Like many of you, I'm a co-parent... collaborating with my ex-husband to raise our three kids, who were under the age of 13 when we first separated. Just like parenting with a live-in spouse or partner, co-parenting has its joys -- and its challenges. In my view, though, co-parents have an extra responsibility to their children given the family rupture. Here are four reasons why effective co-parenting matters more than ever.
Kids are acutely vulnerable post-divorce, so their security and attachment needs must be paramount. Let's face it: Separation and divorce mark an unprecedented transition for children. The ground underneath their feet has shifted irrevocably, and it's impossible for them to know that things will work out -- no matter how much you and your co-parent reassure them. Your child's reasoning goes something like this: "If Mommy and Daddy can stop loving one another, they can stop loving me."
Kids can't wait until the dust settles. Immediately post divorce, especially the first six months, everyone is raw. I've had parents describe feeling as if they're drowning -- and utterly incapable of keeping anyone else afloat.
But keeping your kids above water is non-negotiable, because they are more vulnerable than ever as they try to figure out the new normal for their lives -- now that we've changed the rules.
I'm not saying your needs don't matter. I believe parental self-care matters big-time. I often tell clients that you cannot take care of your children at the expense of yourself. Divorce is an emotionally wrenching experience, and you may need to turn to therapists, family and friends for support more than usual. On the other hand, you cannot and must not take care of yourself at the expense of your children. You are entitled to your feelings -- but they cannot be your children's problem, nor can they supercede your childrens' needs.
As co-parents, we have to learn how to deal with our personal crisis on our own time - and find ways to manage our feelings and emotions when we're parenting so we can be there for our kids.
You only get one chance to do this right. Here's the Truth with a capital T: When it comes to the transition immediately post-separation or divorce, you don't get a second chance to provide much-needed stability for your kids.
Their lives have been upended -- physically, emotionally, familially. Your kids don't necessarily believe what you say - they believe what you do and what they experience. So be particularly vigilant about the following:
• Try not to add anything or anyone new to your lives at this juncture; there's plenty "new" to attend to
• Do not use your kids as a go-between for communicating with your co-parent
• Do not argue or fight with your co-parent in front of the kids - or disparage her or him in any way
• Establish clear expectations and limits your kids can depend on, no matter what (more on this in a moment)
No one is expecting perfection. You and your co-parent will make mistakes, but if you make effective co-parenting your priority, you and your kids will recover from them.
Kids need clear expectations and limits -- immediately post-divorce more than ever. Kids can thrive in tough environments, but during times of strife they need even more consistency, external structure and limits. Here are some priorities in this regard:
• Agree on the "red rules" that stem from the core values you share - -rules both co-parents follow at both households
• Make the big decisions - -e.g., medical issues, religious celebrations and school concerns -- together as co-parents
• Be consistent in how inappropriate behavior is addressed. Letting behavior slide that pre-divorce would not have been tolerated is detrimental to your kids' stability
• Eliminate worry and anxiety for your kids by establishing and sticking to a routine for household and "stuff" transfers
Parenting can be hard for everyone on the best of days. When co-parents stay aware and alert to their children's needs post-divorce -- ensuring they are well-adjusted and feel safe - life is easier and more stable for everyone.