Co-Parenting after Divorce

Copyright © 2016, Liz Currin, Ph.D.

Whether your divorce is final, or you and your spouse are in the process of hammering out the details, the well-being of your children needs to be your first priority.  You and your ex-spouse may be on fairly amicable terms, or you may feel like mortal enemies, but personal feelings will need to be put aside when it comes to making arrangements for your children.

You will both need to remain available to your children for emotional reassurance.  It's very common for children to feel that, in some way, they contributed to their parents' decision to divorce.  They may feel guilty and blameworthy.  At the same time, they may feel there is something they can do to bring their parents back together, to reconstitute the family.  This is understandable.  Unless there has been extreme abuse between their parents, most children would prefer that the family remain intact.

While all couples are somewhat different in their divorce arrangements, it's important not to feed children’s fantasies that their parents will reunite.  For instance, a family trip to Disney World or a holiday ski trip may not be wise.  Of course, when there are young children involved, divorced parents will still have to confront each other at important events, such as graduations, weddings, and other milestones.  At these times, parents need to be very mindful of how they interact with an ex.  Polite and cordial are recommended, open hostility is not.

Stability is important in your children's lives.  In that regard, if at all possible, it's good for children to stay in their original home.  Of course, because they will spend time with a non-custodial parent, as well, they will have a second home.  Depending on their ages, it may help to allow them some say in decorating a new bedroom, for example.  This might mean selecting bedding, paint colors, posters, etc.  Having a voice in this process helps children feel they have some control in their lives.  Research has shown that children who feel a degree of control in the divorce process do better in adulthood than those who don't.

It's also wise to keep children in their same school.  They'll be interacting with peers and teachers they're familiar with.  The same goes for extracurricular activities.  If time and finances permit, it's a good idea to allow your children to continue in sports or other activities they enjoyed before your divorce.  In other words, the less your children have to adapt to changes because of your divorce, the better they'll adapt to their new life.

Even though you and your spouse have concluded that the marriage is over, it's important to iron out as many details with regard to your children's lives as possible.  But it's equally critical to be able to communicate as situations arise about which decisions must be made.  For example, even though you have an agreement about routine medical care for your children (physicals, dental care), there may be an unscheduled trip to an urgent care doctor or even the emergency room.  At such times, you need to have a system in place for notifying the other parent.  An agreement that a text or phone call/voicemail is acceptable might be appropriate.

When you have shared responsibility for making decisions about your children's future, you may need to have ongoing contact in areas such as an appropriate age for dating, obtaining a driver's license, and planning for college.  If one of you feels strongly about your child attending college, but the other doesn't, you'll need to have some mechanism for ironing out differences of opinion, just as if you were still married.  This points to the critical area of “core values”, such as education, money, and religion.  In ideal circumstances, you and your spouse would have had conversations about these values earlier on in your marriage.  If not, this is a critical time to address these questions. 

So, the task of co-parenting continues, even when the marriage does not.  Being able to put differences and personal feelings aside when it comes to your children goes a long way toward helping them feel loved and grounded in as secure and stable environment as possible.