When I give advice on co-parenting, I draw not only on my experience as a divorce attorney, but as a divorced parent of teenagers as well. My partner and I split up when our girls were 11 and 14 – pretty much the worst age imaginable, both socially and emotionally, for their parents to divorce. During the divorce, I threw a swim party for my youngest daughter’s basketball team, and I invited my soon-to-be ex to attend. One of the mothers asked me, “How can you stand to have him here?”. I told her, “I can’t ask my clients to do something I wouldn’t do myself.” At the time, I was pretty smug about the kind of co-parent I would be: cordial, agreeable, non-judgmental, and always putting the children’s needs first. How wrong I was. Co-parenting has been the most difficult challenge of my post-divorce life. The following is a short but critical list of dos and don’ts that will help you navigate the crucial years of co-parenting when you and your ex are making decisions for and with your children about the important issues in their lives.
Don’t respond in anger. When you feel that emotion welling up, put yourself in time-out immediately. There may be times when your ex-partner puts your children in physical danger, such as driving under the influence, using drugs around the children, or physically assaulting them. Such situations are not typical, but unfortunately, they are not rare. Usually, you will learn about these events after the fact, when the children call or come home in tears. If they are not in immediate physical danger, take a deep breath. Get the facts from them. Remain calm. Reassure them that you will keep them safe. Then call your attorney. Your lawyer will help you develop a legal strategy to make sure your children are safe when they are spending time with your ex, which may mean anything from supervised visitation, to regular alcohol and drug testing, to intensive therapy.
Do find a therapist that your children trust and make regular appointments. Develop a relationship with this therapist so that your children can see them on an as needed basis as they grow older. A good therapist will help your children feel heard and supported by an adult who can work with both parents, especially if the parents do not communicate well.
Do make sure that every communication with your ex, whether written or verbal, could be read or heard by a judge. Assume you are being recording in every interaction with your co-parent and act accordingly.
Do give your co-parent some grace. Not every disagreement is crucial to your child’s development. If your child’s physical or mental well-being is not at risk (i.e., your child is annoyed but not in danger), let it go.
Do give yourself a break. Trust your gut and focus on loving your children when they are with you. You’ve got this!