A separation or a divorce is traumatic not only for the concerned adults, but also for the children caught between their parents. Whether the separation has been messy or amicable, it does result in a lot of change for the family. Sometimes one parent has sole custody with visitation rights for the non-custodial parent. Other times custody is shared.
Either way, the children are split between two homes. In theory they are nurtured by both parents, but in reality it calls for a lot of adjustment by all parties concerned. Throw other factors into the mix - finances, different parenting styles, differing schedules and disagreements between the parents, and things can get frustrating and challenging to say the least.
We have put together a few guidelines and ground rules to make the process of co-parenting more amicable and less fraught with tension.
Set Up a Consistent Arrangement
When custody is shared, do make sure that it runs smoothly and is consistent for your child. It is better not to involve your child while working out the schedule so that you do not burden them with the guilt of making a choice. Of course, older children in their teens may need to be part of the negotiations. Research indicates that an amicable joint custody arrangement helps the children feel more secure. They end up with less behavioral issues and better self-esteem. You would do well to bear in mind that sometimes the days might not pan out exactly as intended due to your respective work schedules. If this happens then a little grace and flexibility on your part will ensure that your child's interests are not compromised.
Keep Communication Lines Clear
If you want to make co-parenting a stress free experience, then keep communication with your ex-partner free from conflict and fights. Both of you will have to put the anger and hostility behind you in the best interest of your child. If you find it difficult to keep meeting your ex, you can make the arrangements over the telephone, email or text. Keep your tone neutral and cordial and try and listen to each other even if it is difficult to put aside your differences. Keep your conversations limited to your child's needs so that old wounds and issues are not reprised. Keeping a list of issues to be discussed would help in focusing on essentials. For your child's well-being it would help if both parents model a communication style that is honest, open and respectful.
Keep Your Children Out of Your Personal Issues
If you have a bone to pick with your ex, ensure that your battles are not in your child's presence. Complaining about the mistakes that your ex made or playing the blame game will not help the situation. It will only succeed in creating further bitterness between the two of you and making your child miserable. Even if you are curious and tempted, do not cross examine your child on his/her return from your ex's house. And certainly ensure that your child is not used as a messenger or a confidante for discussing each other's flaws.
If you are angry that your ex is not regular with his/her financial obligations, bring it up in private with them. If you cannot afford something, try not to take it out on your children. For instance, when they ask you to buy them a toy or a game or for extra pocket money, don't bring your ex into the scene or blame him/her for your financial difficulties. If you conduct yourself with grace and dignity under pressure, it will serve as a lifelong lesson for your child. Try and be as united as possible and keep your child's welfare as priority. This will also ensure that the child does not manipulate the situation and put one parent up against the other.
Keep Parenting Styles Similar
It is best if both of you come to a mutual agreement about negotiable and non-negotiable issues as far as ground rules are concerned. Playing ‘good cop/bad cop' will be detrimental to your child's well-being. You will need to agree on rules about bedtimes, eating, homework, chores and other routines so that your child does not turn around and say, "But daddy/mom said I could sleep whenever I am sleepy!" If you aim for consistency in guidelines and expectations, then living in two homes becomes less stressful to the child. The consequences for unacceptable behavior have to be consistent and both of you have to follow through so that your child gets the message that he/she cannot get away with bad behavior. Similar disciplinary and rewarding styles will help in keeping things predictable and less fraught with tension for all of you.
Discuss Important Issues
Make time to discuss important issues like education, financials and medical care. If there are dental or other medical appointments for vaccinations etc, work out who will be responsible so that later on there is no misunderstanding. If you decide to attend the doctor's appointments together, then keep each other's schedules in mind and arrange accordingly. As far as school is concerned, issues like attending PTA meetings, extra-curricular activities, annual days and sports days have to be worked out between the parents.
Financial issues are always sensitive and sticky. Be honest and straightforward about your shared expenses and if your ex can arrange to send your child for a tennis class that you cannot afford, then try not to get upset about it. Being gracious about allowing your ex to provide for certain luxuries that you cannot manage in your budget, will go a long way in building a healthy relationship between the two of you, which translates to a secure and happy child.
Process Your Feelings
Divorce and joint custody is never easy and the failed relationship can leave you bitter, hurt, angry and drained. Often your child may be at the receiving end of your grief. But do ensure that you do your venting elsewhere with a trusted friend, family member or a therapist. You can also try yoga, kick-boxing or a brisk walk to work off your anger. Learn to relax by deep breathing or meditation. Learning to separate behaviour from person might also help in being less judgmental of your ex.
Sharing custody and co-parenting with your ex may not always be easy. But being as amicable as possible will help bring stability to your children's lives. There are challenges of course, but building a cordial and conflict free relationship with your ex is not impossible if both parents decide to put the needs of the child above their own.