CO-PARENTING CHILDREN AFTER SEPARATION/DIVORCE OR IN CASES WHERE PARENTS NEVER GOT MARRIED.
I was seated playing with children and listening to their stories. When it was Karla’s turn to tell her story, she narrated how she had fun and enjoyed the many places that her daddy had taken her to tour. She told stories of places they had visited and how she felt sad having to leave dad after staying in his house for three days- after three days she had to come home to a mother who never liked her daddy.
Karla’s parents had separated when she was 6 years and mom had refused her to see daddy because he was not paying her upkeep on time. Mom had asked Karla to tell her daddy that he was not allowed to pick her until he paid her upkeep in advance. Karla felt sorry for the dad because he was good to her yet mom shared very bad things about the dad every time Karla Inquired why daddy wasn’t picking her.
Whenever Karla got home, her mother wasn’t pleased with her because she would come crying and saying she wanted to stay more with dad. The mother had to talk with Karla asking her to stop being ungrateful for the sacrifices she made by wanting to follow the father who had been out of her life for two years and had only started co-parenting when Karla was 9 years.
When Karla was calm, the mother asked her so many things about her dad –Did dad have any woman coming to his house? Did he frequently talk to anyone? In all those places he took you, were there any female friends who accompanied him? It was very difficult to answer these questions because; she did not want to betray dad and also did not want to lie to mom.
Some of these experiences from Karla are typical in many single parented families where co-parenting occurs. Co-parenting is the process where two parents work together to raise children even if they do not live together.
How can two parents co-parent peacefully?
Both parents need to avail themselves for the children.
When a couple separates/divorces or have never been married, children need both parents for proper development. No parent can take the place of the other. When a residential parent has not healed from the wounds of divorce, co-parenting becomes difficult because they expect their children to understand that the ex-spouse caused them pain and so not desire them as parents- that is very unhealthy because the nonresident parent is important as you- the resident parent.
The nonresident parent may also distance themselves from the children as they get busy with their new life, working, meeting friends or simply because they feel unproductive as parents. There is a temptation to feel like they are not making any contribution in the lives of children especially when children are well kept by the resident parent.
The visits by the nonresident parent communicate stability, wellness and worthiness to the children. When a parent withdraws, children are left wondering whether they did anything wrong, if the parents love them and this keeps them in a state of loss. Continuous grief not only affects child development but also keeps them in a state of instability.
How will co parents help their children from the feeling that one parent is better than the other?
While parents cannot fully eliminate this feeling in their children, they do not need to deliberately intensify it. What co parents need to do is not to compete for the position of better parent against each other, it is to show togetherness in parenting their children into productive adults.
Sometimes, the resident parent is caught up in the feelings of being overburdened with children responsibilities and while this may be factual, it does not mean the other parent is not doing their best. It only means that children cannot be in two places at the same time. When a resident parent feels overwhelmed and over-burdened, they need to find a safe space to ventilate. Sharing with your children only makes them lost for who to be loyal to between you and the non-resident parent.
The non-resident parent may feel the need to compensate their lost time by providing more entertainment, providing more junk food and allowing children to get away with indiscipline. This is more harmful than beneficial. What children need from the non-resident parent is to be loved and to be valued and this is possible with just the parent being available to play, interact and do things both the parent and children enjoy.
To avoid extremes in parenting, let co-parents agree on the basic parenting rules such as the discipline methods to be used, sleep times, methods of entertainment and also the kind of meals to be given to children. These simple rules provide consistency to the children.
How do co parents deal with conflicts without affecting their children?
Co-parents need to bring the spousal relationship to an end and remain with only parenting relationship. This means that no parent needs to rely on the other for emotional support, or for the meals, laundry for companionship, for daily updates etc. While feelings of sexual attraction resurface from time to time, acknowledge them as normal but do not act on them.
To help make co-parenting relationship more defined, method of communication should be agreed, when and how to communicate needs to be clearly agreed too. Unannounced visitations and unexplained calls are very damaging and the source of conflicts because the one being visited feels violated in terms of their private space.
Unless in cases where reconciliation is being sought, do not spend time discussing relationship progress with your ex-spouse, the new man or woman in their life or if they are dating and preparing for marriage. While it is natural to get hurt especially if your ex-spouse is getting married, it is healthy to acknowledge that they are not the ones hurting you- it is just that such development makes you begin the journey of grieving the lost relationship all over again and this time to someone else.
Keep away from gossip that is usually passed by the people around the circles of a co-parent. This gossip can cause bitterness and resentment and make co-parenting impossible. Make deliberate decision to handle your ex-spouse with respect, when you feel they do not deserve your respect, remind yourself that your children require healthy parents.
How do co-parents support their children to deal with loss?
Co-parents need to grieve their own losses and heal. It is only a healed parent who has capacity to support a child long term. In the initial stages when the co-parents are grieving, it is okay to open the channels of communication where you allow children know that it’s okay to feel bad about the divorce, it’s okay to feel sad, it’s okay to miss the non-resident parent, it’s okay to miss their friends (in case the location has changed) and that from time to time, you too miss your ex-spouse.
It is okay to allow the children to talk and ask the questions that bother them. Answer as honestly as possible without giving adult information. An example would be, when a child asks about the other parent’s new family, just let them know Dad or mom loved someone else and therefore started new family with them. Information such as daddy had infidelity issues on mum or mum was cheating on daddy is too complex and damaging to the child.
When children volunteer to take the role of mediator during conflicts, thank them but do not allow them. Let them know that the co-parents will work around things and that they (the children) do not need to worry. Do not refuse the co-parent from visiting the child because they have delayed upkeep-your children need the stability the other parent brings and so they do not understand such details.
Do not mistake children’s tantrums, bed-wetting, defiance, withdrawal as rebellion that deserves punishment. One parent leaving the life of the child is hard enough, what they need is to be listened to and supported. Ask them what is making them sad, throw tantrums etc. Let them know unless they communicate you may not know how they feel. When they share validate their feelings and assure them you are there for them. If they do not share, be patient with them.
When you feel that the behavior is persisting, calmly remind the children rules and let them know the consequences should they not follow. Do not make them feel guilty if they are happier on the days of visitation by the non-resident parent. Do not allow self-doubt on your abilities as a parent, unless you have good reasons for that. Allow the children to go through their process, their own way.
When you realize that the children are not improving and that after separation, there are significant changes, and the child is not making positive progress, have them taken through the healing process by a professional therapist.
By Joan Kirera-family therapist. For more visit www.joankirera.com: Facebook: joan kirera, YouTube: joan kirera