Most people say when asked, putting children first is fundamental to good parenting. But what happens if as separating parents you have different ideas about putting your children first? How can you know what your children want without involving them in adult decisions? What does #childrenfirst really mean?
It’s taken me a while to grasp this…and perhaps you’re already there, but couple-parenting is completely different to co-parenting. Nobody tells you this when you separate or divorce, and yet you’re often making huge decisions in new uncharted waters and without the proverbial paddle – its scary stuff.
Putting children first as you separate requires different parenting skills – this may be news to you if like me you thought parenting skills were transferable. Perhaps they are –some certainly, but it’s the situational ‘stuff’ that has changed … Gone are the low-cost easy compromises made for a harmonious family life. In their place are points of principle, negotiation tactics and feelings that the other parent is permanently dictating arrangements and getting their own way.
It’s this context rather than any innate deficiency on the part of the parents (as is so often unhelpfully implied) that can make it harder for people to appreciate their children’s needs and cooperate on creative family solutions. Co-parenting amicably can give your children stability and a close relationship with you both, so defining a new way of communicating with your ex and talking to your children are important steps. We’ve put together some tips taken from real work with real people to help you navigate the new ‘co-parenting’ territory and continue putting children first.
- Put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others – sort out you. You can’t put your kids first no matter how much you want to without making sure you are in a good place – it’s just impossible. The key thing is to recognise is that to seek help is an efficient and speedy way of making sure you have all the strategies and tools to hand to start this new part of the journey. Find a therapist, preferably one who is a divorce specialist, and be the best you can be quickly. You will be very glad you invested this time.
- Define your new co-parenting relationship – don’t attempt to pick-up where you left off. Your relationship as partners has ended but your parenting relationship continues. However, it continues on a different footing. Old familiarities are no longer appropriate and it’s time to redefine the boundaries. Many clients find it most successful to adopt a more business-like approach. Short courteous messages remembering a kind salutation… and not forgetting a signing off with something warm but not too familiar. You’re aiming for polite, calm respectful and neutral. Make proposals not demands and start conversations positively by asking for your co-parents opinions.
- Complete control is not an option – don’t sweat the small stuff. You may feel frustrated that your ex does things differently to you or even feel the children are upset by the differences. Avoid spending time and energy on trying to control a situation or what your ex does. Instead, find a time and place to discuss how you both want to parent and look for similarities and agree on some basic house rules first e.g. bedtimes, homework routine and discipline. Creating a parenting plan is an excellent way of detailing your arrangements. Allow them time and space to adjust to their new role as a co-parent and accept that mistakes will be made. Treat the parenting plan as guiding principles, not an edict. When you bump things you cannot control, focus instead on being the best most supportive parent you can be to your child(ren).
- Be flexible. Plan for change and manage it well. Whether you have informal arrangements to meet the needs of your children or a documented parenting plan you will need to regularly revisit your arrangements as the children grow. Plan regular time, for example, every six months to a year to discuss arrangements and check all the children’s needs are being recognised. Be prepared to talk to your children about how they are finding things and take time with your co-parent to consider the children’s feedback.
- Let the tech take the strain – invest in a tool to support your new family set up. There are now a range of family calendars and communication tools some free, some paid for, to help co-parents schedule time for children, communicate activities and leave important feedback and messages about school, GP visits or the piano lessons etc. Having shared calendars which you can give older children permissions to view and change appointments keeps everyone informed. Reducing the burden on each other to remember messages or create emails from scratch minimises the opportunity for miscommunication and ultimately helps to reduce conflict.
- Talk to your children – tell them what’s happening and understand how they’re feeling. Some parents feel very anxious about discussing what’s going on with their children. Worrying about what’s appropriate or not to say. Keep things simple and age appropriate. Avoid blaming either parent (that includes self-blame), be truthful about situations but not explicit in the details you give – your private life remains your private life. It’s important not to give children the impression that they are being asked to decide or choose what arrangements should be made – instead, convey that you are interested in hearing their views about arrangements (do they foresee any problems? Do they have any concerns?) and that the adults will make the decisions needed. Most importantly of all learn to listen to your children. Create time and space to give them your full attention and just listen. Don’t interrupt or ask too many questions, and don’t try and solve or minimize their concerns. Allow them to unburden themselves as this is the art of #childrenfirst
Ultimately, your only putting children first when you are in a strong place yourself. If you are struggling with your own feelings then seeking therapeutic support may well give you the strength you need to continue to parent positively in your new context. If you’d like access to parenting plan templates or other resources such as the do’s and don’ts of telling the children about divorce contact us.