In this Blog, we begin to look at the remaining three ingredients in an effective co-parenting relationship – a flexible schedule, coordinating parenting across homes, and problem-solving and making decisions. We remind you that for more detail, consider ordering our Co-Parenting Training Workbook, which includes examples, exercises and suggestions that we cannot provide in a brief Blog. The Workbook can be ordered from www.unhookedbooks.com.
A flexible schedule accomplishes a number of things, but the four most important are:
- Children need to feel that both parents are parents all of the time, not just the one they are with at the time. Parents are never always with their children. Children go to school, to friends’ houses, to activities, to grandparents and so on. However, mentally, children always feel that both parents are there, in the atmosphere so to speak, and will step in if needed. When parents are separated, flexibility accomplishes this important goal.
- It is not natural for a parent to be cut out of a major portion of children’s lives. This creates conflict between parents, and sometimes long, drawn out and expensive court battles over physical custody. Flexibility resolves this emotional challenge.
- Opportunities do not follow a physical custody schedule. Fun or important opportunities might come up for one parent at a time when that parent does not have the children. Flexibility allows the children to take advantage of those opportunities.
- Parents can be a resource for one another. If one parent gets stuck at work and cannot pick the children up from school, a quick call to the other parent solves the problem.
There are four types of access that create a flexible schedule. Each one needs a procedure and rules:
- When there is telephone access of parents to children and children to parents
- When a parent wants to change the schedule, either to take advantage of an opportunity or when that parent needs the other parent to take the children
- When a child initiates wanting a schedule change for some reason
- When both parents attend a child’s activity or event outside of the family.
The task is to develop procedures and rules for each of these forms of access. Don’t be casual about this process – much is at stake. For example, when speaking of telephone access, don’t just say, “We can call the children, and they can call us at any time.” That sounds nice, but is a set up for problems. There is homework to do, baths, bedtime preparation, dinner time and so on, making some times for long phone calls to the other parent extremely disruptive. Set up rules and procedures that are likely to work well for everyone. When changing the schedule, think about the emotional impact of lost time for the other parent. If it is only a couple of hours, that will probably even out over time, but a whole weekend might need a procedure for trading weekends for the change.
Coordinating parenting across homes is a very simple concept, yet can be daunting to parents because it brings up problems with control. The concept is that the more similar things are in the two homes, the easier it is for children to go back and forth and the more likely the child will learn important skills and lessons. The challenge is for parents to come to agreements on routines, chores and expectations, consequences, acceptable behaviors and so on. We all want to do things “our way” and think that we are “right,” but in this case, it is better to be similar than “right.” The task is to have planning meetings and make decisions, compromising when necessary, and always be ready for more planning meetings as circumstances change or a child gets older.
It is important to note that the demand for this ingredient changes as children get older. Infants and toddlers up to age five need the two homes to be almost exactly the same or they likely will have significant problems down the road. The need to be the same then slowly diminishes as a child gets older. By 9 or 10 years old, while having the homes be similar is important, the child can tolerate some differences without great harm.
The final ingredient, problem-solving and making decisions, is far and away the most difficult for separated parents. As we hinted above, resolving differences and disagreements is the reason that most separations happen in the first place. Therefore, resolving control these when separated is a challenge. Many parents avoid this and do things their own way. As a result, the arguments similar to those in the marriage persist. This causes the parents to live in a culture of ongoing conflict with the other parent and brings their children into that painful experience. Is there a solution? The answer is “yes”.
When something is not working, it is foolish to keep doing it. Therefore, the solution is to do it differently. In this case, parents should learn problem-solving and decision-making procedures, with rules to make the process emotionally safe. With new procedures, separated parents can become quite good at solving problems and making decisions together. One reason this is true is that the parents are no longer in an intimate relationship, where control has deep emotional meaning and where underlying insecurities and fears can be insurmountable challenges. For separated parents, it is only solving a problem or and making child-focused decisions.
Procedures and rules need to be developed for six types of situations:
- when a parent is having a problem with the other parent that is negatively affecting the co-parenting relationship (e.g., a parent is consistently late for transitions)
- when others are interfering with or disrupting the co-parenting relationship (e.g., grandparents are bad mouthing one of the parents to the children)
- when a child is having a problem that can be best solved by parents working together (e.g., a child is struggling in a class at school)
- when one parent has a concern about something going on in the other home
- when a decision needs to be made about the future (e.g., whether to sign a child up for a certain activity) and
- when there is a conflict in the physical custody schedule (e.g., one parent wants to travel for a holiday, which includes holiday time with the other parent).
This Blog is too short to cover these situations with suggested procedures. Parents interested in pursuing this essential ingredient in an effective co-parenting relationship can get assistance with this task by reading the Becoming and Expert Problem Solver Series on this website.:
To Recap, an effective co-parenting relationship has five ingredients:
- Sharing information
- Child friendly transitions
- A flexible schedule
- Coordinating parenting across homes
- Problem-solving and decision-making procedures that work
The quality of the co-parenting relationship is not only most important to children, it is the best predictor of how children do in the future.