The right way of co-parenting your kids after divorce

If you are considering co-parenting your kids after divorce, these crucial tips from a psychologist will guide you on this difficult path

Co-parenting concept | estranged couple holding their child on a swing

Nine-year old Kyra was excited about the long weekend coming up. She was to spend it at a quick getaway with her parents. During school days, she spent most of her time with her mom, and alternate weekends were divided between both parents, one weekend in each home. Kyra loved spending time with her dad and his parents, but she also loved cuddling up at home with mom. She had the best of both worlds, she sometimes wondered, even though her parents no longer lived together. In her eyes, they were still a family, and she especially loved the occasional short holidays that they took her on, so that she could be with both of them together. Kyra’s mom and dad were co-parenting her.

Two years ago, when Kyra learnt that her parents were getting divorced, her world came shattering down. She was confused, scared, lost and even angry. She loved both her parents, and the thought of not being a family any more was too difficult to digest. She withdrew into a shell, started clinging to both her parents, and would burst into tears at the drop of a hat.

Luckily, both Neil and Kruti, Kyra’s parents, were able to see what was happening to her. They made an attempt to put their differences aside for the sake of their daughter and, while reconciliation was out of question, they worked together to create a cohesive parenting structure for Kyra. It was difficult for sure, with emotional, financial, and logistical hurdles to overcome. But despite their differences, they were unified in their desire to do their best for their child, and their efforts at harmonious co-parenting soon started paying rich dividends. Kyra relaxed, slowly became herself again, and over a period of time, came to terms with the fact that her parents were not together. Because she had access to both of them and because she did not have to navigate emotional minefields between her parents, she settled down into her new routine and arrangement.

What is co-parenting

Separation and divorce have become a glaring reality in the fabric of human relationships, and more often than not, children become a scapegoat. As the marriage breakdowns, partners spew venom at each other, with little vulnerable eyes watching and absorbing, and getting scorched in the process. The realisation that their conflict and separation could impact their children negatively has led many couples to cast aside their differences and think how best they can work together to raise their children. This is what co-parenting is all about.

Conventionally, the word parenting implies both mother and father playing a role in child-rearing. The very word conjures up images of a happy child, along with two happy, smiling faces, creating a glow of warmth and love. However, as human relationships tear down the curtains of convention and explore new bastions of connecting and bonding, parenting could imply: single parenting, same sex parenting, long distance parenting, foster parenting, and so on. Hence, the need for the term “co-parenting”.

When should a couple consider co-parenting

When a marital relationship breaks down to the point of no return, when partners decide to go their separate ways, decisions around child rearing become crucial. Gone are the days when couples believed in burying their differences for the sake of the children. Individual happiness is an important goal for every person, as indeed it should be! Further, now research has established that living in a conflicted home environment is far more traumatic for children than the divorce of their parents. What is important is for parents to consistently offer security, stability, love and reassurance to their children—whether they are living together or apart.

So, if as a couple you have decided to part ways, yet be connected as parents for the sake of your children, co-parenting could be the best option for you and your children. Co-parenting means continuing to play your role as a parent even though the marriage has fallen apart, and taking joint decisions on all important matters.

Guide to help you make a win-win co-parenting plan

Here are a few things both parents need to consider when deciding to co-parent their child.

1. Keep the child’s well-being as the goal

Of course, there are differences between the two of you, many of them intense and irrevocable—which is why you have decided to end the marriage. Yet, when you sit down to make arrangements regarding parenting your child, you will need to work through your own differences. This is not about one-upmanship, or about proving who is the better parent. It is about providing the best possible arrangement for your child. As a parent, it can, at times, be hard to take yourself out of the equation, but it is worth the effort to do so. Every time you get stuck on a point, ask yourself, what would be best for the child in these circumstances, and the answer would readily come to you.

2. Rebuild communication

Usually, by the time a couple heads toward divorce, there is a complete communication breakdown between the partners. For the sake of the child, you will have to cross over barriers. Get talking about what is important for the child. Share your views clearly and logically, without hurling accusations at each other. It will be easier if you keep your discussions focussed on matters related to the child only.

Also read » The art of marital communication

3. Respect each other’s views

You may no longer get along with each other, but you share a history, and most importantly, you have created a child or children between the two of you. As such, respect the other’s feelings and opinions regarding the child and child rearing. Navigate differences respectfully.

4. Focus on the key issues

Splitting hair over trivial matters will get you nowhere. Decide on what are the main issues for you. You have a choice to climb this mountain together, or keep haggling over every little speed breaker; make the right choice!

Common mistakes while co-parenting

It is also important to make sure you don’t engage in any actions, words or behaviours that could hijack your co-parenting plan. Mentioned below are a few definite things that you would do well to restrain from:

1. Using the child to get back at your spouse

This little human being is not a device to be used to take revenge, insult, or humiliate your spouse. If your anger and resentment is so huge, find other ways to work through these feelings; but leave the child out of it. This not only further erodes your relationship with your partner as a co-parent, it also causes lasting damage to the child’s sense of self.

2. Burdening the child with your issues

While it is advisable to be transparent with the child about the divorce and maybe even reasons for the divorce, do not make the child your emotional crutch. Remember, s/he is still a child and you are the adult. Don’t keep plying your emotions on the child, and especially don’t bad-mouth the spouse in front of the child.

3. Give up on creating guilt

The child has a right to love both parents, despite what is happening between the two of you. Never make the child take sides, or make the child feel guilty about loving, missing or wanting the other parent. Making your child feel guilty about caring for the other parent will leave a deep and lasting impact on the child, so do your best to avoid it.

At times, the relationship between the partners can be so bitter, that it may require a mediator to create a co-parenting plan. A mediator could be a lawyer, a couple’s counsellor, a respected adult in the family, a common friend whom both parents trust or a senior community member.

Decide on these crucial issues of co-parenting

With or without a mediator, make sure you and your spouse come to an agreement regarding the following key matters:

1. Living arrangements

This is usually the first and the biggest hurdle, and a big bone of contention between parents. This is more than simply a matter of custody. Keep the child’s age, gender, his or her comfort level with each parent, schedules of each parent, childcare options and other details in mind before you arrive at living arrangements that are best suited for the child’s well-being.

Of course, you both want the child with you, but your child is a living and breathing person; keep his or her needs in mind and arrive at these decisions. Many parents of late agree to very flexible living arrangements, where the child has free access to both homes and can stay wherever they want, whenever they want. This is possible if both parents continue to live in the same vicinity and with easy access to the child’s school. If not, usually one parent takes responsibility for the week, and weekends are split between the parents. Go by what would work best for your family without creating resentment for either of you or for the child.

2. Education

Major educational decisions need to be taken jointly, and it is easier if you have kept communication channels open. Keep each other updated about picnics, exams, half days and holidays, daily school schedule, and pickup-and-drop arrangements. It’s important to inform the school about the change in status too.

3. Health

This not only involves major health issues, but also everyday matters, such as nutrition, food habits, eating schedules, sleep schedules, health check-ups, vaccines and so forth.

4. Finances

As part of your divorce settlement, you would undoubtedly discuss the finances. Take the child’s long-term financial requirements also into account.

5. Involvement of extended family

If grandparents, uncles and aunts have been closely involved in child-rearing, you will also need to discuss about their continued role in the child’s life. Ideally, it is best to allow all people who are close to the child to continue to remain in the child’s life; it goes a long way in creating a sense of stability for the child at a time when his or her very foundation is being shaken by the divorce. However, it is important to have these significant others on the same page with respect to maintaining mutual respect and not taking sides in front of the child. If a family member is unable or unwilling to remain neutral or supportive about the situation, the child may require some time off from such a family member.

Also read » Getting a divorce? The biggest gift you can give your children is an amicable separation

4 key advantages of successful co-parenting

When you co-parent successfully, your child will benefit in many ways. Here are a few significant ways:

1. Healthy self-esteem

You preserve the child’s self-esteem, which can get seriously challenged during parental conflict, separation or divorce.

2. Modeling relationships

Seeing parents being a parenting unit despite their differences goes a long way in giving children insights into how adult relationships work and how, despite differences, couples can work toward mutual goals. You also become examples of good communication and mutual respect.

3. Sense of security

Children grow up feeling secure and stable because they know both parents are available to them at any point in time, and they don’t have to feel guilty about accessing either parent.

4. Emotional wellbeing

Children who are co-parented positively show fewer psychological or emotional problems.

A Word of Caution

For all your planning, scheduling and negotiating, remember that parenting is dynamic and unpredictable at the best of times, and a roller-coaster ride at the worst of times. Hence, being flexible is key.

You may decide on things which you realise don’t work for the child down the line, and being able to course correct is important. How you navigate the twists and turns on this adventurous joy-ride called parenting will decide how successfully you are able to co-parent your children.

Your efforts at co-parenting will go a long way in helping your child grow up into a well-adjusted adult.

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Samindara Hardikar-Sawant
Samindara Hardikar-Sawant is a clinical psychologist and hypnotherapist. She is the director of Disha Counseling Center in Mumbai and is the author of Taming the Tornado: A Parent Manual to Manage the ADHD Child.

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