For many, the initial months following a separation or divorce are some of the most painful and difficult they will experience. When you add children to the equation, it can be difficult to cope with day-to-day life, let alone the enormous task of orchestrating shared childcare arrangements for the next five, 10 or 15 years.
In this haze of hurt feelings and self-doubt, the term co-parenting may be hard to accept – yet another thing that you aren’t doing right – but in reality it is just a way of helping you communicate better with your ex about the important decisions in your child’s life.
Whether you are at the beginning of this difficult process, or right in the thick of it, these six steps to successfully parenting children of divorce can help you ensure that your health, and that of your children, remains paramount.
Don’t create a ‘villain’ – There may be a rage burning inside you that’s hotter than a thousand suns, but there is never a good reason to share that rage with your children.
You might have excellent reason to be angry with your ex partner, and you are well within your rights to both feel and express those emotions, but there is a time and a place, far away from little impressionable ears.
By criticising or blaming their other parent you are only punishing your child; they will always love their Mum and Dad, and the healthier their relationship is with both of you, the healthier and happier they will be.
Even if you think your ex is a ‘bad parent’, it is your responsibility to support and encourage that relationship, for the sake of the kids.
Use a parenting plan – There are a number of different kinds of parenting plans available – Splitting Up? Put Kids First might be a good place to start – and they are especially effective for those finding it difficult to communicate.
Plans can be used to manage and monitor child-care arrangements, negotiate compromises, or just organise your own thoughts.
Online services are particularly useful for those who can’t even be in the same room as their ex, as all decisions can be made remotely and emotions are less likely to impact judgement.
The best thing about a parenting plan is that it focuses your attention onto the well-being of your children, and separates childcare arrangements from all the other messy stuff.
Talk to friends and family – As highlighted in Step 1, it is completely natural to feel angry, depressed, guilty, jealous, insecure, and a dozen other extreme emotions at this time, even if you are sure you have made the right decision.
While keeping conflict away from your children, it is really important that you share your feelings with someone, and take as long as you need to grieve for the relationship you have lost.
For some this might mean seeing a professional counsellor, for others it will mean making an extra effort to see friends and family and being really honest about your feelings.
Crying, shouting and dramatically tearing up photographs is OK! They will understand. Bottling things up, or punishing yourself for your emotions, will only make matters worse. Own your feelings – they are nothing to be ashamed of.
Be kind to yourself – Probably a tip to be heeded by everyone, whether going through separation or otherwise.
So often we forget to look after ourselves, and extend the same kindness to our own bodies and minds that we do to those we care for.
Whether you enjoy a long hot bath, a game of golf, or a fancy meal, it’s really important that you give yourself a break and a ‘treat’ when going through a difficult time.
Treats like nine pints, family-sized chocolate bars and expensive shopping channel sprees are not ideal – this is about caring for yourself, in the same considerate way that you care for your children.
Compromise for everyone’s sake – Co-parenting is not a competition and sometimes, as with any relationship, you might have to agree to a decision that was not your first choice. Anger, resentment and pride can make separated parents feel as though they must fight to the death over every detail of childcare arrangements, but if you always put the needs of the children first, then these disagreements can usually be turned into compromises.
If there is something that you absolutely cannot agree on, you could try to suggest a completely new option, one that neither of you feels ownership over. Remember that your parenting plan is not set in stone, and things will change and grow over time, so agreeing to a less than ideal arrangement now is not necessarily permanent.
Take a deep breath – When emotions are running this high, it can be almost impossible to hear someone else’s point of view over the sound of your own teeth grinding, but you have to really listen to your ex partner in order to make the best possible decisions for your kids.
The above mentioned parenting plan has some useful videos to help improve communication during difficult conversations.
You can also try the ‘uninterrupted’ technique, in which you each have a few minutes to speak while the other person stays completely silent and listens. This is often easier said than done, but actively listening instead of concocting your comeback allows for a much more frank and constructive discussion so that you and your ex can settle the issue at hand and move forward.
Though these steps are a guide, nobody is perfect, and we all hit speed-bumps during difficult times. Forgive yourself freely for (often self-identified) mistakes made along the way, and try to remember that things will get better in time, especially if you and your ex partner focus on the children’s future instead of what has happened in the past.
Penny Mansfield CBE, is Director of OnePlusOne, a UK research charity that helps strengthen relationships.
She is a sociologist specialising in qualitative research on marriage and couple relationships and on evidence-based practice and policy. She is a frequent speaker at conferences and a regular contributor to both print and broadcast media. She is also a member of the Department of Health Expert Group for the Healthy Child Programme and of the Department for Work and Pension’s Ministerial Steering Group for family support services.
For more information and help in getting your parenting plan together or amended to suit all of you go to – www.splittingup-putkidsfirst.org.uk