need to agree that the kids come first and that you need to continue to communicate with each other for their benefit. Communication should always be focused on your children. Be polite and communicate with the other parent as you would with any other colleague (and in the way you'd like the other parent to communicate with you). Be respectful and try to remain calm. Try to make requests instead of demands. Don't be disrespectful or use bad language. Don't make accusations or criticize and try not to react when the other parent tries to goad you. Whenever possible, take the emotion out of it and stay focused on your common goal: raising your children. When you treat the other parent with respect, they will often return the sentiment and communicate with you in the same way.
After separation, communication can often feel awkward and difficult. Remember you don't have to talk face-to-face or even over the phone. It's much easier to stay calm and to stay on topic when you are using written communication. Tools such as coparently really help you to maintain a business-like relationship and to keep everything child-focused. When you are able to adopt a consistently professional tone in your co-parenting communication, you can minimize conflict and keep your kids out of the middle.
One of the most damaging behaviors for children affected by separation or divorce is ongoing parental conflict. While it may feel impossible to communicate with your ex without feeling angry or resentful, it's extremely important that you find a way to maintain civility when your children are present. You need to adopt the mindset that arguing or fighting in front of them is simply not an option. It's so hard for them to continue to bear witness to this and you will need to be mindful in the moment that your end goal is maintaining your children's happiness at all costs. With this in mind, it will be easier to avoid conflict and decline to engage if the other parent tries to start a fight. Set your intentions and be sure to follow through on this one. It's too important not to.
Another important rule for parenting after divorce or separation is to keep the children out of it. You really don't want them to feel like they have to choose sides or worry about divided loyalties – it's simply not fair. They have the right to continue to love both of you unconditionally. They also have the right to expect your unconditional love in return.
Also do not use your child as a messenger. You are putting them in an impossible position and it's pretty much asking for trouble. At best, they will feel uncomfortable and most likely they will misremember or forget the message which leads to further parental conflict that they will feel responsible for. This also sets a dangerous precedent for the teenage years when your kids will quickly realize they can use this situation to their advantage.
Find a way to communicate with each other that works for you both and stick to it.
However hard it might be, your kids really need the security of knowing that you are both actively involved in their life and that you always have their best interests at heart. Effective parenting requires ongoing and regular communication – you need to know what's going on with your children, how they're feeling, what's happening at school, with their friends, what their worries are…. the list goes on. Without communicating with each other, there is no way of knowing all of the important details of your kid's daily life. Regular communication also means there's much less chance of your child being left somewhere because of a miscommunication.
If you don't want to talk to the other parent every day, then you can use channels of communication where you don't need to speak. You can significantly improve your co-parenting by simply committing to sending each other a quick update on important information for transition days.
While routine and structure are extremely important for kids after they have been through their parents' separation or divorce, things aren't always going to go to plan. Your co-parent may have a business trip during their parenting time, or a grandma's birthday celebration might be on one of your days with the children. Wherever possible, don't dig in your heels – try to compromise and be helpful. There are bound to be times when you will have to be away for business or want to celebrate a special occasion and the tables will be turned. By cooperating and being flexible both you, your co-parent and – most importantly – your children will know that they can count on your support.
And last but not least, remember to take care of yourself. This is a very stressful transition in your life too. For you to be able to really and truly be there for your children, you need to look after yourself first. A good analogy is when the oxygen masks drop on a plane; the advice is to put on your own mask first before assisting others. You can't fully support your children if you are feeling run-down or depressed. On the days when the children are with the other parent, be sure to take some "you time". Then when you are with the kids, you can happily give them all the attention they need.
Nobody is perfect. You are going to make mistakes and you won't always be able to keep your cool and do the right thing. The important thing is to just be the best parent you can be, learn from your experiences and your mistakes and move on.