Being a good parent is one of the most rewarding and challenging jobs in the world. Establishing good household rules and guidelines, learning to be patient, figuring out how to best meet your children's needs-none of it is easy, but it's even harder when you have to learn to co-parent with an ex. Co-parenting refers to two or more people working together to raise a child regardless of whether the parents are together. In some families after a bitter breakup or divorce, this can seem almost impossible. It's OK to be hurt and angry, but those feelings should not control your actions when there are children involved. To co-parent successfully, you and your ex will have to agree to put aside your relationship issues and put your children first.
Rethink your relationship with your ex
Depending on the circumstances surrounding the end of your relationship, you and your ex may have feelings of anger, hurt or bitterness toward each other. In special cases, such as domestic violence, co-parenting may not be recommended. However, if you and your ex are ready to begin co-parenting, it's best to think of your relationship in new terms. Think of this phase of your relationship as something entirely different - a relationship that is about the health and happiness of your children, not about past problems or issues you may have had with each other.
- Put your children's needs ahead of your own. Even if there is anger, jealousy or resentment between you and your ex, put that aside and work together for their sake. This will help your children see that despite the end of your relationship, your love for them will never change.
- Find a safe place to release your frustrations and anger. It's important to keep any negative feelings about your ex hidden from your children. Do not vent to them about your ex or say hurtful things. Having an emotional outlet can help, so consider finding a good friend to talk to, exercising or taking a calming bath when you are upset.
- Avoid putting your kids in the middle. Do not make your kids feel guilty about spending time with your ex or make them "choose" between their parents. It's important to keep them out of disagreements and allow them to feel comfortable and safe with both of you.
- Communicate. Communication with your ex may be a tough task, but try to have peaceful and productive conversations with each other to maintain your children's happiness. Before you contact your ex, ask yourself how your conversation will impact your children and keep this in the front of your mind. If you don't feel like you can safely see your ex and have a healthy conversation, consider communicating via email or text instead.
Create a plan
Once you have agreed to stay respectful and keep things amicable between you, it's important to set up a plan to ensure things run as smoothly as possible. As you begin your co-parenting journey together, consider the following:
- Get on the same page. To co-parent successfully, you should communicate with each other about subjects like rules, discipline and routines, so that your children know what to expect at all times. Children benefit from consistency, and it helps them feel more secure. Consider the following topics for discussion:
- Rules. Think about curfews, unacceptable activities or actions, schoolwork and the amount of television they can watch. You don't have to agree on everything, but you should discuss what rules are important to each of you.
- Discipline. Try to follow similar guidelines when it comes to discipline. Ask yourselves the following questions: What will you do if your child gets in trouble at your house and loses a privilege? Will your ex honor that at their house? What types of consequences are preferable for both of you?
- Schedule. Talk about a typical day/night in your house, and compare it with your ex. Think about bedtimes, mealtimes and playtime. Keeping your schedules somewhat similar can help your children adjust better when they transition between homes.
- The big picture items. Think about important items such as medical care, education and extracurricular activities. Who is going to be the main health care provider? Who will attend doctor's appointments? What kind of schooling do you envision for your children? Who will pay for it? These are the kinds of questions you should discuss to avoid surprises.
- Stay calm. If your ex has your children and is running late because they are out to dinner or enjoying a movie, try to relax and let it be. Stay focused on what's best for your children - not how you feel.
- Keep each other updated regularly. If there is a new development in your child's life or anything that may affect their behavior, be sure to update your ex.
- Don't worry about the little things. Maybe your ex thinks it's OK to watch TV before bed, but you prefer reading; maybe you don't think kids should eat dessert every night, but your ex allows it. With small things like this, try not to sweat it. The more you can agree, respect each other's wishes and stay on good terms, the better your relationship will be when it comes to the important stuff.
Manage the transitions
Transitioning from one house to another - no matter how often your children do it - can be difficult. However, there are many things you can do to help make these transitions easier and more comfortable for them.
- Be respectful and timely. Try to respect the schedule you have worked out and honor the time your kids are scheduled to spend with your ex.
- Be understanding. Transitions can be hard on children, and it may take them some time to warm up after they come back from your ex's house. Allow them to take some time to get comfortable again.
- Make both places feel like home. Try to keep the basics - like pajamas and toothbrushes - stocked at both houses. In addition, try to keep special things like favorite foods, toys or games at both places, too.
- Talk to your kids and listen to their concerns. If you have little ones, they may have many questions, like where they'll spend their birthday or who will come on their class trips. Older kids may want to know if they'll have to change schools or quit certain activities. Kids of every age will want to know that you both still love them unconditionally and that your relationship with them won't change. Encourage them to share their concerns and questions, and be sure to listen.
If your ex makes co-parenting difficult and doesn't want to play by these "rules," it doesn't mean you can't. If your ex refuses to communicate, cooperate or keep your kids out of the middle, you can still take the high road and remain respectful for your kids' sake.
Seek outside assistance
If you find that you and your ex cannot get settled into a new, respectful relationship or that your kids are struggling to cope after a divorce or breakup, consider seeking outside assistance. Military OneSource offers non-medical counseling to address issues such as stress management, marital problems, parenting and other short-term problems. Call 800-342-9647 or visit the non-medical counseling page for more information. In addition, your installation's Family Advocacy Program offers personalized support, counseling, classes and workshops on topics such as communication, conflict resolution and anger management to help military families learn how to build positive relationships.