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The secrets to successful co-parenting

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Little girl running to see Dad

Learning to co-parent with an ex-partner can be exhausting, infuriating and a challenge to overcome built up resentments, but for the minority who manage it well the rewards are great.

Co-parenting, sometimes called joint parenting or shared parenting, is raising children as a single parent after separation or divorce. It requires the difficult task of empathy, patience and open communication for success.

Dr Rachael Sharman, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of the Sunshine Coast, says about 20% of parents in broken relationships manage to establish an amicable co-partnership model.

“In this model the child’s needs are put first and the parents’ are put second. That’s tough because in these circumstances parents can be quite self-absorbed,” she says.

“Successful co-partnered parents keep any disagreements right out of the way of the children. Nothing occurs within earshot. There’s no denigration of the other partner either behind their back or in front of them.

“They also support the relationship between the child and the other parent.

“You don’t have to be best friends, but you show no signs of animosity either.”

Sharing the news with children

Dr Sharman says the journey towards successful co-parenting starts at sharing the news.

She says children under the age of five have a limited understanding of relationships but will notice the absence of a parent and may suffer separation anxiety.

“What they will notice is that Dad leaves and doesn’t come back for a long period of time (days feel much longer to a five-year-old), or that they’re suddenly being shunted between two homes. The primary issue here will be separation anxiety.

“Explain the situation in the simplest possible terms. ‘Mummy and Daddy are living in two different houses now. One week you will live with Mummy and the next with Daddy, but you can phone (the other parent) every day, and you will always have teddy (favourite toys) with you at both houses’.

“As the child moves between homes, you may see some unwillingness to leave and have them dig their heels in, alongside some spectacular tantrums.

“Often they say they don’t want to leave toys or the family dog. You may even get strange complaints parents haven’t had before.

“With toddlers there’s a lot of crying. Four and five-year-olds still might tantrum and argue about leaving or what time they’re leaving, particularly if they’re having a good time.

“Going up against the no’s and tantrums is horrible when the child doesn’t want to separate and that is a completely reasonable thing not to want to do. All you can do is reassure the child they can ring the other parents any time and take their favourite toy and continue their activity back at the house they are going to. They have Skype and Facetime if they want more contact during the week to keep the channels open to them.”

I recommend choosing a very good friend or two, who perhaps themselves have been through divorce, as your ‘divorce buddies’. Have them available so you can have a good vent and air your frustrations - at all times out of earshot of your children.
Dr Rachael Sharman

Telling educators and carers

Dr Sharman says it’s important to arm educators and carers with information about the separation or divorce so they’re aware of the changes in the child’s circumstances.

“Children's separation anxiety is very likely to spill over into day-care/kindy and their teacher needs to know the reason why. 

“Definitely talk to the child’s teacher or primary carer. If it’s a separation pull them aside in the morning and just say, ‘My partner and I are getting separated. In case you see any behaviours you’re not sure of, that’s what is going on at home’.

“Early educators see this stuff all the time sadly, and they will know what the behaviours are to keep an eye out for.

“Also, let the centre know of any custody arrangements as most will require any specific court-ordered arrangements to be provided to them in writing.”

Avoid involving children in your emotions

Dr Sharman says going through separation and divorce is highly emotional but it’s important to find ways to express your emotions without involving your children.

“I recommend choosing a very good friend or two, who perhaps themselves have been through divorce, as your ‘divorce buddies’.  Have them available so you can have a good vent and air your frustrations - at all times out of earshot of your children.

“I’ve seen this done a couple of different ways. I’ve seen people talk about their divorce up and down the corridor at work and if that’s your process that’s fine, but other people are more private.

“Email at night. Even if it’s a text to your divorce buddy at night after the kids have gone to bed. Your divorce buddy might have some really good advice and it keeps it away from your kids and that’s what is really important.

“You just have to take the high road and be vigilant in not appearing distressed, upset or venting about your situation.  Use your time with your children to focus on them, not your ex.”

Making rules and expectations

Dr Sharman says some of the traditional sticking points between parents as they try to negotiate co-parenting agreements include time with children, finances, medical or schooling issues.

She says the time leading up to the divorce being made official and any associated court orders is usually the most difficult.

Dr Sharman says if parents can agree on rules and expectations and keep them consistent between homes, this can provide some sense of stability and familiarity.

“You should sit down with your co-parent and agree on a set of rules,” she says.

“Basic things like what time are they getting to school, do we do homework and what sport activities.

“I’ve seen parents have terrible fall outs over what the children are having for dinner. ‘This is the kind of nutritional experience they will have at home. How long will they watch TV and what kinds of programs.’ People who do this will nut this stuff out and work out the basic ground rules between them so the child has consistency.”

Try to avoid further radical life changes

Dr Sharman also suggests that parents avoid introducing further “disrupters” onto the scene.

“It takes months to years for children to process and feel secure in their new family structure. Introducing a new boy/girlfriend into that mix soon after this upheaval, or engaging in radical lifestyle changes is highly insensitive at best.  

“Understand that your desire to move on and reinvent yourself might not be appreciated by children who need time to grieve the loss of their family unit and adapt to your and their new situation.  

“Most psychologists recommend not even introducing a new boyfriend/girlfriend until the separation is at least one year old; and you have been dating this person for a year at least and see this as a serious relationship.”

Mediation services for separating families

Dr Sharman says if negotiations break down it is best to communicate on these issues through a mediator.  Relationships Australia offers mediation services for separating families. 

“Try to avoid involving lawyers or the family court.  You need to understand our court process is based on an adversarial system and will not be looking at your scenario from the best interests of the child.  It should only ever be used as an absolute last resort.  If you cannot negotiate, mediate.

“In mediation you are usually assigned a mediator and you can discuss your concerns privately and they meet with you and your partner to keep the conversation on track. They will help you come to an arrangement that both parties can live with. They will keep you on task not let you drift off on past grievance with that person.”