Breaking up is hard to do, but throw children into the mix and all the challenges that co-parenting brings and it can become even harder.
Co-parenting seems to be the phrase du jour. Every high-profile celeb split seems to come with a heartfelt pledge to prioritise successfully co-parenting the children. And rightly so, of course.
Just recently, Channing Tatum and ex Jenna Dewan reportedly finalised their custody arrangement of daughter Everly, six, following their split.
The former married couple share joint custody of Everly, but have had a parenting schedule put in place to make things easier due to their unpredictable work schedules.
While your average separated couple might not have to navigate the unusual working schedules of their celebrity counterparts, that doesn’t mean a parenting schedule or plan isn’t a good idea.
“As a lawyer, I always recommend parents consider a parenting schedule, or Parenting Plan as we tend to call them here in the UK,” says Cara Nuttall, Partner and specialist children lawyer at JMW Solicitors.
“With many parents working, trying to factor in commutes, school or nursery and extra-curricular clubs and activities, not to mention social engagements and seeing extended family, finding a workable and practical arrangement can be a nightmare, but it does not have to be.
“Sitting down and really thinking how everything will work can be difficult, emotional and challenging, but it can reduce a huge amount of stress and conflict further down the line.”
Nuttall says many parents can agree a parenting plan without the involvement of the courts, and anything agreed that way does not have to be approved by a Judge, but it is not legally binding. “Only a court order is binding and enforceable in that way.”
And a parenting plan isn’t the only way to co-parent successfully after a break-up...
Remember your child is not a weapon
This goes without saying, but no matter what hard feelings you have of one another, your child or children are the priority. “During proceedings, don’t use your child to score nasty points from one another (bribing with copious Birthday gifts comes to mind) as manipulation will only harm you and your child’s relationship in the long-term,” explains life coach, Carole-Ann Rice.
Don’t play the blame game
Tempting as it might be to fling around the insults, it’s worth holding your tongue in front of your kids. Rice recommends being transparent about the split and calmly and clearly letting your child know you are both separating without casting blame onto one another. “One partner throwing expletives and disrespectful opinions about the other is toxic as every child has the right to form their own opinions of their parents or guardians,” she explains.
Don’t turn to them for advice
Sure you’re likely struggling with the pain and hurt of a separation but remember your child isn’t a paid-by-the-hour counsellor. “Don’t download your feelings onto them; they might process them in a problematic way if they’re too young to handle the situation,” advises Rice. “Be honest about the split to them, but don’t use it as a voucher to vent.” Instead...
Find your support network
Divorce, especially messy divorce, can be challenging. Make sure you have the right people to talk to and support you, says parenting expert Cai Graham. “Also make sure you are taking time out for yourself. Breaking up is stressful - and you need to be able to decompress. Get to the gym if you can or spend time with friends.”
Teach them it is ok to love both parents
This might sound obvious, but kids might not be old enough to verbalise how they are feeling and often say what they think you want to hear. “Encourage them to share the fun that they had with your ex and allow them to talk openly about what's going on in the other home,” Graham recommends.
Sort your legal rights first
As difficult as it is to think of your own child in this way, it is important to know what rights you have to see them. “No matter if they’re biological or adopted, clarifying and securing your and their own legal rights is tantamount,” Rice recommends.
According to Nuttall an experienced mediator or lawyer can often help come up with creative formulas to try to cover both known and unknown situations and help parents navigate a lot of the “what ifs”.
Stick to a routine
Co-parenting works exceptionally well if there is a solid routine in place, says parenting expert Martina Mercer. “Confusion over who is doing the school run or having the children over the school holidays can lead to resentment and arguments,” she explains. “Routine is also great for the children, as they soon become used to the new way of living and it helps them come to terms with the split more quickly.”
Rice echoes the importance of consistency and familiarity when parents split. “Knowing that there are certain days they see a parent, do or go somewhere special will give a sense of normality and by knowing what is coming it lessens anxiety and disruption,” she explains.
Read more: What is Divorce Day and why is it a thing?
Kids spot BS at 100 paces. “Give them age appropriate explanations about what's going on. Uncertainty builds upset,” explains Graham.
Hold-fire on introducing new partners
Mercer says it's best not to introduce any new partners to children of separated parents for at least 6 months. “They need time to come to terms with the new dynamic, and a new ‘parenting’ voice in the mix can really muddy the waters,” she explains. “It's almost like a job, keep your private life private, and your parenting life separate until a relationship is serious enough to warrant an introduction.”
While you might vow you never want to see your ex ever again, there are times when successful co-parenting will warrant it. “There will be events when parents need to couple up, and this can be great for the children, as long as there are no arguments,” explains Mercer. “They will love to see that their parents are still friends. Depending on the relationship you may only couple up for parent's evenings and plays, or you may even choose to spend Christmas together.”