By Aurisha Smolarski, MA, LMFT
PACT Level 2 Therapist
No one said parenting was easy, let alone co-parenting with an ex.
Learning how to co-parent is complicated. It’s a partnership full of emotional undertones and adjustments. Being divorced or separated and having to juggle the co-parenting realities adds layers of coordination and factors to consider.
Personal and romantic priorities shift, as do the feelings and perceptions about your parenting partner. One thing remains unchanged: a responsibility to ensure that each of your children feels safe and can thrive within the changes and new situations they encounter.
Experiencing divorce and living in two homes are difficult enough for a child, but it’s the way in which the parents handle their divorce and work together on behalf of the child that creates long-term impact.
A break in the family structure can be incredibly destabilizing for a child. The transition can feel abrupt and unwanted. New routines, homes, people and, possibly, siblings are introduced, which may create instability and inconsistencies for a child. A new family structure is being formed. It's important that parents maintain a consistent base for their child to better adapt to all these changes.
In my previous post for PACT, I discussed the secure-functioning principle of creating a sense of mutuality and win-wins. In this post, I look at another secure-functioning element that PACT therapists emphasize: collaboration. According to Lexico.com, collaboration is “the action of working with someone to produce or create something.” The something in our case would be a healthy, resilient, happy child.
Do you think it’s the responsibility or role of a child to be a bargaining chip in a high-stakes game of emotional poker? Collaboration between co-parents helps to reduce the burden of the divorce on the child. Collaboration puts the responsibilities back where they are appropriate – on the parents.
Collaboration between co-parents creates a more sustainable and trusting working relationship. Co-parents do not have to be friends, but they need to work well with each other in order to create a secure, safe, and reliable base from which their child can thrive and grow into a healthy and secure adult. Collaborative decision-making about their child’s life works wonders to establish more ease in transitions and fewer surprises. It decreases anxiety both for the parents and for the child.
Withholding information, making unilateral decisions, using the children as messengers, or making last-minute requests and changes focuses co-parenting energy on sustaining a dysfunctional and non-cooperative relationship. The harmful consequences are felt by the children and only serve to increase stress on them.
Creating consistency between the households to maintain predictable routines, guidelines, and structure establishes a framework of safety and trust that can last a lifetime. Consistency is an important factor in the development of a child’s secure attachment. The research on security in attachment shows that stability and predictability in a child’s relationships allows the child’s brain to spend energy on learning, healing, growing, and social-emotional development. A child who lacks consistency in their childhood shows increased signs of behavioral and emotional instability, higher cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and difficulty in self-regulation.
Collaboration to create consistency between co-parents can look like a set of agreements which will ensure that each parent regularly informs the other and that each maintains full transparency about their child’s wellbeing, activities, and changes.
PACT therapists understand that having agreements co-created by the parents must be based on the secure-functioning principles of collaboration. These are vital to maintaining a clear structure that can provide a child the kind of guidance that may help to reduce possible chaos and confusion now and in the future.
Agreements to Develop a Collaborative Co-Parenting Relationship
Agreement: Tell each other first.
This principle is based on the idea that the co-parents discuss matters with each other before discussing them with the children. Developing a system of regular check-ins is most effective. These can be monthly or bi-weekly, depending on your children’s needs. Some people are able to meet in person. This can also be done via email. I suggest having agreements finalized in writing.
Being on the same team sets you as parents and your children up for success. It demonstrates to children that you and your co-parent are working together, leaving them to spend their energy on being kids, to push the developmental boundaries they are expected to push, and to feel the strength of the joint parental guidance to reassure them.
Agreement: Don’t throw each other under the bus.
Collaboration can set you up for success with your children.
Agreement: Create consistent routines to bridge the two households.
A collaborative relationship between co-parents communicates to the children that the parents are the adults, that they have everything under control, relieving children of responsibilities that aren’t theirs.
Clear and consistent communication sends the message and reassures the children that they are protected and safe. Divorce doesn’t have to be scary. An environment that is safe, secure, and consistent allows children to nurture healthy relationships with themselves, their peers, and the world.
Bonnell, K.,& Little, K. (2017) The co-parenting handbook raising well-adjusted and resilient kids from little ones to young adults through divorce or separation. Seattle, WA: Sasquatch Books
Walters, E., Weinfield, N.S., & Hamilton, C.E. (2003) The stability of attachment security from infancy to adolescence and early adulthood: General discussion. Society for Research in Child Development. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00179