Most people idealize what it will be like to co-parent a child, and almost everyone is wrong about what it is actually like for them. One thing that's for sure is that no one plans for their co-parenting to be harmful to their children. However, sometimes the journey to healthy co-parenting is paved with potholes, jagged edges, and run stopped signs during communication. This article reveals some of that dangerous journey and gives co-parents tips on how to map out a safer trip.
Tag Team Parenting
Parents who have very different parenting styles may struggle with when and how to let one another parent. Here is a concrete rule to follow, if what your co-parent is doing isn't dangerous, and they haven't asked for your help, let them parent. Just because you would handle it differently does not mean your way is the one right way to handle the situation. Stepping in belittles your co-parent's authority in the situation and confuses the child. If you think that you are unable to stay out of the situation, then leave the room or home; tap out and let your co-parent stay in the parenting ring. Again, this is in a situation where there is simply a parenting style difference and your child is safe. This does not apply to situations where you believe your child is being abused. If your child is being abused by a co-parent, it is your responsibility to step in and protect the child. Perhaps you can go to the co-parent and calmly tell them everyone's emotions are running high and suggest you to step in or that you all can revisit the situation with the child later. This is another form of tag team parenting; tapping in when your co-parent needs to tap out and take time away from parenting.
"Just because you would handle it differently does not mean your way is the one right way to handle the situation."
Ideally, there will be times when you can recognize your need to tap out and tag in your partner, and vice versa. There will also be times when your partner simply just needs you to co-sign whatever they have told the child to do or however they have decided to handle a situation. The key to successful tag-team parenting is discussing these approaches with your partner beforehand and coming to an agreement so that you are on the same page with one another. Some parents even come up with signals and cue words that help them know what to do when they need help and when they've got everything under control.
Hiding the truth when there is trouble in paradise
Separating from a partner can be difficult for adults to understand. Likewise, children often struggle with the complicated reasons that lead to their parents separating. Even when children seem to handle it well, most children blame themselves for their parents suddenly living apart. This change is confusing for them and means that whatever their stability once looked like, everything is different now.
Sometimes well-meaning, though ill-informed, parents try to wait as long as possible before telling their children that a parent is moving out into their own place. Parents may even wait until moving day, or worse yet, they simply don't say anything and hope the child doesn't notice. Parents have been known to try things such as sleeping in different parts of the house and then sneaking back into the bedroom they once shared together before children awaken in the morning, or using the guise of working late and sleeping at work in efforts to shield children from what they think is the harmful part, "learning that their parents are struggling or aren't together anymore". The reality is that it is more harmful to shield children from the truth instead of helping them process their feelings of confusion, fear, loss, grief, anger, sadness, etc. By keeping children out of the loop of their daily lives, parents can be inadvertently creating internalized anxiety in their children. The truth is, the child knows that something is different. Whether a newborn baby, an older child or some age in between, children are perceptive and know when things have changed in their lives even if they cannot express it in terms that the average adult understands. Even if the child is a baby, parents are still encouraged to tell them what's happening. Doing so helps parents process and practice telling people, while also emotionally soothing the child. It gets parents in the habit of talking to the child about changes that directly and indirectly impact them.
Support Children Through Transitions
Find age appropriate ways to tell children what changes are coming in their family structure as soon as possible. It is okay if you are worried about them getting confused because you are unsure if the separation or challenges with your partner is permanent. The fact is, a change is happening for the child even if the change turns out to be temporary. To help prevent the development of excessive worry in children, they need a sense that their adults have things under control. Preparing them for the pending change will allow them to ask questions over time and get parents to support their changing emotions over what's happening.
Reassure the things that you know for sure, and only the things that you know for sure. Children need their parents to tell them that they are loved regardless of what their parents are experiencing in their relationships. Since it is known that many children blame themselves when there are problems with their parents, reassure them that what's happening has nothing to do with their behavior or anything that they did. Tell them that there isn't anything that they could do to change the situation, while validating that it can be frustrating for them to not have control over these changes. Let them know that their parents are responsible for making the situation as painless as possible.
Allow children to express themselves, even if the cognition or emotion is undesirable. For example, many adults have the urge to tell children "don't say that," "don't feel that way," or "don't think like that." Those are invalidating, overly critical, blameful, and harmful to a child's social-emotional development. First of all, automatic thoughts aren't not controllable. Telling someone not to think something is dismissive of reality. They are going to think whatever comes to their mind. Telling them not to, means that they may keep their thoughts inside and internalize them. It can also mean that they will develop negative self-talk and believe that they are bad for thinking a certain way. Similarly, one cannot control what initial feelings they experience. Therefore, children can develop an association of shame with certain emotions based on what their trusted adults told them not to feel. Now, it is true that children can learn to control what they say. However, in cases of parental separation or family discord, children benefit from being able to say what they are thinking so that their adults can help them. There are books that can help, too.
Supporting Communication Among Adults
One of the difficult parts of co-parenting is communication. This can be tricky even with parents who are still involved romantically. Thankfully, there are apps and tools to help make communication easier. A few of them are briefly discussed here.
Google - Free
Calendar: Can create a shared calendar for the child's important events such as primary care appointments, vaccinations, birthday parties, etc.
Keep: Parents can create notes of conversations, bullet point ideas for parties and other things that they need to discuss
Drive: automatically upload pictures of the children, their artworks. Take videos for the other parent and keep one another in the loop without communicating.
Gmail: For whatever reason, many parents find it easier to email one another over calling or texting. There seems to be more time to pause and think of appropriate communication strategies and to decide if they really want to hit send on the message. Additionally, email helps keep an accurate record of communication if needed.
Google Meet: Sometimes parents don't want to use their phone number to have their child video chat with a loved one and when the child is too young for their own phone number, Google Meet can be used as a safe and secure option for young children to video chat with a parent. Could even use it to schedule a live text session with your co-parent if you want.
Cozi - Basic version is free
Cozi has all of the features of Google, but using a different app. Cozi also has paid features if your family wants to upgrade.
OurFamilyWizard - Yearly subscription fee
A unique feature of this app is that you can add on ToneMeter for an additional cost. ToneMeter helps tone police your text so that you can try to avoid harsh communications with your partner. It's not perfect and misses cultural nuances, but it could be helpful for those who want help with removing blameful language from their co-parenting communications. As an alternative to paying, you could use Google with the free version of Grammarly and get a similar tone analysis feature.
Parenting is a very rewarding experience that not everyone who wants to, gets the opportunity to do. If you're a parent that has the opportunity to raise your child, you're automatically fortunate. However, parenting with a partner is not without its challenges whether you are romantically involved with that co-parent or not. Here are some summary points from today's article.
Tag team parenting helps parents feel empowered, respected, and like they are not alone.
Tag team parenting lessens confusion for children.
Hiding the truth of parental discord from children is more harmful than it is helpful.
Parents are encouraged to tell children about family changes as soon as possible, regardless of the child's age.
Children need reassurance of things that are true.
There are communication apps that can help co-parents navigate organization and planning.
There's no such thing as a child being too young to be told about parents' changing aspects of their relationship that will affect the child.
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