Co-Parenting: “For the Sake of Our Children”
As Extension's Living Well week comes to a close, I want to thank all of you who emailed or called me concerning the theme, "Raising Kids, Eating Right, Spending Smart, Living Well." Several excellent ideas were suggested for future columns in the coming months, including co-parenting children through and after a divorce.
"Half of all U.S. kids are the children of divorce," writes Jeannette Lofas, President and Founder of the Stepfamily Foundation in the 2003 article, "Co-Parenting for the Sake of Our Children" for Family Information Services of Minneapolis, MN. "...If we don't do a better at parenting post divorce, I believe the outcome will be frightening consequences for the future of our country." She advocates parents must be educated to the vital importance that their relationship plays in the development of their children.
Jeanette's work with thousands of divorced couples and stepparents over the years has led her to believe that Co-Parenting Agreements should be a required legal agreement after every divorce. She suggests the following ten rules for successful co-parenting (during) and after divorce.
- Have and keep an exact schedule of visitation hours. Children are confused by separation, divorce, and all the new rules of living apart. Typically, they really miss the absent parent and want their old family back. The most important thing parents can do is to continue to nurture their children and provide structure. Honor family routines and rituals for meal times, naps, playtime, and bedtimes so that children experience some feelings of stability and continuity. Plan a schedule for children to spend time with the other parent and keep to it.
- Speak positively about (don't badmouth) the other parent. When parents say mean and unkind things about the other parent, children feel like they are being put down as well. The Donny Poem by Lofas and Roosevelt in the 1975 book, Living in Step, illustrates this point beautifully.
My Mom says, "My Dad is no good."
My Dad says, "My Mom is no good."
So, I must be no good!
- Remember that parenting is forever! Only "ex-spouses" exist, not "ex-parents." Children need to know that their relationship with BOTH parents will continue, whenever possible.
- Know and use "emotional etiquette" when talking to an "ex" within earshot of a child. Show understanding of a child's general confusion and lack of understanding of what is happening. Don't add to the stress by talking about "grown up" issues in his/her presence. Imagine what the child is experiencing and understanding with his/her limited abilities to express thoughts and feelings.
- The child should NOT experience and partake in negative feelings about the "ex." Children are already adversely affected by divorce without this added type of stress. Babies and toddlers typically have changes in sleeping and eating patterns, and cry more. Two and three-year-olds often display frequent emotional shifts, playing happily one minute and screaming the next. Older children have more nightmares. Help ALL children have a secure attachment with the other parent and do not force them to choose sides.
- Children should NOT be pumped for information about the other parent after visits. Children are not pawns in a game. Respect the privacy of the other household. Really listen if the child needs to talk.
- Children are NOT to be used as messengers for anything. Children do not want to feel pressured should they say something wrong and mess something up. Deliver messages personally. Talk about and agree on matters that relate to the child's needs so he/she feels important and loved.
- Check with the other parent(s) about clothes and needed supplies. Keep other relatives, child care providers, and babysitters informed about needs and family changes so that they can understand how to best care for the children.
- Keep promises to child(ren). Give children the guiding love they need to succeed in this world. Reassure them of your love and commitment by doing what you say you will. Really LISTEN to what they have to say. Know that children want and need boundaries and to do the right thing. They will test your parental authority. That's their job. Set firm and loving limits.
- Be on Time. Fifteen minutes can seem like an entire afternoon to a young child. Minds race and anxiety builds when a parent is not there when expected. Call if lateness cannot be avoided. Give your child enough time to say good-bye to you and warm up to the other parent when it is time to leave.
Remember "You can't change other people, you can only change yourself." What changes can you make to so that life is less stressful on you and your ex-spouse/partner? Dr. Jean Comeau, editor of Family Information Services materials, writes that if everyone has the attitude of ... "Why should I be the one to change?" then everyone stays "stuck." It takes courage and wisdom to work to make things better – even when we may not get our complaints heard or fixed first. Generosity of spirit offers big payoffs in relationship quality and peace."
Excellent Extension resources on helping children understand and adjust to divorce are at http://www.muextension.missouri.edu/xplor/hesguide/humanrel/gh6600.htm. Contact me at 217-333-7672 or firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like copies and I will be happy to send them.
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