If minor children are part of your divorce proceedings, there could be changes to the way you care for your children. Custody encompasses legal custody and physical custody. Generally speaking, legal custody involves the ability to make decisions relating to your children’s education, healthcare, and religion. On the other hand, physical custody involves where the children are physically present and their day to day care. The terms of your children’s custody will be unique to your divorce. When custody is established, review the terms with your attorney to ensure you remain in compliance with your custody agreement.
If you and your ex-spouse share responsibility for legal or physical custody, you will be required to work together to continue raising your children until they reach the age of majority. Avoid the following seven mistakes of co-parenting when navigating your children’s care.
- Custody Order Violation
While this should go without saying, it cannot be stressed enough how important it is to comply with the custody agreement you have in place. Regardless of your personal opinions regarding the terms, non-compliance with a custody agreement can result in legal action from your co-parent. This can make a tough situation worse. Ensure you are aware of your responsibilities as a co-parent and act accordingly.
Your custody agreement will outline the expectations of care for each parent. This could include your schedule, your authority to make certain decisions, who can care for the children, where the children can be located, and many more details. This is why having competent legal representation is paramount in your ability to care for your child. A divorce attorney will be able to answer any questions regarding your custody agreement.
Violating a custody arrangement could be as benign as being late to drop off your children or as egregious as kidnapping. Whatever the case, violating a custody order is the same as violating a court order. Violations could result in penalties including fines, loss of parental rights, and even jail time depending on the severity of violation. This will be the biggest responsibility as a co-parent. Ensure you are keeping up your end of the bargain to avoid issues.
- Boundaries & Communication
Co-parenting your children effectively is nearly impossible without setting proper boundaries and communicating appropriately with your ex-spouse. This is a common pitfall in many co-parenting situations simply because these concepts may not have been part of your relationship when you were together. To be successful co-parents, you need to find common ground with your ex to provide appropriate care.
If it is safe to do so, consider sitting down with your ex to discuss childcare and the terms of custody. This will help start the new relationship off on the right foot. This is a great time to understand what each of you need and expect from the other co-parent. Discuss your boundaries as it relates to your new relationship. For example, you may not want to hear about your ex’s personal life and that is fine to respectfully let them know. When it comes to communication, outline what level and format of communication is expected. Consider implementing a schedule to discuss pertinent updates with your co-parent. Depending on your relationship with your children, they may be more or less comfortable with one parent. When you were all under one roof, there was likely more opportunity to connect regarding updates. Now that the children could be traveling between two homes, it is easy for things to get lost in translation.
While co-parenting, if problems arise, address them head on in an appropriate tone. If you are heated regarding something that comes to your attention, cool down before contacting your ex. You do not want to sour a relationship that is already fragile. Be respectful, but firm. If your co-parent is violating the custody agreement, contact your attorney to understand your rights under the law. Your attorney will be able to consult you on what is appropriate.
- Not Controlling What You Can
There are so many things in life that are outside of our control. It is healthy to not fixate on those things and instead focus what is in your control. You cannot change the past, but you can decide how you show up in the future.
With so much outside of your control, let’s focus on a few things you can control:
How you show up for your children: When co-parenting, you will no longer have unfettered access to your children, so when you are with them, make sure you are spending the time usefully. Whether this means being there for important life events, building a stronger relationship with them, or simply providing a safe environment, the way you interact with your kids while co-parenting becomes vital. This does not mean caving to their every desire. You are responsible for raising your children, not being their best friend. Teach them lessons and life skills that will help them develop into well adjusted adults.
How you plan for your children’s new life: Childcare is never easy, but put having a process in place that adds structure to your lives will help. Depending on your living arrangements, your child may keep most of their belongings at one parent’s house. Ensure you have a plan to get them and their belongings from home to home. If you know your child has a belonging they cannot go without, double check that item is with them when picking up and dropping off. Help them pack and un-pack their belongings. Make new traditions that can turn mundane situations into something a bit more exciting. Additionally, having dedicated space for the children with familiar belongings can help them feel a sense of belonging in a new home.
How you juggle new responsibilities: We are all busy, but when co-parenting, you need to abide by a schedule. Your spouse may have been responsible for the majority of the childcare, or the go to person for help with homework, or the chef for the family. While your children are in your care, you will become the go to person for everything. This may mean making adjustments to your personal schedule outside of the home. This could mean new boundaries at work or developing new skills. Whatever the case, you will need to prepare yourself to be the sole parent when your children are with you. Assess the areas where you’ll need to make adjustments.
How you communicate with your children: One of the first things to consider is how you communicate your divorce with your children. It is appropriate to provide age-appropriate information to your children regarding your divorce to ensure they understand why these changes are taking place. It is best to seek assistance from a family therapist and work with your co-parent to provide consistent messaging to your children. Communicating this as a unified force can help reduce inflammatory comments and quell questions that may arise when you are not around. As you communicate with your children while they are in your care, be cognizant of the changes they are facing. Be patient with them. You are all in a new environment and change can be stressful. Be respectful and do not give in to hurtful comments. You do not want to apologize later for something you regret saying, the message will have already been received and internalized.
- Disparaging your Co-Parent
One of the biggest mistakes parents can make when co-parenting is making disparaging remarks about their ex to their children. These comments should be avoided at all costs. Divorce can cause heightened emotions and negative feelings towards your ex-spouse. Nonetheless, remember that the person you are speaking ill of is still the parent of your children. While you are no longer in a union with the other parent, you are still responsible for caring for your children properly. Attempting to pit your children against their other parent is irresponsible and inappropriate. The child may not share your opinions and it can drive a wedge between the relationship you have with your kids.
Regardless of who you think is “at fault” for your divorce, making snide remarks about the other co-parent will only result in instability and resentment. Think about how you would feel if your children told you the other parent said mean or hurtful things about you. It is not a best practice to put your children in this situation.
- Trying to “Win”
Co-parenting can naturally become competitive. It can be hurtful to hear about the wonderful time your kids had at your co-parents home, a new gift they got during a visit, or various other details that make you feel like you’re not doing as good of a job as your ex at making your kids happy. Nonetheless, these topics are bound to come up as your catch up with your kids regarding their time away. You can win as a parent by being kind, listening, having fun, and ensuring your child has what they need to grow. However, as stated previously, you are still the parent. Your purpose is to provide a safe nurturing environment. Consider what life looked like before the divorce and try to emulate that on your own. If you were used to a certain schedule or structure, try to keep that intact. Have fun, but don’t spoil your kids to win them over, that won’t serve anyone’s best interest.
- Not Compromising
You and your ex may have very similar values when it comes to raising your children, however, it is likely you disagreed on some topics. This is why communication and boundaries are so important. However, your ex may want to do something that you do not agree with. Whether this is a trip with the kids, a new haircut, or a variety of other decisions you need to make while raising children, try to be flexible. Of course, if a decision is made without your consent that required your approval, it is appropriate to take actions necessary to remedy the situation. Use your best judgement when working with your co-parent to assess what is negotiable. You may find yourself in a situation where your ex needs you to do something for the children. It is okay to build good will by compromising as long as the well being of your children is the top priority.
- Being the Undependable Co-Parent
It is true that trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair. Trust might already be in short supply with your co-parent, so simply do what is expected of you. If you are responsible for pick up or drop off, make sure you are early and prepared for your children’s visit. If you and your co-parent have taken steps to build a comprehensive plan of care, do not throw away that hard work. Things come up, that is understandable, but it is crucial that you prioritize holding up your end of the bargain as a co-parent. Don’t be the person in the group project that shows up to the presentation taking credit for the work while contributing less than your fair share. Your children will remember and worse of all, missteps could be considered a violation of the custody agreement.
It will take time to adjust to life co-parenting your children. When working with your co-parent, disagreements will arise, but don’t let those issues sink your ship. Work to control what you can and provide a safe environment for your children. Afterall, there care and best interest should be at top of mind at all times. A healthy relationship with their other caregiver can reduce the impact of the change and make a smoother transition.