Living with a chronic condition, like depression
, requires you to focus on creating balance and well-being on a daily basis. For those who are separated, divorced or sharing custody of a child, the struggles of co-parenting can produce enormous stressors.
Co-parenting, sometimes called joint parenting or shared parenting, is the experience of raising children as a single parent when separation or divorce occurs. Often a difficult process, co-parenting is greatly influenced by the reciprocal interactions of each parent. So, if you're parenting in a healthy way but your Ex isn't, your children will be at risk for developmental problems. Same goes if you're being too permissive and your Ex is too stern. Co-parenting requires empathy, patience and open communication for success. Not an easy thing to achieve for couples who've encountered marital issues. However, placing the sole focus on your children can be a great way of helping to make co-parenting a positive experience. Here are some tips.
Two Ways of Problem Solving
When co-parenting, there are two problem solving techniques to keep in mind: Strategic problem-solving and Social-psychological problem solving.
Strategic problem-solving model looks just at the issues at hand. The behavioral aspects of your child's problem are highlighted as is the co-parenting trouble spots. Do not address the emotional reasons why problems are happening. As co-parents you will identify the problem and negotiate choices and solutions as objectively as possible. Strategic problem solving directs each parent to resolve conflict through a careful approach of 1) exchanging information about needs and priorities, 2) building upon shared concerns, 3) and searching for solutions. This is done without getting into yours or your Ex's emotional needs, wants and desires.
Social-psychological problem solving is a more emotional way of resolving issues. The focus here looks at your attitudes and the emotional reasons for co-parenting blind spots. While the social-psychological model, like the strategic model, assumes that parenting conflicts are bound to arise, it differs from the strategic model by focusing on the psychological factors that drive conflict and negotiation impasses. Talking with your Ex using this model can be tough, and it's okay if you never reach this way of problem solving. But if you do, remember not to be accusatory or critical. Invite your Ex to see your side with empathy, compassion and authentic concern for the children.
- Commit to making co-parenting an open dialogue with your Ex. Arrange to do this through email, texting, voicemail, letters or face to face conversation. There are even websites where you can upload schedules, share information and communicate so you and your Ex don't have to directly touch base.
- Rules should be consistent and agreed upon at both households. As much as they fight it, children need routine and structure. Issues like meal time, bed time, and completing chores need to consistent. The same goes for school work and projects. Running a tight ship creates a sense of security and predictability for children. So no matter where your child is, he or she knows that certain rules will be enforced. "You know the deal, before we can go to the movies, you gotta get that bed made."
- Commit to positive talk around the house. Make it a rule to frown upon your children talking disrespectfully about your Ex even though it may be music to your ears.
- Agree on boundaries and behavioral guidelines for raising your children so that there's consistency in their lives, regardless of which parent they're with at any given time. Research shows that children in homes with a unified parenting approach have greater well-being.
- Create an Extended Family Plan. Negotiate and agree on the role extended family members will play and the access they'll be granted while your child is in each other's charge.
- Recognize that co-parenting will challenge you - and the reason for making accommodations in your parenting style is NOT BECAUSE YOUR EX WANTS THIS OR THAT, but for the needs of your children.
- Be Aware of Slippery Slopes. Be aware that children will frequently test boundaries and rules, especially if there's a chance to get something they may not ordinarily be able to obtain. This is why a united front in co-parenting is recommended.
- Be boring. Research shows that children need time to do ordinary things with their less-seen parent, not just fun things.
- Update often. Although it may be emotionally painful, make sure that you and your Ex keep each other informed about all changes in your life, or circumstances that are challenging or difficult. It is important that your child is never, ever, ever the primary source of information.
Go for the high notes. Each of you has valuable strengths as a parent. Remember to recognize the different traits you and your Ex have - and reinforce this awareness with your children. Speaking positively about your Ex teaches children that despite your differences, you can still appreciate positive things about your Ex. "Mommy's really good at making you feel better when you're sick. I know, I'm not as good as she is." It also directs children to see the positive qualities in his or her parent too. "Daddy's much better at organizing things than I am."
- Don't burden your child. Emotionally charged issues about your Ex should never be part of your parenting. Never sabotage your child's relationship with your Ex by trash talking. Never use your child to gain information about things going on or to sway your Ex about an issue. The main thing here is this: Don't expose children to conflict. Research shows that putting children in the middle of your adult issues promotes feelings of helplessness and insecurity, causing children to question their own strengths and abilities.
- Don't jump to conclusions or condemn your Ex. When you hear things from your children that make you bristle, take a breath and remain quiet. Remember that any negative comments your children make are often best taken with a grain of salt. It's always good to remain neutral when things like this happen. Research shows that your child can learn to resent and distrust you if you cheer them on.
- Don't be an unbalanced parent. Resist being the fun guy or the cool mom when your children are with you. Doing so backfires once they return to your Ex - and sets into motion a cycle of resentment, hostility and a reluctance to follow rules for all involved. Remember that children develop best with a united front. Co-parenting with a healthy dose of fun, structure and predictability is a win-win for everyone.
- Don't give into guilt. Divorce is a painful experience, and one that conjures up many emotions. Not being in your child's life on a full time basis can cause you to convert your guilt into overindulgence. Understand the psychology of parental guilt - and how to recognize that granting wishes without limits is never good. Research shows that children can become self-centered, lack empathy and believe in the need to get unrealistic entitlement from others. Confusion understanding the dynamics of need versus want, as well as taming impulsivity becomes troublesome for children to negotiate too.
- Don't punish your Ex by allowing your child to wiggle out of responsibility. Loosening the reigns because you just want to be a thorn in your Ex's side is a big no-no. "I know Mommy likes you to get your homework done first, but you can do that later." "Don't tell Daddy I gave you the extra money to buy the video game you've been working towards." If you need to get your negative emotions out, find another outlet. Voodoo dolls, skeet shooting and kick boxing can yield the same results, but with less of a parenting mess. Remember, work before play is a golden rule - and one that will help your child throughout their lifetime. Making sure to be consistent helps your child transition back and forth from your Ex - and back and forth to you too.
- Don't accuse. Discuss. Never remain quiet if something about your Ex's co-parenting is troubling you. If you don't have a good personal relationship with your Ex, create a working business arrangement. Communication about co-parenting is extremely vital for your child's healthy development. No finger pointing or you-keep-doing-this kind of talk. The best approach when communicating is to make your child the focal point: "I see the kids doing this-and-that after they return home from their visit. Any ideas of what we can do?" Notice there's not one "you" word in there. No accusatory tone or finger-pointing either.
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Laumann-Billings, L. & Emery, R.E. (2000), Distress among young adults from divorced families. Journal of Family Psychology, 14:671-687.
Mayer, B.S. (2004). Beyond neutrality: Confronting the crisis in conflict resolution. San
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Mosten, F.S. (2009). Collaborative Divorce. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
Dr. Deborah Serani is the author of Living with Depression" by Rowman and Littlefield.