If you separate from the other parent of your child, more often than not you will still need to interact and co-parent with that individual. There are many things that can go wrong when co-parenting. Here are five of the most common mistakes parents make and some suggestions for what you can do when you make these mistakes:
1. Losing your temper
One of the hardest parts of co-parenting after separation is learning how to put aside your own emotions and focus solely on your children and their needs. Every parent has lost their temper. Aside from your children, your co-parent knows how to push your buttons like no other person. There will be times when they say and do things that set off your triggers, cloud your judgement and your ability to be mindful of your behavior and emotions. Sometimes this will be your fault, sometimes theirs.
What can you do? When you’re the one in the wrong, say so. Always apologize, even if the other parent doesn’t reciprocate when they are in the wrong. Not only will this take the fuel out of the fire, you will be showing your children how to deal with conflict and the importance of being able to admit when you are in the wrong. An added bonus is that you might start building some bridges and your co-parent might model similar behavior. Try to avoid conflict by keeping conversations limited to parenting and try to avoid being pulled into an emotionally charged conversation about past wrongs. Try to really listen to the other parent’s point of view and if you still disagree, then work to find a compromise that works for both of you.
2. Creating a power struggle
After divorce or separation, emotions are charged. There are times when even the most well-intentioned parent will use their child as a way of getting back at their ex. Often parents compete to be the “fun” parent by breaking rules or buying gifts. We all want to make our children happy and staying up late to eat ice cream or a taking trip to the toy store are both quick and easy ways to achieve this. Another common mistake is refusing to compromise when it comes to requested changes to the parenting schedule. Parents often justify rejecting these special requests as “unreasonable” or complain that they weren’t given enough notice. Point scoring between parents is an easy trap to fall into and sometimes it can be hard to recognize this behavior in yourself.
What can you do? New toys or possessions are not a very good replacement for your time, love and attention. Kids will see through this very quickly and either judge you for it or manipulate you (or both). What kids really need from you is love, stability, consistency, and a positive parenting relationship between you and the other parent. Try to be flexible wherever possible if the other parent needs to change the schedule or wants to see the kids on their birthday, for example. Always try to put yourself in their position and think about what you would want if the tables were turned.
3. Using your child as a messenger or asking your child to choose sides
A common mistake by separated parents is to communicate through their children. After your divorce or separation is finalized, it is understandable if you want to have as little contact with your ex as possible, but your parenting relationship will continue for some time and there are still things you need to communicate about. It’s easy to see your child as a way to pass messages between you and the other parent and it can seem harmless enough to ask them to pass a note or tell them you are going to be late for pick-up today. But you are literally putting your child in the middle and asking them to be mature enough to deal with the emotional response from the other parent. It is also showing your child that there is still conflict between the two of you and your child will inevitably feel torn. Another trap parents fall into is asking your child to choose a side when there is a scheduling conflict or who to spend Christmas with this year. You may think you are being fair by giving them the choice but you are putting the responsibility on your children to make your adult decisions.
What can you do? This is a simple rule to follow: never ask your children to convey a message to the other parent or to communicate on your behalf. Find a way to communicate that works for you: if you can’t speak to your ex face-to-face or over the phone, then find an effective tool to communicate and co-parent. Don’t put your kids in a position where you are asking them to pick a side. It is inappropriate and simply not fair.
4. Fighting in front of your children or criticizing the other parent to your children
Bad habits are hard to break. Before your divorce or separation, it’s likely that you argued in front of your kids. This can be a hard pattern to get out of and it’s all too easy to fall straight back into the trap of blame and anger if the other parent consistently picks up late or forgets to bring your child’s backpack on a Sunday evening. You may also find yourself making comments like “that’s just like your father” or “That’s typical, your mom’s late again! Now I’m going to be late”. However it’s important to know that these bad habits are amongst the most damaging for kids of divorce so it’s important to minimize this behavior as much as you possibly can. Ideally, stop it completely.
What can you do? Find an outlet where you can process your feelings and express yourself freely: your friends, a therapist, a divorce coach, or a support group. Develop some coping mechanisms so that when you interact with the other parent, you are able to do so in a calm and rational way without letting your emotions get the better of you. Also keep in mind that your kids identify character traits in themselves from both parents so when you are firing criticisms at your co-parent, you are also firing criticisms at your children too.
5. Avoiding communication with the other parent
If your divorce or separation was difficult or contentious, chances are you did most of your communicating with each other through Family Law Professionals. It can be hard to break this cycle and start communicating directly with each other again about schedules, school, homework, shared expenses, doctors appointments and everything else that comes along with parenting on a daily basis. Parents who have become used to communicating via a third party can find it a real struggle to turn the page and start communicating one-to-one again as co-parents.
What can you do? Children do best when parents are able to establish a respectful and cooperative relationship. To achieve this, you will need to find a way to transition from your spousal relationship to a more business-like relationship, focused solely on your children and their needs. Be respectful and communicate in the same way as you would with a colleague. If you feel that you are unable to communicate effectively with your co-parent face-to-face, then using a tool such as coparently can really help to facilitate a business-like relationship and help to keep conversations child-focused and on topic.