Parental separation is hard on families, tough on parents and tough on kids. Separation suddenly forces each parent to complete tasks associated with reorganizing a life: making new living arrangements, handling financial pressures, dividing the household and dealing with a myriad of legal issues. Each task could be considered a major life stressor on its own, yet for separating parents all these changes come simultaneously, and they come at a time when parents might be feeling the least able to cope and the most overwhelmed and vulnerable. They are grieving the loss of their marriage or loving relationship and coming to terms with parenting alone for the first time.
Even in the best of circumstances this is a very tough period for all family members. While the parents struggle with their own life changes, the children, too, are directly affected by the changes in their household. They might feel lost, even shattered by the family disruption. They frequently feel guilty believing they caused a parent to leave. They may feel worried and even afraid not knowing what the future will bring. Most poignantly, at a time they need the support of their parents the most, their parents might be least available to them, physically and emotionally.
The good news is that separating parents have more control over the impact this life change has on their children (and themselves) than they might think. Parents have ultimate control over what their children will experience and the stressors their children will or will not be exposed to. Family separation is not what distresses children; it is conflict, particularly constant conflict, that distresses children.
Parents have the ability and the responsibility to protect their children from the conflict that ending their relationship might bring. If parents can find a way to at least agree on this one most important aspect of the dissolution – keeping the kids out of the conflict – the children should weather all the rest of it without too much stress.
Children are really very resilient. Absent parental conflict, children can continue to thrive. They will simply grow up between two loving homes instead of the one. Creating such an environment is not necessarily easy; however, when parents commit to cooperative co-parenting, it is very possible. When practiced, it can get easier every day.
Parental relationships following separation vary immensely and co-parenting arrangements are as different as the relationships from which they came. Each co-parenting relationship has its very own personality. A best-case scenario might include parents that continue to communicate, visit and celebrate each other following the dissolution. A worst-case example might be a couple’s disintegration into years of court battles and at the very worst, include battles that directly involve the children.
If you are a parent in the process of separating, where will your shared parenting relationship fall on the above continuum? You decide. To help you navigate this new terrain, here are three general suggestions on how you might begin to build a healthy co-parenting relationship.
As the Executive Director of Kids’ Turn, I frequently field phone calls from parents on the verge of separation requesting advice on how to tell their children. I spend a long time talking with those parents because I believe that the parental approach to that discussion is huge. I constantly hear from children about “that day” – the one moment that hangs clearly and forever in their memory. In the Kids’ Turn groups children recount exactly how and when they were told: the weather, what they were wearing, what was said, the look on each parent’s face and what they were feeling. Their perfect recollection leads them to perceive what will happen next in their life.
So if you think it is a big deal how you tell them, it is. Tell them right. You can help their understanding and diminish their fears. Don’t tell them while you are angry or emotionally upset. If possible tell them together; it helps children to see you unified in your decision to part. Doing this together is your first practice modeling your co-parenting future.
Begin a new relationship.
No, I don’t mean find a new partner! I mean start a different relationship with your child’s other parent. Your romantic relationship has ended. Consider co-parenting as your new relationship, a business-like agreement. Build strictly business communication and consider your children the business. This is one business you really need to build up together so that it never fails.
Communicate at the highest level.
This will be different for everyone. Do not continue in any destructive communication. Find your level of comfort and what best fits your style. If you two are volatile or unproductive in your discussions, don’t have those discussions. And never, ever have them in front of your children. Communicate instead by e-mail or text, or even mail. Keep it all written or through a third party until you can progress to conducting a simple phone call that stays on track. Practice “information” phone calls. Write out your intended message, refine it to include only the information needed about or for the child, and stick to it. Read from the written message directly if you need to and don’t get off track. It is great practice to work toward conversations that don’t bring up past issues, or even your current issues and disagreements, that do not directly involve parenting.
Each co-parenting relationship begins the first moment a couple decides to separate. Plan for it and begin it right. Cooperation is not always easy, and may never be easy; however, if you continue to work at it, the practice will produce a healthier and happier life for you and your children. They are so worth it!
[sws_blue_box box_size=”579″] Kids’ Turn Shasta-Cascade is a local nonprofit organization dedicated to child-focused, whole family divorce education. Their primary intervention is a six-week workshop that serves children over 4 years old and both parents. Family members work in separate groups and come together only at the end for a graduation celebration. Each group is co-lead by a credentialed teacher and master’s level therapist. Kids’ Turn Shasta-Cascade has been able to remain free for three years with a community grant from Catholic Healthcare West. This year’s workshops start on August 31, October 26, and for 2012, January 11 and April 18. For more information call (530) 242-0772. [/sws_blue_box]