For parents, divorce is not the end of the couple’s journey together. While the relationship may have changed from loving to hostile, parents don’t have the same luxury of leaving behind the relationship that childless couples do. This is because the co-parenting relationship continues for as long as children are in the picture.
For many children, divorce may be the first real crisis they experience. Divorce can have a deep impact on the child’s sense of safety — particularly if the conflict between both parents continues after the separation has been reached.
While it’s normal to experience conflicting feelings towards your ex after a recent breakup, it’s crucial that you keep your actions and reactions in check. Children (especially under the age of 10) are feelers – which means they have a heightened awareness of your emotions and are easily impacted by conflict. By taking the steps to co-parent with your child’s best interest in mind, it is possible to be divorced and also raise healthy, happy children. In fact, numerous studies show that it is not the act of divorce, but more so the way parents interact with each other during and after the separation, that leaves a long-lasting impact on the child.
So maybe you are in the middle of a messy separation right now. Or you are looking for ways to stay on track as you navigate the world of co-parenting. Either way, it’s never too late to support your kids to make it through this change in a healthy way.
Now, you may be asking yourself “How do I do this?” It might help to look at the relationship with your ex-spouse like a business partnership and treat the other parent as you would a respected business partner. Here are a few simple guidelines to co-parent effectively:
- Trash talk the other parent or complain to anyone who will listen
- Go to war on every dispute. Pick your battles!
- Withdraw and refuse to talk to the other parent
- Attempt to change the other parent instead of resolving the problem.
- Establish personal boundaries (i.e. avoid seeking emotional support or comfort from the other parent)
- Come up with clear rules around parenting and communication
- Become aware of your triggers
- Model the kind of behaviour you want to see from the other parent
Another important aspect of healthy co-parenting is allowing your children to have all of their feelings about this change. These feelings may range from sadness, confusion and anger, to relief and even excitement – two homes and multiple holiday celebrations can be fun! Don’t worry, ALL of these feelings are normal. No matter what they feel, the biggest gift you can offer them is a judgement-free zone to express those feelings and feel your support as they navigate how their life looks and feels different.
It can be difficult to hold space for others’ feelings (even when those other people are your own children) when you aren’t looking after your own needs. Just as your children need the space to feel supported – so do you, as you learn what it means to co-parent.
This is also a time of loss (of the life you once had) and change (to learning who you are in this new role and new life). In order to be a source of love and support to your children, you first need time to express your feelings, work through them and get clear on what is important (like which battles are worth fighting). Therapy can be an amazing space to do your personal emotional self-care so the best version of you shows up – with your ex, and your kids.
Some of these steps take time and effort but the result of sticking to them is well worth the trouble. By keeping to your commitment to co-parent well, your children will fare better – and may even gain from your separation. It can be an incredibly positive experience for a child to witness two people who are able to co-parent with respect and healthy communication; two people who separate but are working towards keeping the connection and kindness between all family members alive. Is it easy? Not always. Is it possible? Absolutely.
If and when things get overwhelming, a therapist (who is a neutral party, and a guide) can be extremely beneficial to helping you move through the process to become the kind of co-parent you want to be.