Parenting is tough enough when both parents live under the same roof and are on the same page most (or at least some) of the time. When a couple is living separate lives but still needs to remain in contact because they have kids, the potential for debate and disharmony is huge.
I’d like to think I’ve finally nailed the co-parenting thing, but it’s taken four years — and for much of that time, it was nothing short of a nightmare. In the interest of remaining on good terms with my ex-husband, I’ll spare you the details, but I’ll never forget how difficult it was when we first separated.
Every divorce, like every marriage, is different. But there are a few things all divorced parents should bear in mind. Here are my seven commandments of parenting post-divorce.
1. Never talk badly about the other parent
This can be a big ask if the other parent was/is a lying, cheating asshole. But they’re still your child’s parent. “Your child is a product of both of you, and a put-down of the other parent is a put-down of your child,” said Dr. Melanie English, a Seattle-based psychologist who has worked with children of divorce for 18 years. “Even if you don’t love the other parent anymore, your child will want to (and need to) love that parent.” That doesn’t mean you have to bottle up your feelings, however. Speak to your friends or a therapist. Oh, and don’t leave your smartphone lying around, or at the very least make sure it’s passcode-protected. Our media-savvy kids have a way of accessing text message and email threads you’d rather they didn’t see.
2. Don’t put your kids in the middle of any conflict
If the only time you see your ex is during pickups and drop-offs, it’s natural for that to be when good intentions go out the window and animosity takes over. “One of the worst things parents can do to their children during or post-divorce is to place them in the middle of their conflict,” said psychologist Dr. Becky Miller Updike, who sits on the board of the Center for Out-of-Court Divorce, a nonprofit aiming to change how divorce is handled in regard to the needs of children with an interdisciplinary, child-focused and less adversarial approach. “Whether or not parents do this intentionally, toxic and stressful environments can have negative impacts on a child’s trust, relationships and overall physical, mental and emotional well-being,” she says. If you really can’t keep a lid on your temper when you see your ex, arrange for a third party to facilitate pickups and drop-offs until things get easier.
3. Don’t quiz your kids about life with the other parent
Curiosity about your ex’s new life is perfectly normal, but your child should never have to play messenger. If you’re constantly firing questions at them about life at their other parent’s house, they’ll quickly become exhausted and may even close up completely. “Parents need to set up rules, goals or mechanisms on how they will communicate with one another about life at the other parent’s house, and this includes bedtimes, rules, discipline, routines and diet,” said English. “If you’re doing this, you won’t need to quiz your children because you will know how to communicate any questions or concerns with the other parent, and you will know their rules and schedule at their house.” If you’re not yet able to talk to your ex, either on the phone or face-to-face, there are several websites and smartphone applications to help you exchange information.
My ex-husband and I barely spoke for two years, communicating only via email and using an online calendar. It was often frustrating and definitely more laborious than a quick phone conversation would be, but it allowed us both the space we needed to deal with the situation in our own ways and let our kids simply enjoy the time they spent with both of us.
4. Wait before introducing your kids to a new partner
Children adapt to new situations, but bringing a new partner into the mix too soon can be confusing for them. “They are identifying and clarifying what marriage/long-term relationships mean, and they are grieving a failed relationship already with likely the two most important people in their lives,” explained English. “It’s awkward for any age of child — even grown-up children — to see their parent with someone new, so some time is important before actual introductions are made.” How long you wait before introducing a new partner depends on the age of your kids, their personalities and how much time has passed since the separation. I waited over four years, but primarily because it took that long to meet someone I could see in my (our) long-term future. Rather than have a fixed timeframe in mind, take it slowly, make sure you’re 100 percent sure about the relationship before your kids get involved and be vigilant about paying attention to any warning signs that your children aren’t comfortable with the development.
5. Remember to parent
Kids need rules, routines and discipline whether their parents are together or not. “You are not excused from this even if you only have your children on the weekends and have a hard time saying no to them,” said English. “Part of parenting is shaping and forming them through expectations, and of course, lots of love and rules and discipline are critical for personal, social and academic development.”
6. Look after yourself
It’s so important to focus on your own recovery post-divorce — and your children will reap the benefits of this too. “The best way a parent who has experienced divorce can help their children is to make sure they are doing better themselves so that they can be present and engaged,” said Miller Updike. As well as taking advantage of professional help if necessary and making time for friends, exercise and relaxation, positive opportunities for self-care with the children should be explored. Cooking with your kids is a great example of a self-care and recovery activity.
7. Don’t feel guilty about being happy
Ultimately, your children want you to be happy, so don’t feel guilty about showing that you are. Even if your kids are upset initially about the divorce, if they see that their parents are happier apart than they were together, they’ll be happier too. Don’t go on about how happy you are to be divorced, though. English suggests linking your happiness to your children by using phrases like, “I’m happy there is less stress and drama for you.”