The presumption in divorce in recent years is shared parenting. While a close to 50/50 split has been shown to be beneficial to children’s well-being, some children experience stress transitioning from home to home – especially if they witness conflict between their parents. It’s important for your kids to see you getting along with your ex without letting your emotions get in the way. Recently, I read an excellent article on Huffington Post Divorce by Jackie Pilossoph entitled Divorce Advice: Don’t Be Hurt When Your Kids Choose Dad which caused me to reflect on my own experience co-parenting for almost a decade.
After my divorce, my two children (now grown) spent close to equal time with both myself and their father. During a nine year period, they experienced many transitions including a new stepfather, stepmother, and the birth of their sister, who is now fifteen. My experience with shared parenting was positive because I observed my children maintain a close bond with both me and my ex and grow into successful adults. My research shows that adults raised in divorced families report higher self-esteem and fewer trust issues if they had close to equal time with both parents.
The following are suggestions based on my own experience, research, and advice from experts. First of all, it’s paramount that you gear your parenting plan to the age of your children and that you are consistent with it. At the end of this article I offer guidelines for parents with both younger and older children. Try your best to develop routines for them leaving and coming home when they are young. When they get older, you may not need these routines to be set in stone. Opening up lines of communication with your children about their parenting plan is beneficial because they’ll know what is expected of them and it can ensure smooth transitions.
It’s important to consider that your children may not have the wisdom, insight, and clarity to make decisions about spending time with both of their parents on their own and can benefit from your guidance. Researcher Robert E. Emery writes, “According to leading experts in developmental and clinical psychology, there really are only two critical aspects of parent-child relationships: love and parental authority.” Your role as a parent is to help your children adjust to divorce and setting boundaries, routines, and limits is an important aspect of parenting.
Let’s face it, communication with your ex is key to successful co-parenting. It’s a good idea to sit down with your ex and come up with a few strategies to encourage your children to cooperate with their “parenting time” schedule. For instance, you may decide to make different arrangements for drop off and pick up. Most importantly, it’s key that your children see that you and your former spouse are working together for their well-being.
Next, you may need to examine the “parenting time” schedule to make sure that it’s working for your children. For example, the younger child will adjust better if they are not transitioning between houses too frequently and adolescents usually want more control over their schedule due to school, activities, and time with friends. They may develop resentment toward you if they can’t make some decisions about their schedule.
Many children of divorce I’ve interviewed describe the pressure of loyalty conflicts. Lauren, a lively thirteen year old speaks candidly about her struggle to cope with divided loyalties since age nine. She recalls: “It was really hard to interact with both of my parents after their divorce. When they were saying nasty things about each other, I just never wanted to take sides.”
Loyalty conflicts can make some kids feel as if they don’t want to spend time with both parents. Lauren continues, “I felt like I had to keep my mom’s new boyfriend a secret because my dad didn’t have a girlfriend for awhile. When my dad asked me if my mom had a boyfriend I didn’t know how to deal with it so I said I wasn’t sure.” Lauren’s story reminds us that children should never be used as a messenger between their parents post-divorce. Let them enjoy their childhood and think about how you want them to remember you when they grow up.
Even though children don’t cause their parents’ divorce, they often feel responsible for their parents’ happiness. In some cases, they might side with one parent against the other parent, which can cause alienation or even estrangement. It’s important for your kids to see you getting along with your ex without letting your emotions get in the way. In What About the Kids? Judith Wallerstein cautions us that a serious problem exists when a child and a parent of either sex joins forces in an outright alignment against the other parent. Do your best to have a cordial, business-like relationship with your ex so that your children won’t experience intense divided loyalties.
Here are ways to help your child to be successful at living in two homes:
For the child under age 10:
- Reassure your children that they have two parents who love them. If they balk at going to their other parent’s home, you can say something like “Even though mom and dad aren’t married anymore we both still love you and are good parents.”
- Remind kids a few days ahead when they will be spending time with their other parent. This helps them anticipate the change and gives them an opportunity to adapt. Planning ahead and helping them pack important possessions can benefit them. However, keep items to a bare minimum. Most parents prefer to have duplicate items for their kids on hand.
- Do your best to encourage your younger child to adhere to their parenting time schedule – being consistent with their schedule will help your kids feel secure.
- Attempt to show enthusiasm about their visit with their other parent. It’s important to put your differences with your ex aside and to promote your children’s positive bond with them.
For children over age 10:
- Allow for flexibility in their schedule. At times, teens may have difficulty juggling their busy life with school, extracurricular activities, friends, and jobs if they start working.
- Avoid giving them the impression that being with their friends is not as important as spending time with you.
- Plan activities with them that might include their friends at times – such as sporting events or movies.
- Respect your teens need for autonomy and relatedness. Dr. Emery writes, “Teenagers naturally want more freedom, but they also want and need relationships with their parents, though your adolescent may be unwilling to admit this."
Finally, recognize that your ex is your children’s parent and deserves respect for that reason alone. Modeling cooperation and polite behavior sets a positive tone for co-parenting. When children are confident of the love of both of their parents, they will adjust more easily to divorce. Keeping your differences with your ex away from your children will open up opportunities to move beyond divorce in the years to come.
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