In co-parenting world, keep things smooth, similar for kids
When parents live apart, children are forced to migrate between homes.
Some shift residences daily. Most shift between homes and parents at least twice each week.
Imagine what it would be like to wake up in Moscow on Monday and Tuesday, and then have to travel to London after work on Tuesday. You wake up in London Wednesday and Thursday and every other weekend. The foods change. The language changes. The money is different. The rules and the etiquette and even which side of the road you drive on are all different. Twice each week your day-to-day life will be torn in two not just until a specific job is done. This isn’t work travel. This is your life, and it’s not likely to change for years.
This is the bifurcated existence that as many as half of all children in the United States face. Family circumstances – usually divorce – create two distinct worlds for these children. The result can be anxiety and depression. Academic failures. Disrupted friendships and missed opportunities. Compromised sleep and health and development.
But these catastrophic outcomes can be minimized. Many children navigate their back-and-forth lives adequately for years and even thrive. A little bit of effort in your home and a little bit of cooperation between the two homes can relieve most – if not all – of these unfortunate side effects.
1. Whose time is it, anyway? The language of divorce often prompts parents to claim what is theirs. This car. That bank account. The silverware, but not the furniture. As a result, it becomes easy to talk about “my time with the kids.”
Wrong. The kids aren’t possessions to be divvied up like so many coffee mugs. The schedule of care dictates the child’s time in your care, not your time with the kids. The difference is huge.
When you start thinking and talking about the children’s time in your care, that time becomes more about the kids and their needs and ceases to be about winning and losing. It’s only when you and your co-parent can talk about the kids’ time – not your ownership of that time – that the children’s stress at transition can begin to be relieved.
2. Voice, not choice. We value what our kids think and feel and help them to express these things clearly, but we never ask our children to choose between their parents. The child who resists or refuses transitioning to the other home is probably saying something about the stress of transition, about not wanting to miss out on an event in your home, or may be worrying about you while you’re apart. It’s far less likely that she is saying something negative about the other parent or that home.
Listen and validate the feeling, not the content. “I know that transition is hard” and “I’d be aggravated, too, if I had to shift back and forth.” Reassure often and loud: “I’ll be fine” and “you’ll be fine” and “your (other parent) loves you” and “you’re going to have fun.” Focus on specific positives when you can: “I think you guys are going out to dinner tonight” or “maybe you’ll finish that craft that you started there last week.” But in the end, be clear and firm. Don’t give in to her tears or rage. She can’t decide not to go to school and she cannot decide not to transition to her other home: “It’s time to go now. No more stalling. I’ll see you in three days.”
3. Make transitions routine and
predictable. Here’s a non-scientific rule-of-thumb. It’s not the law. It’s not the result of a longitudinal, statistically significant, peer-reviewed study. It’s the hard-won experience of a professional who has worked with children and divorced families for 30 years:
When the child is emotionally immature and the parents’ communication is poor, the schedule of care must be rigid and entirely predictable.
As the child’s emotional maturity grows and as the co-parents’ communication skills improve, the schedule of care can be more flexible.
In the ideal, the co-
parents plan ahead smoothly. They make adjustments for a birthday party here, an unexpected opportunity to go to the beach there, and they manage this process without anger and expectations of make-up time. Many families operate this way, and their children benefit tremendously.
Far too often, however, the child’s emotional needs and the adults’ win-lose, mine-mine-mine attitudes make compromise impossible. Expectations for minute-by-minute makeup time compound the problem. The only answer is a rigid, immutable schedule of care. True, opportunities will be missed. On balance, the upset over a missed birthday party will be far less than the upset that is sparked by another adult argument, the arrival of the police, and the trickle-down stresses associated with another contempt motion, lawyers, and guardians ad litem.
4. Make transitions calm. The adult-to-adult handoff is not the place to deliver the child support check. It’s not the place to ask your co-parent for an extra day or to introduce a new partner, or to have a temper tantrum. Transition is already anxiety-inducing enough for your kids.
I know many children who only have bad memories of mom and dad being together. That’s when the arguments erupt. For some, that’s when things get thrown, names are called, and the police arrive. These children have a sort of PTSD reaction associated with seeing their parents face-to-face. Don’t make it worse. They need reassurance. They need a calm, civil, hello-goodbye transition.
“But I’m going to miss her!”
“But I’m worried what will happen over there!”
OK. Talk to your co-parent off-line, away from the kids to get reassurance. Been there, done that? Talk to a lawyer or a mental health professional, the GAL or the court. Don’t bring your upset to transition and don’t put your kids in the middle.
consistency between home environments. If Moscow would adopt the Euro and London switched to driving on the other side of the road, transitioning between the two would be easier. If the Russians started serving fish-and-chips and the Brits adopted borscht, transition would be even easier.
Get the idea?
Can you negotiate the same school-night bedtime in both homes? Can you agree to use the same detergent and fabric softener? Can you compare notes about screen time expectations and when homework is to be done and chores?
The more that is similar between the homes, the less stress your children will have to endure.
Communicate. Communicate. If you love your children more than you hate your co-parent, then you’ll put aside your rage and resentment and learn how to communicate. Plan a weekly adult phone call or email exchange. Sign up for an online communication platform (try www.OurFamilyWizard.com, for example).
7. Keep the kids out of the middle. Let them be kids. Never make your child into your messenger or courier, your spy or your ally in the secret, war against their other parent. Never damn your co-parent (or his/her new partner, extended family, nanny or friend or neighbor) to or around the kids. Kids must have every opportunity to make and maintain a healthy relationship with all who love and care for them.
When parents can’t communicate and cooperate, children’s transitions become more stressful. Decisions are stalemated and opportunities are lost. The trickle-down stress even when parents are very careful not to intentionally expose their kids to adult angst can be very destructive.
If this is you, you need help. You need a mediator or a co-parenting facilitator or a Parenting Coordinator. Each of these is an impartial, child-centered helper. They all are there to assist with cooperation and communication and decision-making.
A mediator will help the adults to reach specific decisions together. School placement. Summer camp. Medical decision making. Some will even include an older, more emotionally mature child in the process.
A co-parenting facilitator will work with the co-parents over time to establish ongoing means of communicating and cooperating in the kids best interests. Typically, after a handful of initial meetings, the co-parenting facilitator is then on-call to respond to needs as they arise.
A Parenting Coordinator is a court-ordered professional who acts like a co-parenting facilitator with the additional, court-endorsed authority to break stalemates. The PC will help you through a process of education and mediation but if no decision has been reached, the PC can then settle the matter.
Dr. Benjamin Garber, Ph.D., is a New Hampshire-licensed psychologist and parenting coordinator. He writes and speaks internationally on subjects concerning child and family development. His latest book is “Holding Tight/Letting Go” available from unhookedbooks.com. Learn more about Garber and his child-centered services at HealthyParent.com. Find a collection of Garber’s popular press articles on his blog at bdgarberphd.wordpress.com. Garber welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.