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Q: I ended my marriage a few months ago. I’ll spare you the details, but the story is painful and sad. The hardest part is trying to adjust as a divorced dad. My two sons, ages four and six, are too young to fully understand the situation. They do know that mommy and daddy are no longer living together, and the situation isn’t going to change. My ex-wife has custody of the kids and she hasn’t made things very easy. We often end up arguing whenever we try to coordinate time with them. I want to make co-parenting work. How can I make this easier for my kids? Is there a magic formula to raising happy and mentally stable kids as divorced parents? -P.W.
A: There’s no magic formula for co-parenting, but there are important steps that you can take to help your kids adjust.
Just keep in mind that children need to love both parents. That love creates secure attachments that form the basis of their own well-being and success as they grow.
Take a look at the 1/3; 1/3; 1/3 rule. Studies have shown that in divorcing families, 1/3 of children suffer short-term adjustment issues, but basically recover well. The second 1/3 group have long-term adjustment issues that follow them into adulthood. The final 1/3 group have serious emotional problems as a result of the divorce. Parents’ attitudes and behaviors have been shown to make the difference. Cooperative and loving parenting, in which parents mutually support their children and show respect toward each other, both during the transition and beyond, is by far the most important factor that sets the stage for children to do well.
Without meaning to, divorcing parents sometimes engage in behaviors that are likely to cause emotional conflict for the kids. A few common ones to avoid, for instance: Putting the other parent down, asking kids to spy on the other parent, or asking them to carry messages back and forth. These behaviors cause emotional conflict for kids. If you’re guilty of even having thought of doing any of these things, I don’t judge you. Just keep in mind that children need to love both parents. That love creates secure attachments that form the basis of their own well-being and success as they grow.
Set aside time with your former partner and discuss how you can start working together on these key factors that make co-parenting go smoother and encourage happier, better-adjusted kids :
Take the time to listen to your children. The act of listening is one of the best ways to show your love. Sometimes we have to listen between the lines to what kids aren’t saying outright. “I want to go home” might mean “I’m not feeling very safe or secure right now.” When parents are able to listen and respond empathically, their kids feel loved and secure.
Maintain consistency in both homes. Remember also that children do not visit their parents, they live with their parents -- only in separate homes. Children do best when expectations of them are similar and fair in both households. What that means is that regardless of which home they’re in, there must be time for both fun and responsibilities.
Communicate regularly with the other parent. Many parents have found monthly meetings to be a very useful tool in maintaining consistency. It won't be easy at first, but over time most divorced parents are able to establish this process.
Be patient. Time does matter. Studies show that eight out of 10 divorced couples can establish co-parenting patterns that work for their kids. Sometimes it takes up to two years to establish those patterns. So keep making the effort. In some situations, family therapy can make all the difference.
More from Asking for a Friend here.