Parenting is an exercise in organisation, communication, and flexibility at the best of times. Co-parenting, particularly in blended families, is even more complicated. Throw in the stress of getting the kids from house to house, the range of emotions felt by all, the grief of separation as you say goodbye to your kids again, and you have a great big bowl of tricky.
Why is it important to work together when it comes to co-parenting after a separation? How do we get both houses operating in sync, and how can we help our children when they don’t? How do we wrangle our way through the myriad of co-parenting challenges?
Unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers to those questions. What works for you in your specific situation is going to be different to what works for any other family and its relationships between members. But I can give you some tips to help you navigate family relationships during these challenging times.
1. Put your children first
For many of us, particularly our children, separation is a difficult time. Grief is real. Anger and frustration, isolation and loneliness, they’re all happening. So be prepared for some big and challenging feelings from your little ones! Acknowledge how they feel. Be there for cuddles or chats.
And when your children are with their other parent, be sure to stay in contact. Support your co-parent to do the same. The more you can do this, the safer your children will feel.
Think outside the box when it’s not possible for your child to stay overnight with the other parent. How can they still have time together to develop their parent child relationship without putting the child in an unsafe position?
Our children’s needs are more important than our personal preferences. Which leads to the next tip…
2. Accept different parenting styles
We know that there is an ideal parenting style but this doesn’t mean that someone who doesn’t fit the ideal can’t do a great job of raising their kids. It is important to recognise if the fear of letting children stay with the other parent overnight (for example) is due to legitimate safety concerns, or rather due to feeling a sense of control over what they do there.
Some questions to consider – is being with their other parent destructive? Will it harm the child? Or is it simply a case of different rules or routines making you uncomfortable? How we talk to our children about this is important, respecting that each household has different rules, a different way of parenting, and that it’s okay. If your child is safe, let them go. The alternative is more fighting and broken relationships between parent and child.
3. Be calm and focus on connection
Your children are looking to you for guidance on how to feel and behave (yes, even your teens). Be calm when things don’t go to plan. The custody schedule may need to change due to new working from home arrangements. Your children may come home telling stories of staying up late when you’d prefer they had an early night. Whatever it is, take a breath before reacting. They’re watching you.
You might feel worried and out of control, but the more rational and calm you can be, the better your child will react to their own worries and fears. Focus on connecting with your child when they are with you and encouraging them to connect with their other parent. Consider having a photo of Mum in their bedroom, regular phone calls, responding positively when they tell you about their weekend with Dad.
4. Keep to regular routines within families
Family routines have been linked to improved resiliency, an extremely important skill when life is in disarray. It contributes to a feeling of safety, and wellbeing. When it comes to routine, things get kind of personal. Only you know how your family can function, what timeframes you’re working to, and who is available when and for what.
Take a few minutes and work out what two or three things you can do to anchor your morning (or afternoon, evening) and ensure you hit your ‘time targets’. Perhaps you need the children moving at 7am? Or breakfast at 7am? Make those your priority and keep them as an anchor to ensure the day stays on track.
5. Develop a Co-Parenting Plan
To effectively determine care arrangements and parental responsibilities, a plan is important. Common sense decision making between two parents who put the needs of their children first is the surest path to success here. A plan will help to navigate the new relationship between you and your ex and set expectations to minimise miscommunication so you can effectively parent together.
Things to consider in the plan include a schedule for visitation, education, medical needs, financial support, managing special occasions (celebrations, holidays, etc), and guidelines for decision making and conflict resolution.
6. Be open and flexible
If arrangements can’t be met because of work, sickness or some other reason, be flexible. Use common sense to find solutions to challenges (such as make up nights for nights you miss out on with your children). And be sure to give the other parent plenty of notice and options to communicate.
Be open to these conversations, especially if you’re the parent being asked to adjust. Next time it could be your turn to make those requests.
7. When your co-parent won’t be flexible
As with all relationships, sometimes things go well… and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the other parent doesn’t want to work together. They won’t engage or be flexible. What do you do in this situation?
Seek a Court Order. If your co-parent refuses to engage or be flexible when it’s necessary, consider going to the courts. Your children’s health and safety are the most important things.
Do your best. Whether you’re working with an engaged co-parent or not, just do your best. It's our job as parents to protect our children as much as possible.
There isn’t one way to do things when it comes to co-parenting. Think outside the box. See if there’s a way you can set everyone up for success to ensure your child can have a strong relationship with both parents (while staying safe).
Finding the right balance will take time, patience, and plenty of healthy communication. Families can - and do! - adapt to co-parenting and all the challenges and rewards it brings. When both parents are able to put aside their differences and focus on working together in their family relationships, children have the space to develop and grow in positive and healthy ways.