Shared Parenting: Making it Work

by Gary Gilles

Divorce, especially when children are involved, is a messy affair. I’m stating the obvious, of course. Children’s lives are changed by divorce regardless of how much parents’ wish it weren’t true. A mound of research tells us that kids of divorce need regular contact with both parents. And the good news is that most children want an ongoing relationship with both parents after the split. Those who get it are better emotionally and socially adjusted.

The question is, how can you work with your ex to make this happen? It was hard enough working together when you were married, what’s it going to be like shuffling your kids between two homes on a regular basis? Good question. And there are some good answers. Let’s take a closer look at how this might work.

Shared parenting requires more than a roof for your kids and a tolerable relationship with your ex. It takes deliberate effort and a commitment to:

  1. be an active, responsible force in meeting your child’s ongoing physical and emotional needs.
  2. communicate honestly and respectfully with your ex.

The goal of shared parenting is to put your child’s needs first. That means putting bitter feelings and differences between you and your ex in the background. This is the hardest part. But once you get that straight, you can focus on making shared parenting an enriching experience for all of you. Here are some proven ways to make it happen.

  • Work toward similar expectations for children
  • Don’t limit contact with child to visitation
  • Make both homes friendly and inviting
  • Deal constructively with parent conflict

Work toward similar expectations

After a divorce, it’s not unusual for parents to differ on their expectations for the children. One parent may let the children get away with anything, while the other might try to enforce discipline across both homes. This presents a difficult environment for kids. They want to know what you expect of them. And when those expectations are consistent between both parents they are going to feel more secure and stable moving from home to home.

To make this happen both parents need to discuss with each other their expectations for discipline and general behavior. No doubt you will have different ideas on things like bedtimes, homework, chores, curfews, and others. But remember, you’re trying to find common ground to help your children adapt to the shared parenting arrangement. So be willing to listen and consider each other’s point of view. You won’t always come to an agreement on all issues. And for these you will have to respectfully agree to disagree. But work hard at finding as much agreement as possible.

The next step is to clearly explain to the children what the two of you have decided. If you can have a “family” meeting to communicate this, do it. It will only strengthen the stability and security you seek for the kids as they move back and forth between homes.

The final piece is enforcing the expectations you agreed to. All of your previous work goes out the window if you don’t hold your kids to the agreed-upon standards. If you’re having difficulty enforcing the standards, talk to your ex about ways to do modify them.

Don’t limit contact to child’s visitation

It’s easy to limit the contact with your child to the time he or she is with you. But look for other ways to be involved. Attend school activities on the days you don’t have your kids. Send them a card or something you picked up to let then know you were thinking about them. Phone them just to talk or catch up.

A day or two before they are scheduled to visit, make a special call to tell them one or two things you might be doing with them. This instills some predictability for their upcoming visit and with it a feeling of security. Also on this phone call, ask them if there are things they might like to do. This communicates your interest in their needs.

Make both homes friendly and inviting

Shared parenting can be at its most demanding when it comes to providing all the material items of living in two homes. This includes all the necessities like a bed, clothes, school books/supplies, medicines, and a few non-essentials like sports gear, familiar videos, and favorite snacks, and others.

Don’t just assume that because your ex has a particular item at their home, that it is not needed at yours. It will require clear communication between you and your ex to determine which items need duplicates and which can be shared. Again, your goal is to create a warm, inviting home for your child. The more attentive you are to the details, the more your child will look forward to coming to your home and feel that it is also theirs.

Dealing with parent conflict

Inevitably, you and your ex are going to disagree on some issues. How you handle these disagreements will either strengthen your parenting partnership or weaken it.

  • Rule # 1: When your ex is present, don’t make disparaging comments toward them or put them down ex in the presence of your child. This creates a very awkward situation for your child and forces them to take sides. It can also lead to the child playing one parent against another. When you let this happen, you’ve lost the united front you worked so hard for in establishing similar expectations.
  • Rule # 2: Talk about any differences with your ex in private. Instead of pushing your point, listen to their concerns, even if they seem like the “same old story” you’ve heard for years. For the sake of your child, try to hear what they are saying. Before countering them, reflect back a summary of what you heard them say to show you truly are listening. Consider their ideas and discuss ways that you could compromise. This is all part of being respectful even though the love has been lost along the way.
  • Rule # 3: When you’re ex is not around, refuse to criticize or talk negatively about your ex to your child. And don’t let friends or family member do so either. If your child attempts to be negative about the other parent, listen, but don’t feed the criticism. The old adage applies here: if you can’t say something constructive about your ex, don’t say anything at all. Your child’s understanding of relationships, and family relationships in particular, is being molded by how you and your ex interact with one another. Keep your child out of the middle. If you need to work through your feelings toward your ex, take it up with a therapist or trusted friend, but not with your child.

Shared parenting is not easy. But it is rewarding as you see your child flourish because they feel loved by both parents, secure in both homes, and held to similar standards. It is also satisfying, despite your broken marriage, that you’re mature enough to put differences aside and responsibly raise your children together in a healthy way.

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