One of the most difficult challenges parents in separating families face, is the transition from couple- parenting to co-parenting. A way forward rests on careful consideration and thought focused on the best needs of the child. By making the child’s wellbeing a priority, separating adults can turn co-parenting into one of their greatest strengths.
Start by getting your emotional house in order
Perhaps the separation has left you emotionally raw and depleted of energy. Despite the finality of your life as a couple, you are discovering the emotional pain still looms large. The bad news is, there’s no quick fix to these feelings – for some it’s time, others rely on a strong support network of friends and family and some people recover with the help of a skilled therapist or counsellor.
To be a good co-parent, you will need to leave the hurt in the old, dissolved (or if you are a positive person ‘completed’) relationship and enter the new co-parenting relationship with a fresh mindset. Without pro-active steps to manage lingering emotional pain, that hurt will simply come with you into the co-parenting relationship. We understand that’s a big ask in a small paragraph, but your new relationship with your ex-partner should be child-centred, which is a good mantra to repeat when communication is wading into combative territory.
Flexibility helps keep all parents involved in your child’s life
In most scenarios (unless physical or phycological forms of family violence pose a serious risk) a co-parenting arrangement should focus on keeping each parent involved in the child’s life in a way that reflects their rights and responsibilities. To have the best chance of success in this new parenting relationship, each party will need to agree that flexibility will play a role in the implementation of the plan – sometimes you need to give a little, and sometimes you’ll take a little more than you should. No matter how organised you are, the unexpected happens. Think about the thousand random things that have occasionally prevented you from doing what you should be doing. If you can approach the parenting plan with an acceptance of not ‘if’ but ‘when’ the need for flexibility arises, you’ve already started a positive co-parenting journey.
Agree on preferred vs essential parenting
Even when the family was intact, it’s likely the children were accustomed to different parenting styles – and it’s possible the child will still rely on the same parent for those unique support structures in the new family model. In the scenario of co-parenting, it’s possible a distinctly different parenting style will emerge, and acceptance of this reality is an important part of the transition. While this may be more difficult for one parent than the other, a good way to approach it is to discuss and identify preferred vs essential parenting responsibilities. On the preferred parenting checklist are things like agreed-to bedtime, limited screen use, limited junk food and a nightly bath. Essential checklist items include daily medication, specialist appointments and homework. Being able differentiate between preferred and essential is key to success. The essential items are non-negotiables, the preferred items – a framework for continuous improvement.
Present as a united front in your child’s world
For most young kids, their world extends to home, school, afterschool activities/sports and playdates. When you accompany your child into their world, it’s important you and your ex-partner wherever possible, present a united front. While the idea of this can be unrealistic (especially if separation and mediation were difficult), eventually things should get easier as each adult moves on with their lives. Communicating about the things going on in the child’s life is usually a good driver of working towards a united front. Communication can be as simple as keeping each other informed via a shared calendar – or letting the other parent know about parenting challenges as they arise – behavioural issues for example. Ensuring both parents are on school email lists etc, is also a positive sign of both of you working together. If other children and adults in the child’s world see parents united, the child may be less prone to anxiety or self-consciousness, and this will make things easier for people in your child’s world, that you as parents must engage with – from coaches to doctors, teachers and your child’s friends.
Help the child celebrate all the occasions – not just the ones that involve you
Critically important to your child’s wellbeing is that they maintain a sense of family. Bringing your important rituals and celebrations from the old family structure into the new one will help your child adjust to a different family structure. This may involve helping your child celebrate events and occasions concerning your ex-partner – especially birthdays and Mothers or Fathers Day. It’s a small act of kindness that can go a long way and is a great example of doing the right thing, that will hopefully rub off on the kids.
And finally, don’t bag your ex in front of the kids
Kids do as they see. If you can badmouth your ex-partner, they can too. Alternately, they may seek to defend their other parent – and that could have dramatic consequences on how it falls back on you. The impact of bagging your ex in front of the child is almost always negative – feeding anxiety, insecurity and depressed feelings. This person is still their parent and someone they love. Whatever feelings you have about your ex-partner, the feelings you have about your child are much greater and far more important. Every time you badmouth your ex to, or in front of your child, they are not being loved in the way they need to become healthy, happy humans.
As we mentioned earlier – it’s a transition and it will take time. Mistakes will be made, at times it will be awkward, and at other times old hurts may bubble to the surface. But if there is only one thing you have in common with your ex -partner, make sure it’s the health, wellbeing and happiness of your child.
To help you prepare for mediation, we have created a library of helpful information including checklists, tips and added detail around the process of mediation. For useful and relevant information you can download for free, we encourage you to visit our resources page.
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