For Divorced and Separated Parents, A Plan Can Foster Cooperation
When a couple with children decides to separate, their romantic relationship may permanently dissolve but their role as parents continues. “Ironically, parents are called upon to work more efficiently together when they are separated or divorced than they were when they were married,” says Richard Brousell, a family therapist in Wilmington, DE.
Separated and divorced parents can still make a good parenting team. “Their relationship wasn’t great, but that doesn’t mean they can’t parent together,” says Stephanie Brooks, PhD, chair of the Department of Couple and Family Therapy at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Experts advise writing a plan that spells out each parent’s responsibility. Usually co-parenting plans outline decisions that will need to be made for the children (such as household rules, education, health care) and who will make them, how the parents will communicate with each other, and arrangements for time with the kids.
Crafting the Co-parenting Plan
“The most important thing is putting the kids first,” says Gale Pekar, a marriage and family therapist in Haddonfield, NJ. In creating the plan take the focus off issues that led to the divorce. “Ideally, people need to have a productive dialogue focused on the business of raising the child,” says Brousell.
“Early on, agree to be flexible,” “A written agreement is only necessary if there is a lot of conflict,” says Dr. Brooks. Keep in mind that this is a work in progress, so agree to have regular follow up and troubleshooting sessions. You will need to revise the plan as your children get older and their needs change. As kids enter their teens, allow for their input, taking into account their social lives and activities, when hashing out visitation times.
A major goal of the plan is to agree on what constitutes the big issues and what is just small potatoes. Both parents should agree when solo decisions are okay and when the other parent should be consulted before a final decision is made.
In implementing the plan, carefully pick your battles if you feel your ex is not following the agreement to a “T.” Before having a confrontation, ask yourself if the issue is really important or if you can let it slide. It might be necessary to surrender some control while your children visit your exit, advises Dr. Brooks. Because an oral contract can be more flexible, it is preferable to a written plan.
When designing your plan, keep in mind that “it works best when both parents have roughly the same rules between the two households,” says Brousell. Divorce is a very disruptive for kids, so it helps if things are consistent, he says. But you don’t have to do everything the same way.
“Parents lose sight of the fact that different people have different ideas about parenting,” says Pekar. Kids get a lot from the temperament and parenting style of each parent. “There are pros and cons to having these two homes, these two worlds,” says Dr. Brooks.
Kids usually learn to handle the split from a very young age. “As long as you keep the kids’ best interests at heart and don’t throw them in the middle of the conflict, they will handle the situation,” says Dr. Brooks. However, because of the inevitable differences in household rules, Dr. Brooks recommends giving kids a few hours to acclimate to the structure of your home when returning from the other parent’s home.
It’s Normal to Disagree
Parenting disagreements are normal, says Pekar. Addressing grievances in a timely manner will diffuse a lot of animosity, observes Brousell. You have to accept the fact that your ex is not parenting your way. “As long as they’re not negligent or abusive, you have to step back and let them be,” says Dr. Brooks.
If you get stuck in a disagreement, sometimes a third party, such as a counselor, a family member or a clergyman, can help. Your children should never be asked to mediate a conflict between parents. Seek help from a family therapist if you argue about the same thing over and over without resolution, or if you’ve lost your problem-solving abilities as a couple.
No matter how bleak it may seem from time to time, “there a lot of people who figure this out and they’ve been doing this for years,” says Dr. Brooks.
Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids.