I am frequently asked parenting questions or listen to expressions of frustration from my clients on the difficulties that arise for them in co-parenting during and after a separation or divorce. I am not a child expert but I have picked up a few things here and there over the years. Also, because I am now immersed in alternative dispute resolution methods, I have broadened the horizons of my professional practice both in terms of the people I work with and the way I approach my work. I no longer feel that I need to limit myself exclusively to the law in what I am prepared to comment upon. When people come to me and ask me questions, they are not compartmentalising their questions. They don’t look at me and think, I can’t ask that, it relates to emotions or children and this is a lawyer, they simply want answers and advice. Once upon a time, I struggled to corral my family law clients so that I could just deal with legal matters when they were with me. This is what I had been taught to do in law school and what I thought I should do. Now, I would not welcome this, even if it were possible, which frankly, it is not. Truth to tell, I am far too curious as just a human being not to welcome questions and explorations into all sorts of areas. Regardless of how you separate, that is, whether you pick the traditional route of court or find it picked for you or you opt for collaboration or mediation, you will still experience the parenting challenges that are peculiar to separation and you will still struggle to find ways to deal with them. Parenting at the best of times is tough but parenting through a divorce may be a lot like learning to tap dance in high heels, difficult to say the least, but not impossible.
When you relationship/marriage breaks down you go through a process that is much like what happens to you when someone close to you dies. You are in an emotional melt down and you see saw between various states of anger, depression, sadness and self pity. *1 Within the context in which you find yourself, all that is completely normal and everyone goes through it in some way or another. In the weeks and months following a separation, it is natural to be confused and afraid. These emotions do not always bring out the best in us. However, what complicates it for many people is that in the middle of one of the worst crisis of their lives there is a child/children who are also going through a crisis and cannot be left fend for themselves. Reassure yourself that people have done this before you and have survived and that the children of separated parents frequently go on to become productive and well-adjusted members of society. Resolve that no matter what, your child or children will be in the category.
A very useful guideline for co-parenting post separation is to parent on a “What if” basis. What if we had never separated and we were still parenting under one roof? Road test each parenting situation from that yard stick and you will not go too far wrong. The “What if” test will prevent you from doing such things as spending wild amounts of money on Christmas or Birthday presents knowing the other parent is also purchasing those items. “What if” will prevent you leaping to conclusions when your child reports an incident with the other parent, that other parent has taken complete leave of their senses. Rather you will exercise healthy scepticism that you are getting the full picture. “What if” will prevent you from deciding not to invite the other parent to the school play on the basis that it would be too embarrassing. Not every test can be met by the “what if” but many of them can.
Another golden rule is to never ever seize the opportunity presented by the appearance of the other parent at the time of access to have a “little chat” about matters that are concerning you. If you want to have a “little chat” do so on your own time and privately not on the children’s time with their parent. Children should not be privy to these” little chats” in any event. All exchanges during the drop off or collection of children should be positive, up beat and child centered. They should also be brief. Many mothers express intense anxiety to me about whether their spouse will be able to cope with the children for that long, whether he will just “park” them with his mother, if he will just leave them plonked in front of the tv and sometimes even the safety of the children while they are with him. These concerns often arise because the parents no longer trust one another rather than any inherent incapacity in either one of them. Frequently, the lack of trust can be so severe than some spouses will wonder if they ever knew their ex and whether or not he has become a total stranger. In those circumstances, handing over the children is very hard. If the trust has broken down to that extent, expert assistance is required. There are many wonderful people out there who are well qualified to work with you in this situation. In collaboration we use collaborative coaches and child specialists.*2 Whatever the process help is out there. I would urge you to consider that even though you and your spouse may not be able to sort out your financial circumstances by agreement that perhaps recognizing that your children need both of you, you might consider mediating your parenting schedules and arrangements. 3* The first step however, is to recognize that your children need both parents and the next is to look for help.
Never get your children to carry messages to their other parent whether those messages are in an envelope or verbal. By doing so, apart from what it does to the children, you are inserting yourself into the other parent’s time with the children and actively interfering with it. Lets face it, seldom will such “messages” put the receiving parent into good humour! If you had happy news to deliver you would have done so yourself.
Never speak badly by gesture, innuendo or direct comment about the other parent. This can be more difficult that you think. Most parents tell me that they do not do this yet mysteriously the children have become exceedingly reluctant to spend time with the other parent. There is no real mystery here, the children have listened to very negative conversations on the telephone, with other adults or they have received the covert messages contained in facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice. Never forget that your child loves both of his parents and he identifies strongly with both of them. Your child’s self esteem is wrapped up with his love for and his feeling of being loved by both his parents. If you badmouth the other parent, you are effectively badmouthing the child. In the long run running down the other parent will have a severe impact on your child’s self esteem. You know how difficult it is to listen to anyone criticise members of your family even when some of the views being expressed are not a million miles away from your own. Remember that the next time you are about to speak negatively to a child or in front of a child about their other parent. And also remember that you can communicate by gesture every bit as much as by direct comment. Keep your negativity and gestures for your friends, they have the maturity to decipher them, put them in context and take with a pinch of salt.
One of the most common situations separating parents will experience is the one of a tearful child who does not want to say goodbye. This tears at the heart strings of parents and they frequently go into meltdown with the child. Most parents will relate the child’s emotions to the fact that the child or children do not spend enough time with them and that is why they are getting so upset. That is an adult interpretation of the situation. More likely the children are absorbing the emotion of the parent that they are leaving and responding accordingly. Whether the children are with you for short periods or long ones, there are always going to be goodbyes. School yourself in the interests of the children to be bright and cheerful when receiving them and when they are leaving. Make sure that the first thing they see is a smiling welcoming face and that the last thing they see is a smiling waving parent telling them they are loved. As the time approaches for the children to leave either to visit a parent or when the visit is coming to a close, prepare the children for that event. Make sure that for the last 10 to 15 minutes they are not doing something that they will have to be torn away from when Mum or Dad comes. Start the winding down process and announce at regular intervals the arrival of the other parent. This should be done in a positive up beat manner. Children need to transition slowly and no more than any of us, they do not like to be ambushed. Sometimes there will still be tears and in those circumstances you remember that you are the parent and the children are looking for guidance from you. Hug the child and reassure him or her that he is loved. Remind them of something fun that you did or will do the next time they come and say something positive about what they might do when they get home and how much Mum/Dad is looking forward to spending some time with them. That much done tell them you love them and say Goodbye. Leave it to the other parent to deal with the emotions, you are on their time now. No matter which end of the access or custody spectrum you are on these rules apply. When children return home from a visit they should be allowed a chance to settle in quietly. Never quiz them about the visit. If they want to tell you something they will do so however, a general up beat query is normal. If your children are delivered to the door you should make sure to be at it to welcome them home. Once children know that there is a welcome for them in both houses and that the adults are not “losing it” they will settle down. Luckily for us children are extremely resilient so even if you haven’t started too well there is still time to pick up the pieces.
1. Dr Kubler Ross and the five stages of grief. I have written an article on these previously and you should be able to access it on older posts.
2. Collaboration is a process option to deal with separation or divorce which is very child and parent friendly. Collaborative coaches are communication specialists who work with the lawyers in the process to assist you in your negotiations but also to work with both parents on their communication skills to facilitate co-parenting into the future. I have written extensively about this on the website on and on my blog.
3. Mediation is an alternative dispute resolution method and can be used to sort out all the issues in your separation or divorce or just some of them. I would particularly recommend it to facilitate agreement on parenting schedules. For more information on mediation check out www.corkmediationservices.ie