How to Make Co-parenting Work
When San Francisco resident Shayna Lawson and her husband were separating about three years ago, the most difficult part was telling their two daughters, ages 5 and 3 at the time. The best way to break the news, Lawson felt, was to tell them a story that went something like this:
Father Sun and Mother Moon once shared the sky at the same time, all day and all night. They loved being in the sky together, laughing and playing. One day, one of the star children came to them and said that if they took turns in the sky, they would each shine more brightly and the rest of the world could enjoy them more also.
So they decided to take turns, the sun shone all day long and the flowers and plants and people could feel its warmth and strength. And the moon shone at night, playing with the stars and glowing in the darkness. So just like mommy and daddy used to share a home, we're going to take turns now, so we can all shine as brightly as possible.
The story set the mood for what is now a very successful co-parenting arrangement with each parent living separate lives and taking turns being with their daughters.
“It was smooth from the beginning,” says Lawson who was married to her husband for seven years. “I am a stay-at-home mom and I was already the primary caregiver. We decided I would be with them during the week and he would be with them on the weekend. We do a family breakfast during the week and he brings them to school. That way, it gives him more time with them. We eat breakfast and say a blessing together and that has worked out well for us.”
Unfortunately, many shared parenting arrangements are not this civil. Children are often caught between fighting parents who drag out their custody battles in court. Many of these kids need therapy and some even have relationship problems as adults.
About 50 percent of children in this country will witness the divorce of their parents, according to an article, “The Life Course of Children of Divorce,” published in the American Sociological Review. Of those children, close to half will also see the break-up of a parents’ second marriage.
Experts say that many children from divorced families suffer from more health and emotional problems. And studies have shown that kids whose parents have been involved in multiple divorces earn lower grades than their peers.
However, none of this means that children from divorced and separated families are destined for a troubled life.
A key factor in making co-parenting work is thinking about the children first and keeping conflict between you and your ex to a minimum, says Renea Smith, psychologist and instructor for Kids’ Turn, a Bay Area nonprofit that helps families going through separation. Parents are sometimes ordered by the court to take her class, so Smith often sees the worst situations.
“When a parent is around the kids, they need to strictly focus on the kids,” she says. “Don’t force them to talk about what happened at the other parent’s house. It’s so hard for kids to go from environment to environment. It’s hard for them to go from one house with different rules.”
Parents should not try control what happens in the other parent’s home because it will only cause conflict, she says.
“It puts a lot of stress on kids,” Smith says. “They feel the tension. They know parents are upset with each other. The weight and pressure have an influence on their social and emotional development and academics in school.”
If a parent feels they can’t avoid conflict when they are around their ex, they should discuss things through email and stick to the facts, Smith says. This may mean having someone else read emails before you send them, so they can make sure you’re not writing anything that would trigger an argument. There are even websites where you can upload schedules, share information and communicate so you don’t have to meet in person with your ex.
Children often blame themselves for their parents’ divorce or separation and arguing around them only makes this worse, says Mechele Pruitt, director of Parents Place San Francisco, which offers counseling and workshops for parents. “Parents should be aware of this and make sure they have conversations with their kids so they know it’s not their fault.”
People who are around the kids a lot, such as teachers, should be notified of a divorce or separation, she says. The child may show changes in behavior, have health issues like stomachaches and have problems academically.
Fortunately, in Lawson’s situation, there’s been little drama in the co-parenting arrangement. She and her ex have a healthy relationship and respect each other.
“We’ve kept the unity of a family. We’ve explained to our daughters that families look different. And we did not expose them to any upset. I think that is the key – not fighting in front of them. The collective goal is what’s best for the children,” she says. “We show them that we can still be loving and have a friendship. They see that we communicate well.”
A big part of making their situation work, Lawson says, is having consistency in parenting styles so their daughters have a similar structure in both homes. They have regular family meetings involving their new partners where they discuss things, such as rules they want the kids to follow, nutrition and other issues.
“The most important piece is both homes having a very consistent parenting style and both parents showing each other love and respect,” she says.
While this is an ideal situation, Smith says, agreeing on parenting styles often doesn’t happen after a divorce. In many cases, when one parent wants to discuss how the other parent is raising the child, it can lead to conflict which should be avoided, she says.
Each parent should focus on providing structure, discipline and flexibility for their child. But they should not try to control what’s going on in the other parent’s home, Smith says. The only time they should intervene is if they suspect there’s abuse or other serious issues, she says.
“I do think if parents could let go of what happens in the other home and just focus on their kids when they are with them, that would really help,” Smith says.
When your child returns from the other parent’s home, you should give her time to adjust to being back in your home. This involves listening to the child, finding out what she needs and giving her some down time.
Smith highly recommends both parents and kids go into therapy after a divorce or separation.
“For kids, a divorce or separation can adjust their perspective of what relationships are supposed to look like,” she says. “If the model for them is accusing other people or yelling, the kid is going to internalize that and take it to their future relationships.”
Therapy can be even more necessary for the divorcing parents, Smith says.
“They are getting this huge loss of their children. They will miss milestones,” she says. “They want to fight that fear of losing their children. They want to pull for their child’s love and then the child is stuck in this tug of war. Parents need therapy to process that fear.”
This fear of losing their child can often lead to a custody battle in court. “When people are motivated by fear, they do a lot of nasty things,” she says.
If possible, you should try to avoid going to court, says Andrea Goldman, a family law attorney in Berkeley.
The divorce agreement will include a custody plan, but it’s often a loose arrangement that can be revisited if things change. The agreement may say there will be shared custody and parents will divide up vacations and holidays, Goldman says. But if the couple goes to court, the custody agreement usually has to be spelled out.
In some custody cases, children ages 14 and up can weigh in on what they want the arrangement to be. The judge has discretion on whether or not they want to hear from a child.
Goldman’s advice: “Try to be educated about what your options are. Joining a divorce group can be helpful. Always put the kids first. And if you are feeling a lot of anger, find a therapist.”
When working out a custody arrangement, each parent has to give a little and take a little, says Smith.
“You have to go into it realizing that you’re not going to get everything you want,” she says. “Going into it with demands will only create conflict. If you have one person who is flexible and the other isn’t, then it really creates problems.”
Lawson’s family is proof that co-parenting can work: “My advice is to make the wellbeing of the children the primary goal. And create a space for open communication.”
Teresa Mills-Faraudo is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent and mother of two.
The Dos and Don’ts of Co-Parenting
Do what’s best for your children. Your actions will affect them for the rest of their lives.
Do make an effort to communicate. It may be difficult to communicate with your ex because of emotions, stress, anger and pain, but communicating effectively is necessary for a successful arrangement. Show restraint around your ex and don’t let him or her push your buttons.
Do keep your conversations kid-focused. This will help in communicating with your ex-partner. Never let your conversations be about your needs or his or her needs; it should always be about the child’s needs.
Do agree on consistency and structure in each home. Try to agree on rules like bedtimes or curfews and provide structure for your child.
Do compromise. There’s going to be times when you need to come around to your ex’s point of view, as often as she/he comes around to yours. Compromise allows both parents to “win” and makes it more likely that they will be flexible with each other in the future.
Do work as a team. Like it or not, you are a team when it comes to your kids. You need to be willing to do things like cover parent-teacher conferences and send each other texts and emails about baseball game schedules, kids’ performances, doctors’ appointments and other important events.
Don’t disrespect your ex-spouse in front of the children. Being respectful and considerate can go a long way. If you get frustrated or angry, don’t air it in front of your child. This is transferring you own issues to your child.
Don’t try to compete. Don’t try to one-up your ex by easing rules or giving extravagant gifts. You are not your child’s best friend.
Don’t burden your children. Never sabotage your child’s relationship with your ex by saying negative things about him or her. Don’t use your child to gain information about things going on in the other home or to sway your ex about an issue.
Don’t give into guilt. Not being with your child full time can cause some parents to feel extremely guilty. Parents may try to make up for their feelings with overindulgence. Granting children’s wishes without limits is never good.
Books for Parents
The Co-Parents’ Handbook: Raising Well-Adjusted, Resilient and Resourceful Kids in a Two-Home Family from Little Ones to Young Adults by Karen Bonnell, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
What About the Kids? by Judith Wallerstein, Hachette Books, 2004.
Books for Children
Dinosaurs Divorce (ages 4-7) by Marc Brown and Laurene Krasny Brown, Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 1986.
It’s Not Your Fault Koko Bear: A Read-Together Book for Parents and Young Children During Divorce (ages 3-7) by Vicki Lansky, Book Peddlers, 1997.
Let’s Talk About Divorce (ages 4-8) by Fred Rogers (“Mister Rogers”), Puffin Books, 1998.
Mom’s House, Dad’s House for Kids (school age-middle school age) by Isolina Ricci, Touchstone, 1997.
Kids’ Turn. 1757 Waller St., San Francisco. 415-777-9977. www.kidsturn.org.
Parents Place. Multiple locations in the Bay Area. www.parentsplaceonline.org.