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14th Aug 2015

How to handle differences when you’re separated and co-parenting


Parenting following separation or divorce is no easy feat.

Divorce and separation are painful and distressing events for the adults involved and certainly in the initial stages, parents can be distracted, as their energy is focused on managing the breakdown and the loss involved.

In the transition period, it’s good for children to be informed about what is going on, in an age appropriate way, and to be reassured that they are not the cause of the breakdown.

It can help children enormously at this point to have another understanding adult in their lives with whom they can talk and can help make sense of the situation. This may be a family member who can listen to, comfort and reassure the child.

It is very common for parents to feel a lot of guilt and extra pressure and working out logistics can be extremely stressful.

Feelings that you have somehow failed children are very common, but it’s important to remember that in most cases, parenting separately but amicably is far better than exposing children to an unhappy, conflict-filled home.

Co-parenting means that both parents play an active role in their children’s everyday lives. There is not necessarily a right or wrong way to co-parent: what works well for some may not for others.

Amicable co-parenting might be hard work, but the rewards are worth it. Co-parenting amicably can give your children stability and close relationships with both parents. Children whose parents are divorced but have a cooperative relationship tend to feel secure, confident of the love of both parents, have a good understanding of problem solving through seeing their parents work together, and have a healthy example to follow. They are less likely to feel abandoned, or as though it is their responsibility to ‘look after’ their parents.

Amicable co-parenting means that both parents use similar rules, discipline, and rewards between households. Children benefit from this consistency and don’t tend to feel ‘torn’ between two households.

Of course, it is rarely easy to co-parent with a person with whom you have been through a relationship breakdown and all that it entails. Custody arrangements can be exhausting, upsetting and frustrating, and moving past a painful history can be extremely difficult. There may also be significant differences between you and your ex in the way you approach parenting.

What can you do?

It might help to remember that your feelings of hurt or anger towards your partner do not have to dictate your behaviour. When those feelings start to bubble up, try to ensure that what is best for your children motivates your actions, rather than any resentment you are feeling.

Some people find that it helps to think of their relationship with their ex as a completely new one. The focus on this new relationship is entirely on the wellbeing of your children. It is not about either of you, and the priority is to put your children’s interests ahead of your own.

It is important, of course, that if you are experiencing negative feelings of hurt and anger, that you speak to someone – friends, family members, or a counsellor. The key is to never, ever vent to your child about it, or vent in front of them. Try your best not to say negative things about your ex in front of your children, and don’t use them as messengers.

Some parents find it helpful to make a parenting plan, which lays out each parent’s roles and responsibilities, to avoid miscommunications and misunderstandings. Who will make certain decisions? What kind of things do you need to consult each other on? What’s the best way to communicate with each other? How will you handle discipline? What are the ‘rules’ as regards bedtime, meals, watching TV/playing video games, etc? What will happen in an emergency?

Accept that you and your ex may differ on parenting issues. Try to work on finding common ground: communicating about a few key issues is better than not communicating at all.

Relationship breakdown is a process that begins up to five years before the official end of a relationship. Children adjust better in the short term when they are aware there are difficulties and it is not an ‘out of the blue’ event.

Two years following separation and divorce are an adjustment period for all involved, but most children most do adapt in the long term when they feel secure and loved, and are given warmth and affection.