Studies show that conflict is what creates the most pain and anguish for children after parents’ split, and that keeping parental disagreements to a minimum is a key aspect of helping kids become resilient.
Over the last few decades, research by child development experts has demonstrated numerous benefits to children when their living arrangements enable support from both parents. One reason is that parents who co-parent tend to experience lower conflict than those who have sole custody arrangements.
However, very few experts discuss the drawbacks of co-parenting when parents don’t get along or have high conflict relationships. According to parenting expert, Edward Kruk, Ph.D., children of divorce benefit from strong and healthy relationships with both parents and they need to be shielded from their parents’ conflicts. He writes: “Some parents, however, in an effort to bolster their parental identity, create an expectation that children choose sides. In more extreme situations, they foster the child’s rejection of the other parent. In the most extreme cases, children are manipulated by one parent to hate the other, despite children’s innate desire to love and be loved by both parents.”
It takes two special parents to navigate a successful co-parenting arrangement over time. Interacting with each other at drop-offs, making shared decisions, or even speaking to an ex who you’d rather forget can be a challenge. Often divorced parents have a lot of unresolved anger after their breakup which can make moving forward smoothly problematic for their children.
What is the solution for divorced parents’ who want to do what’s in the best interest of their children when they have high conflict? According to Dr. Kruk, “Parallel parenting is an arrangement in which divorced parents are able to co-parent by means of disengaging from each other, and having limited direct contact, in situations where they have demonstrated that they are unable to communicate with each other in a respectful manner.”
In other words, parallel parenting allows parents to remain disengaged with one another while they remain close to their children. For instance, they remain committed to making responsible decisions (medical, education, etc) but decide on the logistics of day-today parenting separately. Dr. Kruk posits that the higher the conflict between the parents, the more structured the parenting plan should be.
The key to successful parallel parenting after divorce is to keep the focus on your children – and to maintain a cordial relationship with your ex-spouse. Most importantly, you want your children see that their parents are working together for their well-being. Never use them as messengers because when you ask them to tell their other parent something for you, it can make them feel stuck in the middle. It’s best to communicate directly with your ex and lessen the chances your children will experience loyalty conflicts.
The following are suggestions based on my own experience and advice from experts. First of all, it’s paramount that you gear your parenting plan to the age of your children and that it is consistent. Try to develop routines for them leaving and coming home when they are young. As they reach adolescence, strive to be more flexible and adapt to their changing needs.
Tips to help kids live happily in two homes with parallel parenting:
- Develop a parallel parenting plan – This should describe specific times and public places for exchanges, plans for cancelations, etc.
- Limit communications to only those that are necessary for the care and well–being of your children. Communicate through email as much as possible and avoid text messages which can come across as hostile or blunt. A notebook can be passed back and forth between homes to communicate any important information.
- Reassure your children that they have two parents who love them. If they balk at going to their other parent’s home, you can say something like “Even though mom and dad aren’t married anymore we both still love you and are good parents.”
- Maintain a cordial, business-like relationship with your ex so that your children won’t feel intense divided loyalties. It’s important not to express anger at your ex in front of your children so they don’t feel stuck in the middle.
- Help your kids anticipate changes in their schedule. Planning ahead and helping them pack important possessions can benefit them. However, keep items to a bare minimum. Most parents prefer to have duplicate items for their kids on hand.
- Encourage your younger child to adhere to their parenting time schedule – being consistent with their schedule will help your kids feel secure. Younger children often benefit from avoiding frequent shifts between homes. Whereas teens usually benefit from flexibility in their schedule because they may have difficulty juggling their busy life with school, extracurricular activities, friends, and jobs if they start working.
- Remember to keep the spotlight on your children’s best interests. You and your ex may detest one another, but you both love your children. Keep in mind that your ex is your child’s other parent and deserves respect simply because of this fact. Encourage your child to spend time with your ex-spouse’s extended family since this will help them to feel more secure in the long-run.
- Utilize a third party mediator if needed– This person can be a counselor, social worker, or even a member of your church. They can help mediate any face to face meetings between you and your ex-spouse.
Keep in mind that communicating with your former spouse is going to be necessary for the length of your children’s childhood into young adulthood. This may include special events, graduations – and perhaps even weddings. It’s important to keep clear boundaries so that your children wouldn’t harbor fantasies that you will reconcile. For the most part, this means less personal sharing and focusing on exchanging information, cooperation, and make good decisions about your children.
It’s also possible that even though you and your ex-spouse may not be capable of a cooperative co-parenting arrangement now, it may be an option in the future. It may take years, but eventually the anger you and your ex harbor for one another may dissipate sufficiently for you to consider co-parenting. Keep the door open for the future since it will benefit your children if you are cooperative colleagues.
In sum, modeling cooperation and polite behavior set a positive tone for parallel parenting. When children are confident of the love of both of their parents, they will adjust more easily to divorce. Keeping your differences with your ex away from your children will open up opportunities to move beyond divorce in the years to come. Ask yourself this question: how do you want your children to remember you and their childhood when they are adults?
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.
Terry’s forthcoming book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020.