Whether parents are divorced or never married, their relationship may end; but the parent’s relationship with a child continues, and that is in the child’s best interest.
Co-parenting is the common term used to describe noncustodial parents who play an active role in their children’s daily lives. The key to successful co-parenting is how well parents work together to put the child’s needs before their own.
Because break-ups are emotional, it’s easy for the adults to focus on the things that led to the divorce: the pain, problems with the ex and other behaviors that harm children. Blended families can include new spouses and extended families. Everyone in the blended family needs to learn new skills and behaviors to help children adjust and to ensure the health of a new relationship.
The addition of children puts stress on any marriage. But blended families and second marriages are at higher risk for creating conflicts which can lead to divorce.
Each year, about half of the thousand or so marriages in Johnson County create blended families. Twenty-eight years ago, my husband and I were one of those statistics. Chris had two young children from his first marriage. When he and his ex-wife divorced, they agreed that the children would not get “caught in the middle,” and I agreed to that when we got married. It wasn’t always easy, but it was worth it.
Learn: There are many resources available. Check out your local library or bookstore or search “co-parenting” on the internet.
Leave the kids out of it: Talk directly with your co-parent. Don’t use your child as a messenger or spy. Don’t talk about visitation, support or other adult issues in front of your child. Find another adult you can talk to. Don’t seek emotional support from your child.
No “trash talk:” Your child has two parents, and he or she is a combination of both. A child internalizes negative things heard from one parent about the other as being negative about the child. Let your child know it’s OK to love both parents (and families), even though you are not together. And the same should apply for grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.
Be reasonable: Allow your child to enjoy time with both parents. Work out reasonable and equitable visitation, including holidays, but be flexible when schedules change.
Listen: If your child has problems with the other parent, listen but encourage everyone to work it out before getting involved. Children sometimes “play both sides” to get what they want or may say things about the other parent in order to make you feel better.
Reassure: Children often believe they are responsible for the divorce. Let them know they did not cause the divorce and that neither parent is rejecting them. Tell children that even though their parents’ situation has changed, both of you still love them. Explain the divorce as briefly as possible, given the child’s age.
Involve the other parent: Tell the co-parent about important events in the child’s life so they can be involved. You and your “ex” don’t have to sit together at events (or even talk), but having all of the family together (behaving like adults) is important for a child to feel supported and loved.
Stay connected: If you’re the noncustodial parent, call the child frequently or schedule additional visits when possible. Attend school programs, parent/teacher conferences and sporting events.
Spend “alone” time: Even if your child has a good relationship with your new spouse, spend time alone with your child on a regular basis.
Don’t force it: If you’re the stepparent, give the child space and time to get to know you. Children often hope their parents will get back together, and this can be difficult for the new person in the relationship.
Know who disciplines: While the child should respect stepparents, discipline is a sensitive issue, especially with older children. Discuss discipline with your co-parent and make sure everyone involved supports the decision.
Let your child talk: Children are loyal to both parents and usually have a tough time talking about their true feelings regarding the divorce to either parent. Suggest the child take part in a divorce support group for kids such as “Banana Splits” or talk to a school counselor when a sympathetic ear is needed.
Pay attention to your marriage: To be a good parent, you need to devote time to your marriage. Go on dates or pursue a hobby with your spouse when your child is spending time with her other parent.
Bea Northcott is a columnist for the Daily Journal, writing about marriages, relationships and family. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.