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Successful Co-Parenting

April 29, 2021

Here are some tips to make co-parenting easier for you and your kids.

by Archibald D. Hart, Ph.D.

As you and your former spouse figure out custody arrangements, visitation schedules and attempt to co-parent, these important reminders will help you help your children:
Don’t bad-mouth your ex. Children don’t want to hear bad things about either of their parents, and they especially do not want to take sides. No purpose is served in criticizing the other parent to your children.
Don’t use your children as spies. Children should be given the freedom to enjoy each parent without hindrance or fear of being cross-examined. Children become angry when asked to spy and can easily withdraw from both parents. If you are not sure whether you are using your children as spies, then ask them. You may be blind to what you are doing and so preoccupied with your hurt that you cannot see what is happening. They’ll tell you!
Don’t use your children to carry messages. There is usually a period of time following divorce when one parent is afraid to encounter the other, either for fear of letting out feelings of bitterness or for fear of what the ex-spouse will do or say. Under these conditions, a parent may become cowardly and hide behind the children. “Tell your father he hasn’t sent the check yet,” or “Ask your mother if you can go fishing with me next week.” These messages place your child in an uncomfortable position. In Roman days, messengers who brought bad news lost their heads, just like children do (figuratively) today.
The child will usually come to resent both parents for having to carry messages. To avoid alienating your children, do your own dirty work! Be courageous and assertive. Speak directly to your former wife or husband.
Give your child permission to love the other parent. As parents, we are not always completely honest with ourselves, and we don’t always know what messages we are sending our children. It is safer, therefore, to be explicit in this area. Tell your child specifically that it is OK to love his or her father or mother.
Encourage the discussion of feelings. The open expression of feelings tends to create a healthier environment. But freedom of speech does not mean freedom to insult or punish. Children are often so frustrated and angry at the world that they would readily dump their hostility on you and turn you into an emotional punching bag. This should not be tolerated. Anger should be talked about, not acted out.
But sometimes parents do not allow children to talk about their anger, and this eventually leads to a need to act out through explosive outbursts. It is far better to allow children to talk about their feelings as they occur than to have to pick up the pieces! Allowing angry feelings to accumulate, to the point that it takes a volcanic eruption to get rid of them, is never healthy.
Start to talk about feelings when your children are young and you will avoid many painful encounters with them later in life.
Be flexible. Flexibility means that you are willing to compromise some of your demands and, if necessary, negotiate for others. The most important area is that of visiting rights. Conflicts with your ex-spouse in this area will always affect your children. They will create tension and interfere with the quality of the visits.
Perhaps this is the subconscious reason why many parents avoid being flexible — to keep their children from enjoying their visits with the other parent. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself and work to avoid rigidity.
The need for flexibility should not be taken to mean that a parent should surrender all of his or her rights to the other. To do so would invite manipulation. But choose your battles carefully. There are many issues that are not important in themselves, so don’t stand on principle just for principle’s sake. Remember that you can communicate Christian love far better through being reasonable than by being obstinate.
Encourage the relationship with the ex-spouse. The more time they spend together, the better. It is an unfortunate fact that most absent parents gradually become less involved with their children after a divorce. The initial frequent contact slowly fades away.
Fathers are more apt to maintain contact with sons than with daughters. Since both sons and daughters need to have contact with both parents, it takes a concerned and wise parent to be creative about maintaining contact between fathers and daughters. Personal bitterness has to be set aside and activities with both mother and father encouraged.

Adapted from Helping Children Survive Divorce by Dr. Archibald D. Hart. Copyright © 1996 Thomas Nelson Inc. Nashville, Tenn. All rights reserved.
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