Making plans: A guide to parenting arrangements after separation or divorce

Section 3: Parenting after separation—Focusing on your children

When you and the other parent were a couple, your interactions as a couple and as parents were bound together. After separation and divorce, you move away from the couple relationship, and you need to work at forming a new relationship as co-parents.

The key feature of co-parenting relationships is that they focus on what's best for the children. There are many kinds of co-parenting relationships. The nature of your co-parenting relationship will depend on many factors, including how well you and the other parent get along. For example, some parents are able to meet face-to-face to discuss the children. Others find this difficult and prefer to communicate by e-mail, only when necessary.

Some important elements of a co-parenting relationship are:

  • You and the other parent can only expect each other to do what is agreed to verbally or in writing.
  • Meetings between you and the other parent are relatively formal—they take place in a neutral location (for example, a coffee shop) at specific times, and you usually have a list of issues to discuss.
  • You and the other parent are not personally or emotional involved with one another.
  • You and the other parent share little personal information with each other, unless it is related to parenting.

The change from a couple to a co-parenting relationship won't happen right away. You will need to work hard at it. It may take a while before you and the other parent learn to communicate only as co-parents.

Sometimes when separated parents argue about their children it's really not about the children at all. Their arguments may really be about things that happened when they were a couple. They may just be trying to control each other through their children. You will need to work to separate your feelings about the other parent from your feelings about your children.

Caution:

If you're worried about your safety, a co-parenting relationship that requires you to work closely with the other parent may be a problem. In Section 6: Special Issues you will find suggestions about parenting schedules and decision-making approaches when there are ongoing safety concerns.

Some tips for working together

As you learn to co-parent, remember to:

  • work to put aside your anger and cooperate to put your children's needs first
  • be polite and treat the other parent with respect
  • avoid sarcasm, rudeness and insults

This can be hard, especially if you have strong negative feelings about the other parent. But if you treat the other parent with respect, they're more likely to listen to what you're saying.

You don't need to be friends with the other parent. You do need to find a way to work together as parents in your children's best interests.

Be prepared to have honest discussions with the other parent about your children. When you were a couple, you lived together and were able to take certain ways of doing things for granted. In a co-parenting relationship, you need to be clear about what you expect and who will do what.

For example, how often will you communicate with each other? Will this be by phone, by e-mail, or in person? Are you comfortable coming into each other's houses when you drop off your children? Or will you wait outside?

Think about the special occasions in your children's future—birthdays, special holidays (for example, Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid el-Fitr), their graduations. Will your children enjoy them if they're worried their parents are going to fight or make them feel guilty about spending time with the other parent? Or will they be more meaningful for your children if you and the other parent can put your differences aside and come up with a plan that puts your children first?

There are many professionals who can help you work on your co-parenting relationship. Counsellors, mediators and parenting coaches can help you find new ways to parent together.

How to improve your communication skills with the other parent

Working on positive communication skills can help you to address parenting issues. Here are some suggestions to help you communicate:

Prepare

Sometimes when we're worried or stressed, it's hard to remember everything we want to say. If there's something important that you want to talk to the other parent about, try writing your ideas down in point form. Writing your ideas down can also help you think through the issues.

Listen

Listening sounds easy, but sometimes we start talking before we've heard what the other person is saying. This can make the other person feel like they haven't been heard. It can also cause misunderstandings.

When you've been a couple, it can sometimes be very easy to jump to conclusions about what someone is going to say, based on your past experiences with them. It can also be very easy to "push each other's buttons." It's important to step back and put your assumptions aside.

Try to listen objectively to what the other parent is saying—not what you think they're going to say.

Try listening to everything the other parent says before:

  • deciding how you're going to respond
  • starting to speak
Use "I" statements

You can use "I" statements to express your needs and feelings about an issue. They can help you focus on how you see something rather than on blaming the other parent. "I" statements sound like:

I am really sad because Sarah tells me that she misses me. We are scheduled to have time together on Wednesdays, but now I am often working then. I would like us to work together to find a solution to this.

Avoid "you" statements, which focus on what you think the other parent has done wrong.

You won't let me see Sarah when I want to.

"You" statements can make the other parent defensive and make it harder to find solutions.

Restate

Restating or repeating what you believe the other parent has said can help you communicate.

It shows that you have listened. It can also show that you have understood what the other parent has said. Restating doesn't always mean you agree with what the other parent is saying. It just means that you have heard them.

This is what restating sounds like:

What I hear you saying is that you would like to spend more time with Sarah, but that Wednesdays are difficult for you because you're often working. You would like us to find a solution that will fit with your work schedule.

Focus on your child

Once everyone has been heard and you've identified the problem, it's important for both of you to work together to find a solution.

The focus of the discussions should be on what your children need and what's best for your children. How can you meet your children's needs? You also need to be practical and realistic. For example, when discussing the parenting schedule, you need to consider issues such as each parent's work schedule as well as transportation options.

If you focus on your children's needs, it can help to shift attention away from what each parent "wants" or is "giving up." While it may mean that you end up with an arrangement that is less convenient for you, it's important to do what's best for your children.

This is what focusing on your children sounds like:

I know that Sarah misses you. Let's look at the schedule for Sarah's activities to see if there is a way for her to see you more often.

It's helpful if you and the other parent encourage each other to offer solutions. It will be easier for both of you to agree to a decision that you've both been actively involved in making.

This is what encouraging more than one solution sounds like:

How do you think that we can arrange things so that Sarah sees more of you?

or

What do you think are some options for me to spend more time with Sarah?

When you're not able to communicate in person

If there's still a lot of conflict between you and the other parent, you may not be able to discuss issues in person. Instead, you might want to communicate:

  • by e-mail. This allows you to think about your response before you send it. If you're discussing an issue that could cause an argument, it may be helpful to draft your e-mail and then leave it for a while before sending it. E-mail can also provide a record of your agreements that you can refer back to as necessary. For some tips on using e-mail to communicate, see Appendix B, E-mail Etiquette.
  • with the help of a professional, like a mediator or counsellor.

Protect your children from conflict

One of the most important things you can do for your children is protect them from conflict between you and the other parent. The research is clear that low conflict between parents is critical to children's well-being after separation or divorce. Conflict creates a climate of tension that can be harmful to children. This is true even if there's no physical or emotional abuse.

This means that you and the other parent should treat each other with respect in front of your children.

If the conflict continues for a long time, it can cause stress, fear, and emotional and behavioural problems in children. For example, studies show that conflict between parents can affect:

  • how children do in school
  • children's physical and emotional health
  • children's social interactions—with you, other family members, their friends, and even later in life with their own spouses

Continuing conflict between their parents also sets a bad example for children. It doesn't show them how to solve disagreements in a healthy way. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Don't argue in front of your children.
  • Don't argue where your children can hear you.
  • Don't ask your children to carry messages between you and the other parent.
  • Don't try to punish the other parent by
    • denying them time with the children
    • denying their extended family time with the children
    • not paying child support.
  • Don't ask your children to take your side against the other parent.
  • Don't leave legal papers where your children can see them.
  • Don't tell your children about your problems with the other parent.
  • Don't use your children for emotional support.
  • Don't punish your children for misbehaviour by keeping them from seeing the other parent.

If you and the other parent disagree about an issue such as the children's vacation schedule, don't talk about it in front of the children. Instead, plan a time for you and the other parent to have a telephone conversation or agree to communicate by e-mail. If you're still not able to resolve the dispute this way, you may wish to ask for help from people like a counsellor, mediator, elder, religious advisor, or lawyer.

Nick in the middle

Nick's stomach churned as he listened to his parents voices rising. Things were heating up and he knew that another full-blown argument was just minutes away. He closed his bedroom door and turned up the music.

For as long as he could remember, his parents had been arguing. They had argued before the divorce. They had continued after the divorce. They argued about little things like Nick's bedtime. They argued about big things like who should pay child support.

The worst part was that they were constantly arguing in front of Nick. They argued on the front porch when he was picked up. They argued over the phone when he was trying to sleep. Once they had even argued at his school play! Nick had been embarrassed in front of the other kids, their parents and his teachers. It had taken him a long time to forgive them for that, but it didn't change anything. They just kept on arguing.

Nick was convinced that he was the reason they argued. After all, they were always arguing over him: where he would stay that night, who should pay for his piano lessons and who would drive him to school. What else could it be? He couldn't focus at school and had lost interest in playing the piano. He didn't invite friends over because he was afraid they would hear his parents screaming at each other. So, these days he spent most of his time in his room—alone.

Nick's favourite teacher, Mr. Adamson, noticed that he seemed unhappy and that his grades were dropping. One day, he asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk about. Nick was so glad to have someone other than his parents to talk to, that before he knew it, he had told Mr. Adamson all about his parents' arguments and how they made him feel.

With Nick's permission, Mr. Adamson called both of Nick's parents. He explained to them how Nick was feeling responsible for their arguments and how it was affecting him. It was hard for Nick's parents to hear what their behaviour was doing to him, but they began to see that it needed to change.

Later that week, his dad decided to call the family counsellor his doctor had recommended when he and Nick's mom had separated. At first, Nick's dad went alone, but after a couple of sessions, the counsellor encouraged him to ask Nick's mom to join them. Nick's mom was afraid the counselling session would turn into another argument, but she thought she should give it a try for Nick's sake.

Although it wasn't easy, they met with the counsellor a few times and came up with ways to keep Nick out of their conflict. They both agreed that no matter how angry they felt with each other, they loved Nick more, and they needed to focus on him. They decided that if there was a problem, they would communicate through e-mail or meet with the counsellor again to talk it through.

After those meetings with the counsellor, Nick's parents sat down with him and explained that he was not responsible for their divorce. They apologized for arguing in front of him, and told him that they both thought it might be a good idea for him to speak to a counsellor about how he was feeling.

Nick felt relieved that he wouldn't have to listen to the arguing anymore. He was sure that things would get better.

Games that parents sometimes play

Sometimes, parents put their children in the middle of their conflict without realizing it. Maybe you've heard stories about separating parents who use their children against each other.

Children already have to deal with a lot of changes. They don't need to be put in the middle of their parents' conflict, even if their parents don't always mean to do it. Parents who act this way are usually angry or feel they cannot communicate with the other parent. No matter why they do it, it can harm their children.

You don't want your children to be put in the middle of your conflict. So here are some examples of the kinds of behaviour you should avoid.

The child as the "prize"

When parents are in conflict, one of them may try to "win" by getting a child on their "side." The "prize" is getting their child to believe that they're in the "right" and that the other parent is "wrong." One of them might tell the child too much about the causes of the divorce. Or one parent might say negative things about the other parent.

Nobody wins if children are hurt. Over time, children may become angry with the parent who "won" at first. When children get older and understand more about what happened, they may feel they have been used.

The child as a "bargaining chip"

Sometimes one parent might threaten the other parent to get them to behave the way they want.

  • If you don't pay your child support, I won't let you see the kids.
  • If you don't tell me how you're using the money I give you, I'll stop paying child support.
  • If you don't stop seeing Quinn, I won't let you see the kids as often.

When parents act this way, they're probably focusing on their relationship with each other and not on their children.

The child as messenger
Sometimes, parents might not speak to each other directly. Instead, they might send messages with their children.
  • You tell your father that when you're at his place you need to get your homework done.
  • You tell your mother that her lawyer better stop calling me!

This puts the children in the middle of the conflict. It can make the children feel stressed and anxious. Instead, you need to communicate directly with the other parent about parenting issues. Try not to make your children a go-between.

Monica the messenger

Anika and Ramesh refused to talk to each other.

So when Anika had a message for Ramesh, she would give the message to their 12-year-old daughter, Monica.

"Tell your father he needs to pay for half of your school trip."

Ramesh did the same thing.

"Tell your mother not to let you stay up late on week nights."

Sometimes things became very complicated . . .

"If your father doesn't want to pick you up on Fridays then he needs to start driving you to class every other Tuesday and Wednesday."

Monica became confused and frustrated. Sometimes her mom or dad would get mad when she passed on the message. She hated doing it. She felt like her parents were getting angry with her. She was too young to be responsible for any of this. What did she know about money and schedules? What if she forgot something important?

One day, when Anika asked Monica to tell her father something, Monica shouted: "Why don't you just tell Dad yourself? You're the adult!"

Anika was shocked. She had thought that Monica was handling things O.K. Maybe she had been wrong.

It took her all day to work herself up to it, but Anika sent Ramesh an e-mail that night. She explained what had happened and suggested that they needed to talk to each other directly, rather than through Monica.

When Ramesh received Anika's e-mail he felt terrible. He realized that they had been putting their own feelings ahead of their daughter's. Ramesh agreed that they needed to put Monica's best interests first, even if communicating directly was more difficult.

They scheduled a telephone conversation every two weeks where they would only talk about Monica, and would communicate by e-mail in-between as necessary.

Communicating would still be tough, but it shouldn't be tough on Monica.

I spy

Sometimes one parent may ask a child lots of questions about the other parent:

  • Does your Mom have a boyfriend? Does he stay over all night?
  • Did your Dad get a new car?

This type of questioning puts children in a difficult position. They don't want to feel like they're tattling on their parents. These questions can also confuse children. They can make children wonder if the parent is actually doing something wrong. Besides, the information that parents get this way is often unreliable.

It's normal to be curious about other people. But, you need to make sure that you don't make your children feel like they're "telling" on Mom or Dad.

Spy Trap

Patrick felt awkward telling his dad the truth.

"Well? Does your mom have a new boyfriend or what? I just want to know," said Patrick's father.

Patrick's dad asked about his mother a lot. He would ask whether she was buying new furniture with "his" money, if she stayed out late at night, and what kinds of friends came to the house. He asked a lot of questions, even ones Patrick didn't know the answer to.

Patrick didn't want to say anything this time because his mom had asked him not to. He didn't want to break the promise he had made to his mother, but he didn't want to lie to his dad. Besides, his parents were divorced, so why was his dad asking?

Patrick loved his dad, but he felt stuck in the middle. Why couldn't his dad see how this was affecting him?

Disneyland parent

Of course parents worry about the effect of separation or divorce on children. Sometimes a parent may try to compensate for the divorce or show they love their kids by:

  • buying them expensive gifts
  • taking them on vacations or outings
  • excusing them from doing chores
  • excusing them from age appropriate limits and responsibilities, like curfew

While this may appear to make kids happy in the short term, it can have negative consequences. One parent may not be able to afford such expensive things and may feel guilty. The person buying the gifts sometimes can't afford them either.

Buying your children gifts won't make up for the divorce. Nor does it make up for time away from one of you.

It also doesn't help your children if you excuse them from chores and responsibilities either. Your children need you to provide them with structure and rules, and to help them to learn to be responsible. Your children expect this from you and part of your job as a parent is to help them eventually become responsible adults.

Put downs

Sometimes you or the other parent might put each other down in front of your children:

  • Your father just isn't reliable.
  • Your mother can never make up her mind.
  • Why did your dad take you to a hockey game? Hockey is so boring.

Even if you can't think of anything nice to say about the other parent, don't say negative things. Hearing you criticize their parent can make your children feel bad about the other parent. It can also make them feel like they're also being criticized.

Talking to your children about finances

Even in families where the parents are together, family members often can't afford to buy everything they would like. After separation, the income that supported one household is now divided into two households. This may mean that one or both households have less money to spend on things they would like.

When children ask for things or want to participate in activities, it's perfectly acceptable to explain that you can't afford it: "We can't afford that right now, honey."

But be careful not to talk to your children about money problems or blame the other parent for those problems. Don't say: "I can't afford to send you to hockey camp because your father left us and isn't paying child support."

Finances are an adult issue, and talking about them can make children feel burdened. Talking about money places them in the middle of parental conflict.

Ask yourself: How is our co-parenting relationship working?

  1. Do you see yourself in any of these "games"?
  2. What changes would you like to make to your interactions with the other parent to improve your co-parenting relationship?
  3. Identify a specific issue that you need to discuss with the other parent. Based on the communication tips outlined earlier in this section, under “Some tips for working together.”
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