“This is probably one of the most difficult challenges any parent could face — learning to love the other parent enough to make the children first.” — Iyanla Vanzant
As we roll through the lazy, hazy days of summer, I often find that in my work with families and children I am at the mercy of custody and visitation agreements more so than ever. I often have to work around weeks spent with alternating parents due to acrimony and ongoing resentments.
While these disruptions in the therapeutic process are of concern, the larger issue is the fact that the parents in these particular cases are not putting their child’s needs first. Co-parenting amicably with your ex can give your children stability and close relationships with both parents. It is possible to develop a cordial working relationship for the sake of your children. It is important that you can remain calm, stay consistent and avoid or resolve conflict to make joint custody work. Children whose divorced parents have a cooperative relationship feel secure and adjust more quickly and easily to divorce and have better self-esteem. These children benefit from consistency as cooperative parenting fosters similar rules, discipline and rewards between households. Children who see their parents continuing to work together are more likely to learn how to effectively and peacefully solve problems themselves.
It is essential to separate feelings from behavior by expressing feelings in an appropriate way. It is OK to be hurt and angry, but do not lose sight of what is best for the child. Peaceful, consistent and purposeful communication with your ex is essential to the success of co-parenting. The goal is to establish conflict-free communication.
Following are a few methods to help initiate and maintain effective communication: Set a business-like tone — cordial, respectful and neutral. Relax and talk calmly and slowly. Instead of making statements or demands — make requests. Keep conversations child-focused and you can control the content of your communication. Never let a discussion with your ex digress into a conversation about your needs or his/her needs; it should always be about your child’s needs only. And most importantly, listen — communicating with maturity starts with listening.
If you aim for consistency, geniality and teamwork, the details of child-rearing decisions tend to fall into place. A fairly simple technique that can start positive communications is to ask their opinion or input. Show flexibility when making plans for time with your child. Repairing the working relationship may support consistency between households. Rules do not have to be exactly the same, but important life skills such as homework issues, curfews and off-limit activities should be the same in each household. Discipline should be consistent, consequences and rewards should be followed through in both houses, even if the infraction happened at the other parent’s house. Consistency with schedules such as meal time, homework time and bedtime are also important for the child to adjust to having two homes.
When making major decisions, be open, honest and straightforward about important issues. Effective co-parenting can help parents focus on the best medical care for the child and can help reduce anxiety for everyone. Whether one parent is designated to communicate primarily with health care professionals or parents attend medical appointments together, keep one another in the loop. School plays a major role in maintaining a stable environment for children, so be sure to let them know about changes in any living situation. Discuss class schedules, extra-curricular activities and parent-teacher conferences with the other parent, be polite to him or her at school or sports events, and most importantly, keep talking.
“But I am a parent, see, and I know what’s important now.” — Gary Neuman
Brenda-Lee Duarte, executive director at LifeLine Counseling Center, 1033 W. Broadway Ave., Maryville, 981-7400, is a licensed professional counselor and therapist. She and Megan Rapien, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist, will contribute columns on mental health issues the first Sunday of each month in the Sunday Life section.