As the saying goes, breaking up is hard to do but what a myriad of pop songs failed to address is just how much harder it can be when the ex is your child’s other parent. As Family Law specialists, we get a real insight into what works and what doesn’t when it comes to co-parenting with an ex. We have put together some of our top tips and tricks to help make co-parenting a whole lot easier.
We get it – the breakdown of a relationship can be stressful, traumatic and heartbreaking. The prospect of becoming BFFs with your ex is therefore unlikely to be high on your list of priorities. However, when a child is involved, we would encourage you to find a way to communicate with your child’s other parent. This does not necessarily mean that you need to pick up the phone, there are plenty of ways in which effective communication can take place in a format that works for you.
You may find a designated email address helpful to limit communication to one medium, and you are then in control of how frequently this is checked. Alternatively, a contact diary which travels with your child between homes has been helpful for lots of families, allowing each parent to write down any information which it would be helpful for the other to know – much like a school planner.
If you’re never without your iPhone, consider downloading a co-parenting app which can help you overcome the logistical challenges and ensure that both you and your ex have details of your child’s other commitments at your fingertips. If you’re able to share a calendar of all the birthday parties, school plays and sports fixtures that your child is committed to, this minimizes the risk for conflict and confusion. Apps such as OurFamilyWizard or Cozi are some of our favorites and help make co-parenting work seamlessly.
What is co-parenting counseling?
For the bigger decisions, the discussions about your child’s education, health and working out arrangements that work for your family, consider whether you would be assisted by a family therapist or counsellor, or whether mediation may be appropriate. This in itself can take many forms, some of which do not require you to be face to face with your ex. If you prefer, communication can be facilitated between solicitors in the short to medium term and we can help you come up with strategies that work for you, with the aim of minimizing further stress and anxiety.
Effective co-parenting works best when you and your ex can get on the same team and present a uniformed approach to your child. If this is possible and you are able to agree what is in your child’s best interests, there is no need for either of you to apply to court in respect of the arrangements or issues concerning your child and you can simply live out the arrangements without further intervention.
However, if an agreed approach cannot be achieved, then it is open to either parent to apply to Court in respect of the child. In doing so, the child’s welfare will be the court’s paramount consideration. In an effort to avoid the potential stress and expense of litigation, a child focused approach from the outset is always recommended.
Be flexible (when you can)
Consistency and stability are key particularly in the early stages of separation to establish a routine. Depending on your child’s age, there are likely to be many weeks, months and years of co-parenting ahead of you and affording the other parent some flexibility is likely to pay dividends when it comes to establishing a positive co-parenting relationship for the years to come.
This also demonstrates to your child that you are willing to be reasonable and supportive of their relationship with the other parent, which is likely to have a positive impact on their self-esteem (and their relationships with both parents). So if there is a family wedding on your ex’s side on your weekend, consider letting them go even if it means they spend less nights with you that week. It is healthy for your child to have good relationships with extended family on both sides – and they may feel they are missing out on family fun if you insist on sticking to the letter of the agreement. In the long term, this can cause upset and resentment, even if the decision was made with the best of intentions.
It is however possible to have too much of a good thing, and if your ex is constantly asking you to change your plans under the guise of flexibility, then consider whether they are in fact trying to undermine the agreement you have reached. If that is the case, you could either refuse the proposed changes or instead suggest that you both re-consider the arrangements, in light of the fact that they are clearly not working as intended.
Also remember that flexibility needs to be mutual, you shouldn’t always be the parent compromising.
Keep your child out of adult conversations
There is the temptation to pass messages through your child in an effort to avoid communicating directly with your ex (see point 1 above). This is very rarely a good idea and puts your child in the middle of what should be an adult conversation. Asking your child to act as the negotiator in your relationship is too heavy a burden to put on them and puts them at the centre of the conflict.
It is also important to be mindful of the adult conversations which your child may overhear. Try to remember that the other parent is a part of them and part of their identity. Hearing you criticise their other parent is likely to be upsetting and lead them to feel insecure and question their own self-worth. Blowing off steam can be a helpful coping mechanism to deal with the challenges of co-parenting, but ensure you are doing so in a child free zone.
Set boundaries and aim for parenting consistency
Particularly for the bigger decisions. Whilst your child going to bed half an hour later than they would at your house is probably not the end of the world, an overall consistent approach avoids confusion for your child.
The rules do not have to be exactly the same in each household, but your child should know what the basic boundaries and expectations are. For example, there should be a uniformed approach to when homework will be done, what video games are appropriate and whether a mobile phone is allowed. Where possible, try to ensure that you discipline your child in a similar way, so that they know that they face the same consequences regardless of whose house they are in. This can avoid parents being played off one another.
It may also be helpful to set some boundaries with your ex. For example, some parents prefer to agree a timeframe for when new partners are to be introduced to their child. Other parents prefer to exercise their own judgment as to when this is appropriate. If there are factors which are important to you to allow you to co-parent effectively, discuss these with your ex from the outset.
Accept that it is challenging and remember to respect each other
There are times when co-parenting will be challenging. It is okay not to always like each other, as long as you continue to respect each other as parents. Try to recognise that you will both play an important role in your child’s life and value the positive contributions that you both make, no matter how small.