How To Co-Parent Your Kids After a Divorce: 6 Survival Tips For Divorcing Parents

How To Co-Parent Your Kids After a Divorce: 6 Survival Tips For Divorcing Parents

Divorce is brutal. It is a death without a dead body. It is the killer of dreams, slaughter of intimacy, the torture of children and the dismantling of a safe intimate community, the womb where children laugh, learn and grow.

And yet, despite marrying with all the very best of intentions, so many of us walk down the long open corridors full of hurrying darkly robed legal personnel and sign on the dotted line – an annulment of our traditional ‘I dos.’

There are many reasons why anyone chooses to leave a marriage – and for everyone who chooses to leave, there is another who did not have that choice. The ‘dumper’ and the ‘dumpee’ have very different stories. One, struggling to process a long history of distress, eventually pulls the rip cord and jumps. The other, often oblivious to the troubles at bay, is unceremoniously evicted into space, to meander and eventually fall, head first to the ground.

Two adults who came together to love, cherish and occasionally obey, until death us do part, part prematurely before the grave.

When two lives come together to make one, they blend their own languages, cultures, lifestyles, family traditions, favourite foods, holidays and finances. When they separate, the mess of broken bleeding hearts and torn fragments of connection are yanked apart. Both stand naked and alone to fend for themselves after what may have been years of standing by one another.

It is no wonder that separation and divorce is excruciatingly painful. As adults, we are forced to look backwards and inward, sideways and forward. How are we going to survive alone, financially, emotionally and socially? Who are we when not coupled with our partner, when not socializing in pairs, when not pooling our finances and planning our futures together?

As men and women post affair, we are cast adrift, grabbing at any passing float to keep us alive.

And yet, in the midst of all the court cases, house viewings and financial meetings, we aren’t alone…not really, not often. Most of us have an assortment of tiny people at our heels, in our beds, crying on our laps and wondering what has become of the place they called home, the people they called family.

For moms and dads post-separation, we are already so stretched, bravely navigating what is probably going to be one of the toughest times of our lives. We can barely keep ourselves afloat. Then we look up, or down, and see big eyes staring at us, confused, in pain, lost, wanting answers, wanting things to go back to the way they were.

We are forced to move from parenting with our partner to co-parenting with our ex.

Parenting is without a doubt the most difficult task any of us faces. It is 24/7 for life, though the hours and demands get a little easier with time. Co-parenting ‘one-ups’ the demands of parenting. It is like skiing with one ski, surfing with one leg, playing basketball with one arm. It isn’t the way things were supposed to go. We signed up under the false pretenses of two incomes, two pairs of hands and a warm body to curl up to when we couldn’t take any more.

We don’t get a guide book when we leave the hospital with our car seat full, rocking between us and walk to the car and eventually home. We certainly don’t get a guide book when we leave the courts.

Co-parenting is parenting without oxygen. It is intensely demanding.

We couldn’t agree as a couple on how to discipline, educate and socialize our kids. Now we have to agree as two frequently hostile independent adults.

Here are a few things to think about. You may already know some of this, or you may not. I hope that these thoughts offer food for thought, comfort when things get tough and hope despite the darkness.

1. How to Move On After a Divorce

Couples who come into my office for couples counseling are, for the most part, intent on ‘fixing’ their relationship. They want their partner to listen to them and understand them – and hope that their partner will agree with them. They want to be heard, validated, accepted and loved. And, frequently, they want their partner to change to become more of what-they-like and less of what-they-don’t-like.

Couples counselling isn’t always successful – sometimes a partner refuses to participate, end the affair, seek help for an addiction or simply be receptive to working with their partner to resolve their differences. When that happens, the partnership ends. It only takes one party to call for a separation, while it takes two to make the relationship work.

When a relationship ends, the work of trying to get your partner to see it your way, to agree with you and to change, ends as well. The process of trying to understand what they saw in the other man/woman and what they felt was wrong in their relationship with you stops. You are no longer trying to figure out your relationship with one another. You are now two separate individuals.

Some of the difficulties post-separation between couples is because they are still trying to get their partner to understand them, agree with them and change. They are still trying to work out what went wrong, gather intel and get even with their partner.

The fact is, that all ends when you separate. If you want answers, information, closure, comfort or anything else from your partner or that relationship, you need to find it elsewhere. You can see a therapist, talk to a friend or access a host of other supports. It is no longer your partner’s or your responsibility to provide that. You must both work through the baggage of a broken relationship on your own.

For some, this may be the first time you have been a single adult. Perhaps you have been with your partner since early adulthood and have no experience of functioning independently. Access support. The more you access your own support network, the less you will be looking to a troubled past for guidance.

2. How to Divide Your Money and Your Kids After a Separation

When relationships end, there is another big shift – splitting a household in two and moving from the home you have set up with your partner to your own place. Sometimes financial constraints send partners back to their parents’ homes, at least temporarily, or in to far-less-than-ideal short-term accommodations or basement apartments.

When you separate you are both shifting from home-with-partner (and kids), and home-alone (and kids). You are moving out of one family unit and creating a new family unit. It is critical to understand the significance of this when separ

ating, especially for dads. Too often, I see dads moving out and leaving mom and kids in the original family home, or mom and kids purchasing a smaller house (using the lion’s share of the finances available) and dad bunking down in a basement on a friend’s sofa.

This is not a good way to move forward. However much you love your kids and want to keep their lives as stable as possible – typically in the original family home – you also need to respect the needs of the other partner and the needs of your kids to see him or her.

When couples separate they are both creating new family units of their own, with their own home base, traditions and community. Both parents need that, and the kids need to be able to create a new family unit with the other parent. In order to make this happen, any separation agreement needs to set both partners up for success.

Your ex-partner’s success is your success. Your ex-partner’s happiness and wellbeing is your kids’ happiness and wellbeing. If you want to do well, then set your ex-partner up to do well. If you want your kids to flourish, set your ex-partner up to flourish.

Despite the termination of the relationship and the breakdown in the family unit, you are all connected long term through the kids. This doesn’t nullify any of what I have written above. It is a caveat to the above, intending to demonstrate that although as adults you have separated, you are still critically intertwined through your children.

What you do or don’t do or say or don’t say to your ex-partner directly impacts your kids. Kids blossom, grow and flourish when their parents are whole and healthy. Kids wither and die when their parents are sick and malnourished. The language is flowery and extreme. I hope that it makes sense.

Right from the beginning this starts with dividing assets and deciding on where the kids are going to live.

Basic guidelines – in an old-fashioned home where dad is the breadwinner and mom the homemaker; in a more traditional home, where dad has the blue jobs, and mom the pink jobs, dad has to be generous with the finances and ensure that mom is financially secure; mom has to be generous with the kids. It doesn’t work one way.

Of course, if you go and find a mediator or lawyer, they will work all this out for you. But, at the onset you guys need to think through some basic ground rules about how you are going to manage your separation. Are you going to have a good separation or a bad one? Is it going to be amicable, short and sweet, or contentious, high conflict and prolonged? There are no prizes for guessing which separation benefits the kids. There is a direct correlation in all the research between a ‘good-separation’ and well-adjusted kids, and a ‘bad-separation’ and emotionally-traumatized kids. It isn’t rocket science! Your kids need you to put your own issues aside – remember above, all those angry, resentful and hurt feelings do not belong in your dealings with your ex-partner now; and you need to focus exclusively on setting your ex-partner and your kids up for success, and setting yourself and your kids up for success.

Mom and dad need to see the kids as much as possible, ideally 50/50. Dad and mom need to be able to pay the bills. The challenge is to give generously. This is particularly difficult for moms who have been the primary caregivers of young children. For many women, this is the reason they delay or don’t separate from their partners; because they are unwilling to be physically separated from their children.

This is normal. It is healthy. You have bonded intensely with your babies. You are designed to do that so that your babies survive.

When the relationship with your partner ends you are forced to stretch way outside your comfort zone. You are going to need to let the kids go and stay alone with dad overnight and over multiple days. This isn’t easy. But this is what you need to do – because you are no longer the only caregiver. Whichever way you divided chores and childcare before has changed. Dad is now getting to be dad on his own for significant lengths of time. And so, you need to let go and let him be dad. That is one of the consequences of ending a relationship, and it isn’t always a bad thing. Dads can be awesome dads. You need to give them a chance to be awesome dads.

When moms are unwilling or unable to share child care – whether motivated by a felt-need to be near the children, or a financial-need to receive the associated child-support – it will exert a great deal of negative stress on the separation agreement.

Mediators and lawyers are known to make ‘errors’ with regard to this. I have known mediators advocate for mom to have full care of the kids, because they are young, and for aggressive lawyers to advise parents (sometimes dads) to withhold the child/ren from their ex-partner, as part of a strategy to leverage ‘more’ out of the separation. I find all such approaches appalling.

If you want a high-conflict, high-stress and high-collateral-damage to your kids scenario, go right ahead. But be fair warned, it is a path of pain and misery with no happy-ending.

Whether you like it or not, the wellbeing of your ex-partner is intricately tied to your own wellbeing.

Both family units need to be financially stable and set up for financial stability and success. And both family units include a parent who is going to be the caregiver to the child/ren when they are living in that family unit.

Dads you need a home, a place where the kids can be comfortable, preferably with a bedroom for the kids, and the same level of comfort and fun that they had in the original family home. Whether you were a hands-on-dad in the past or not, you need to step up to the plate and be a hands-on-dad now. Your kids need you. They need their dad to tuck them into bed, read them stories, kiss them goodnight.

Separation calls on you to play both roles in your family unit because you are a single parent. You are breadwinner and homemaker. Don’t give that up due to some misconception that mom has been the one to raise the kids, the kids need her the bulk of the time or you might not be up for the job. Previously established family gender roles no longer apply. You are most definitely up for the job. You can do it. And your kids need you to do it, and not just on weekends.

There are significant challenges to this, such as mom hasn’t worked, or earns a lot less than dad, or dad hasn’t changed a diaper, brushed the kid’s teeth, or put the kids to bed at night. But separations put an end to the privileges of that previous division of labour. For most families it is no longer possible to depend on one income (few could before a separation), and it is no longer possible, or at least advisable, for one parent to be the primary or only parent.

A separation agreement involves the wise division of assets and childcare. It calls on both men and women to be generous with finances, and generous with sharing childcare. Typically the pressure is on the men to be generous with the finances and the women to be generous with the childcare.

3. How to Create a Parenting Plan After a Separation

You are now two independent adults, forming new independent family units. The units are entirely separate. As adults you have options: co-create a common parenting plan or go at it solo. Co-creating a common parenting plan means jointly deciding on how you are going to approach parenting. You probably haven’t done this before. If you had, and if it was working, you probably, (though not necessarily) wouldn’t be separating. If you are able to co-create a parenting plan now you are light years ahead of your divorcing peers. The younger the kids, the more critical co-parenting plans become. All kids need some continuity and routine; young kids, in particular, will struggle a great deal (think multiple meltdowns, bed wetting, school refusal etc.) without a regular schedule.

This can mean something as simple as agreeing on bedtimes, naptimes, and mealtimes. These are uber basic, but having a common agreement on your kid/s’s basic schedule will go a long way to helping them adjust to the separation. Don’t overthink it. If they went to bed at 7pm before, put them to bed at 7pm. This will change as they get older.

Parenting plans can also include: how long kids spend on devices, what they are allowed to watch on TV, how much help they get with homework. This is up to you guys. You can take a class that will help you to write a parenting plan, you can see a therapist or you can just sit down and talk about it. The more conflictual and tense the relationship between you as co-parents the less you will be able to agree on any details in the parenting plan. The more amicable and mutually respectful the relationship, the more likely you are to be able to develop a comprehensive parenting plan.

It takes two to tango, and it takes two to create a co-parenting plan. If you are not able to communicate respectfully and productively with your ex-partner, you will not be able to create a common parenting plan. You will all lose. The kids will struggle to know whether they are coming or going, and you as parents will need to deal with and parent dysregulated and distressed kids. But, unfortunately, you can’t force a dog to drink, and you can’t force your partner to create a co-parenting plan with you – unless it is court mandated. If your co-parent refuses to agree on a common co-parenting plan, then you guys are flying solo.

The hardest thing about flying solo as a parent, is that you have no say in what your co-parent/ex-partner does with your kids. This is kind of scary and mighty hard to get your head around. If your ex wants to watch R rated movies with your kid, or have his or friends over for drinks or smokes in front of the kids, or doesn’t put the kids to bed until 2am, there is really very little you can do about it. You can tell them that you don’t like it or that you are concerned about the negative impact it is having, but not much more than that. You can, of course, call Child and Family Services and report a child welfare concern, and they may investigate it, but they may not. Child and Family Services are concerned about the welfare of the children, and what concerns you may not concern them. And they are not fond of being pulled into conflicts that are largely separation/divorce conflicts between two parents and do not represent immediate child safety issues.

This is a tough pill to swallow. If you’ve reached the point of deciding to separate from your partner you probably have quite different values and opinions on a number of issues. Post-separation those differences may become more distinct. If he/she used to drink on weekends, they may start drinking during the week. If they watched some not-so-nice shows, they may start watching some down-right-ugly shows, and your kids may be right there with them.

Deciphering what is a parenting difference and what is a child safety issue isn’t that easy. General guidelines are that if there are kids in the home, there needs to be an adult in the home who is able to respond effectively in an emergency, such as getting kids out of a house if the house is on fire, or calling 911 if a child is choking or having a seizure. If an adult is driving with kids in the car, the adult needs to be sober. You can always call your local Child and Family Service office if you have any particular situations that you want to discuss with them, and I encourage you to do that. Though it is important that you know that calling CAS on your ex-partner does up-the-ante significantly. If there are genuine concerns, or if you are unsure if there are genuine concerns, do not let that stop you, but if it is something that you can address with them when things have calmed down the next day – then address it with your ex the next day.

Having an agreed upon parenting plan, even with the most minimal of content, is clearly far more preferable than having nothing at all. This is something you can address at the time of the separation. It is, of course, heavily influenced by the age of the kids, and therefore their particular parenting needs.

4. How to Successfully Co-Parent in a High-Conflict Divorce

You want a good separation and divorce. You want to set each other up for success and be able to create a road map of how you are going to parent your children separately-together, and you want to be able to find a way to manage your own communication with one another.

If you are able to communicate respectfully with your ex that is awesome. Kudos to you! That is wonderful. Keep up the good work.

If you are not, then do something about it.

It is not okay to carry on attacking, berating, criticizing, shaming, name calling, threatening or any other such poisonous communications with your partner – whether by phone, text or email.

If you guys are not able to stop that, then you need to act – it has to stop. When communication between exes is hostile I strongly recommend that you stop all calls, texts and emails and move all your communication online to a third-party portal where all communication is monitored and can be pulled up in any court hearings. This deescalates toxic talk very fast.

The most well-known of these sites is Our Family Wizard:

You pay a nominal fee each calendar year, and all your communication with one another happens through that site. You can and should store your kids’ schedules on there, with all the details about who is picking up/dropping off, any appointments, and other commitments etc. It is all on the portal.

When you do this, you are no longer required to deal with offensive, intrusive, cruel and toxic messages and phone calls flooding your much-needed post-divorce recovery time.

There is simply no reason to tolerate toxicity. If your partner won’t pay for it, consider paying for both of you. Give them the login details, and then advise them that you are blocking all other forms of communication.

In addition to this, you can prearrange that all pick-ups and drop-offs occur at a neutral location, such as school, day care, or other such location, so as to avoid the emotional tension or potential verbal escalation that can occur at hand overs.

Transitioning kids via a neutral drop off point is also very helpful for kids who are often weepy or distressed when being parted from one parent and handed over to the other. Having the drop-off parent leave the kid at school, or day care, and then having the pick-up parent pick up the kids from school or day care makes the transition a lot easier.

5. How To Tell Your Kids You Are Separating?

All good so far? It’s tough isn’t it. Divorce is not for the faint-of-heart. Single-parenting under any circumstances can be brutal.

Lean into the people, friends and family that love you. Stick to the people who believe in you and build you up. Stay away from those who leave you feeling bad about being you.

There is one more matter I’d like to address, and that is how you talk to your kids about the separation and how you talk to your kids about your ex, their father or mother. Perhaps I should have addressed this first, as this is probably the most important of all the issues we have addressed. It begins with how you break the news that you are separating and continues till you, or your partner dies.

First, breaking the news. There are good and very bad ways to do this. The good way requires you working with your ex/co-partner to coordinate peaceful, mutually respectful, and gentle communication of the news to your kids. You need to be able to discuss with your ex what you are going to say and how and when you are going to say it before talking to the kids.

When you and your partner have agreed on how you are going to do this, you need to ask your kids to sit down because you have something to talk to them about. You may need to give them some lead time to this, for example, when you get home from school, or after breakfast we are going to sit down and talk. Turn off all devices – everyone’s, including your own. Let them know that you have something important to tell them. This prepares your kids psychologically to hear what you have to say, and makes sure that the shock impact of the news is mitigated by a holding-environment. Tell the kids what is happening in simple, age-appropriate language. Here is a basic outline that may help you to do this:

  1. Mom and Dad love the kids. The relationship between mom and you, and dad and you is very strong, and will never change. That you will always love them.
  2. Mom and Dad’s relationship with one another is not very good. That it is mom and dad’s job to look after Mom and Dad’s relationship and that Mom and Dad haven’t done a very good job of that.
  3. That it is not the kid’s/s’ job to make Mom and Dad’s relationship good. It Mom and Dad’s job to take care of their relationship with one another. That there is nothing, nothing in the world, that the kids could have done to break that relationship or to fix it. That they are kids, and this is the adults’ job.
  4. Take joint responsibility for the breakdown, whether there is an affair, an addiction, a mental health issue, abuse or anything of any sort. Mom and Dad must always take responsibility for the breakdown in the relationship between Mom and Dad. Always. No exceptions.
  5. Always speak respectfully to your partner in front of the kids. Do not mock or criticize, or any of that other ugly behaviour. The time for that language and behaviour is over. You need to put your issues right out of the picture here and focus utterly and only on the kids and their welfare. These are your babies. You brought them into the world and you are responsible for them.
  6. Tell the kids very simply that Mom and Dad will be living in two different houses. That Mom will live in one house, and that Dad will live in another house.
  7. Tell the kids that the kids will live in Mom’s house with Mom one week/sometimes and that the kids will live in Dad’s house with Dad another week/sometimes.
  8. Keep it simple. Tell them what you know. If you don’t know, don’t guess. Tell them that you don’t know yet.
  9. Do not be tempted to throw in ‘treats’ to make this more palatable, such as ‘you’ll have a new room, or we’ll repaint your room, or we’ll get a pet cat, dog, rat or what-have-you.’ That might sound ‘nice’ to you, but it is in exceedingly bad taste. Imagine you have been in a traffic accident and lost your leg and the surgeon came in and said, ‘yes you lost your leg, but you are going to have a shiny red computer leg that swivels’. It doesn’t work, right?
  10. As much as you can, tell the kids what will remain the same and what will change. Kids are egocentric. That is how they are. They will think about how this impacts them. They will think of things you haven’t thought of and can’t guess at. They will want to know if they will still get the bus from the same bus stop, or whether they will still be able to buy ice cream off the ice cream truck with their friend Jonny. You have to roll with this. Give the kids plenty of time. Talk – tell them number 1. Pause – breathe. Talk – tell them number 2. Pause – breathe. Give them plenty of time to ask questions. Take all the questions very seriously. Before you answer the question, validate the emotion behind the question, such as ‘it sounds like it’s very important to you that you can still see Jonny, or it sounds like it’s kind of scary not knowing where you will take the bus.’ This is kid-centric. You need to be kid-centric. Do not lie. Do not make it up. Do not guess. Do not use euphemisms. Use concrete simple language in keeping with the child’s age.
  11. Give the children plenty of time to ask questions. Ask them if they have any questions – and wait. Tell them that it is normal to feel sad and a bit scared when this happens. Tell them that that is okay, that it is Mom’s and Dad’s job to take care of them, and Mom and Dad love them very much and will always take care of them. Tell them that they can come talk to you about it at any time and ask any questions they like.
  12. No topic is off the table. They can ask anything. You may not always know the answer and you may choose not to answer all the questions, but they can ask whatever they want. This is their lives that are being impacted, irrevocably and forever.
  13. Don’t be surprised if they don’t seem that upset – all kids are different. One child may act out, putting all their bad-feelings out there for you to see, again in an age-appropriate way. For little kids, you may see short tempers, tantrums, irritability and crying. For big kids, you may see defiance, hanging out with different group of kids and drug/alcohol use. It may be very obvious that they are distressed. Another kid, may appear a lot calmer on the outside but be pushing all their bad feelings inside where you don’t see. With these kids you may see other signs that they aren’t doing so well, such as bed wetting, insomnia, change in appetite, or general low mood and malaise – again varying according to the age of the kid. Some kids may have a delayed response and seem perfectly okay on the outside, with no significant change in behaviour, and then weeks or months later, may act out, or act in.
  14. You are the adults. You need to take responsibility for getting the kids help if they need it. At the very least this means that you as parents/co-parents take responsibility for prioritizing the kids, giving the kids even more time and attention that you did before, recognizing that they are vulnerable and that they may act out/in at this point, cutting them some slack, giving them the benefit of the doubt and taking time and accessing resources to help them. You may decide that you are going to set them up with additional outside resources up front, before working out how they are going to handle the separation. Some people recommend seeing how the kids get on and offering help if they are struggling. Others recommend setting them up with some support irrespective of how they respond to the news you are separating. Early intervention is always best. However, when you access help may depend on the age of the child, their willingness to access help and other variables. If you have any questions or concerns, contact a family therapist to discuss. There are tons of resources out there. There is a wide assortment of books, from workbooks for little kids: When Mom and Dad Separate,, you can go through with your kid/s, to books for big kids… There are specialized groups for kids that often run in the schools or local community/church settings, such as Rainbows, They also run paired groups with a group for the parents running alongside groups for the kids. There are psychotherapists, social workers and psychologists galore that are available to support your child, you and your family as you move through this major life transition. A note about children and therapy: go to Pull up the list of therapists in your area, search for the therapists that work with children that age, and let your child/teen choose which one they want to see. For little kids under 12 years and/or kids who are pushing their feelings in and withdrawn, opt for music or art therapy over a talk-therapy.
  15. Be prepared to go back and talk to the kids again and again about this. For all kids, particularly young kids, the very foundation of their world rests on their family. They have a life at school, and a life with friends, and a life with extended family, but their epicentre is their nuclear family. When adults separate, that epicentre changes irrevocably. As an adult it is hard to imagine how radically unsettling and terrifying that is for a kid. Children are dependent on their parents for many years. When the parents separate, that security is radically destabilized. A separation also involves complex changes, so take time to come back and check in with your child/ren and see how they are doing. Be available to go over what has happened and answer questions they have. Again, remember kids are different and their responses are different – so read your kid and respond in kind.
  16. Understand that even young teens have great difficulty grasping moral greys. Young kids and pre-teens think in moral absolutes. There is a good-guy and a bad-guy. When it comes to separation and divorce, your kid/s will look for a “good parent” and a “bad parent.” That is their default. If they are very young, they will not be able to ‘create’ a bad-parent, or make one of their parents bad, and therefore the ‘bad’ person who is causing all this pain and trouble will be themselves. For young kids, ‘My parents are good, they need to be good, otherwise I can’t survive because I am utterly dependent on my parents. There needs to be a good-guy and a bad-guy, so I must be the bad-guy. I am bad and therefore my parents separated. It’s all my fault.’ For slightly older kids, and again there is a great deal of variation here and numerous variables, there is a good-parent and a bad-parent. This reinforces the rule that parents who are separating should not try and explain to the kids the complex moral greys about how and why the marriage broke down. You both need to take responsibility for the breakdown and uphold that interpretation now and moving forward – until the kids are adults and/or until your kids are well into their teens and can begin to understand some of these complexities. And even then, you need to broach any conversation about what went wrong in your marriage with caution and a great deal of wisdom. This guideline applies to grandparents, uncles, aunts, friends and family of all kind. You are the parent. You tell the other people in your social circle what you need from them.

6. How to Talk About Your Ex With the Kids?

The first step is telling the kids that you are separating. This may take 10 minutes, it may take an hour. Hopefully, with a little bit of hard-work and luck you and your ex can make this happen. It doesn’t have to perfect, just good-enough.

The next step is far more difficult. The next step isn’t going to take 30 min, or even an hour; it is going to go on and on for as long as you and your partner live. The next step is all about how you are going to refer to, talk about and relate to your ex-partner after you have told the kids you are separating.

This is beyond doubt the most important parenting task that you are responsible for after a separation.

Your kids are mini-yous, and they are mini-your-ex. They are biologically created by both of you, with bits of you and bits of your ex, and psychologically they know that they are a bit of dad and a bit of mom. In same sex marriages, or relationships where the parents are not biologically related to the child, such as adoption or egg/sperm donation, the psychological impact on the children is still the same as it is for biological parents. Young kids and many older kids will relate to you as their parent whether or not they are biologically related. I guess that’s obvious, but just want to make it clear.

For kids, knowing that they are partly-mommy and partly-daddy means that when they hear bad-things said about mommy, they think bad-things about themselves. Ditto when they hear-bad things said about daddy.

When you speak negatively about your ex within earshot of your kids, your kids will internalize that as you speaking negatively about themselves. They may not tell you that. They may not be able to articulate that, but that is what is going on psychologically.

This is why it is paramount that you and your ex commit to speaking positively of each other whenever the children are around.

Your challenge is to speak well of your ex. Be sincere. Be genuine. Be specific. You can always find one tiny good thing to say about your ex – they can be good at their job, a great musician, awesome hockey player or make great curry. Anything. It can be anything. For you, the good is long forgotten, and somewhat meaningless given all the bad, but you need to find something good to say about your ex, and you need to tell the kids what is good about your ex.

You need to do this whether your ex is able to do this or not. Even you are the only parent speaking well of the other parent you will go a long way to doing good by your kids. And sometimes, good stuff begets good stuff; when your ex hears what you are saying about them to the kids, then they may stop saying such awful stuff about to you to the kids.

To do otherwise is to psychologically, emotionally and mentally injure your kids.

To do otherwise is to speak ill of your kid, to your kid. It can irrevocably damage your kids sense of self, self-esteem and confidence. It can contribute to the onset of a wide range of mental health issues. It is absolutely paramount that you choose to speak well of your ex with your kids.

When you speak ill of your ex-partner to your kids it also undermines your kid’s relationship with their other parent. When you say nasty things about your ex-partner in front of your kids it damages your kid’s relationship with your ex.

I know that at this point you may be feeling that that isn’t a bad thing, or that your ex deserves that, or that they were never around, or were a lousy parent anyway. And all that might be true. However, your kids need their parents, both parents. They need to have the opportunity to have a relationship with both parents. Your ex may not have been a good parent prior to the separation, but everything has changed now. Both parents need an opportunity to be parent.

Speaking ill of your partner alienates your child from their parent. It is referred to as Divorce Poison. You can read more about it in numerous places, such as Richard Warshack’s book, Divorce Poison:

You guys both love your kids. Arguably there is no one who loves your kids more than you guys, and even if you guys don’t love each other anymore, and don’t even like each other anymore, you both love your kids, and you both need to have an opportunity to build that relationship with your kids.

This becomes more complicated the older the kids get. There is no hard line in the sand, but basically the older the kids get the more they can decide for themselves whether or not they want to have a relationship with their parents or not and what that relationship will look like. This is true of all families, all parents and all teens/kids.

Initially kids are 100% dependent on their parents, and gradually over many years, they move toward independence. As they grow up they move away from their parents. From about 8 years old the kids are more heavily influenced by their peers than they are by their parents. By the time they reach puberty they are actively pushing away from their parents and out into the world of independence. You will often see them swing from fierce independence to dependence again as they make this slow transition.

When kids are little they unconditionally love, trust and believe in their parents. When parents have established a strong bond with their kids during those years, that bond can withstand a great deal of distress and turmoil – though not unlimited or forever. For parents who have not established a strong bond with their kids during those years, things are far more difficult. They may continue to have a distant relationship with their kids, and not try to get to know their kids better, or build a better relationship with their kids after the divorce. Or, they may get a bit of a wake-up-call when divorce hits, and realize that they don’t want to be the absent or distant parent anymore.

I have seen this happen numerous times with parents, particularly with dads who have been largely breadwinners and workaholics. Divorce strikes, and it is like they have been zapped with an electric shock and suddenly realize they are dads and that they really want to be dads – hands-on, active dads, not absentee dads.

This is awesome. The motivation and drive are awesome. Unfortunately, sometimes the ever-present and attentive dad arrives too little, too late – and mostly too late. Irrevocable damage may have already occurred in their relationship with their kid, or the kid is no longer much of a kid, they are already well on their way to adulthood, and are no longer willing to take time to ‘get to know dad’.

That being said, many if not most kids, will welcome the opportunity to have a better relationship with their previously absent parent. The challenge for the previously absent parent is to work out how to parent given the age of the kid/teen/young adult.

Some previously absent parents want to pull the kid in as if they were a little kid, relating to the teen as a younger child, wanting to assume the same level of authority or intimacy over that child that was appropriate then, but no longer appropriate now.

This causes heartache to both the parent and the kid and creates tension in their relationship with one another.

Basic rule of thumb for me (and feel free to disagree!) is that as parents we are privileged to have a relationship with our growing teens and nearly-adults. It is not a right, it is a privilege, and needs to be treated as such.

The days of absolute parental authority from the cradle to the grave has long since gone in most western societies. Our kids are quickly discovering and exerting their own independence and that will inevitably impact what kind of relationship they choose to have with us as adults and parents.

Once the kids are 12 years and up they can and will tell you which parent they want to stay with and how long they want to stay with them. This only increases as the teen ages. These are complex issues, and are often tied to finances, such as child-support. Some divorcees have this detailed in separation agreements, and some don’t. Each situation is unique and calls for wisdom, patience and mutual respect. If in doubt, or struggling to navigate these difficult waters, please get help – there are many capable therapists out there who can support you during this transition period.

Parenting isn’t easy. Co-parenting is another step up from parenting. You need to educate yourself about the do’s and dont’s of co-parenting; the ways to protect, cherish and nurture yourself and your children post-divorce.

This was a long read. If you have reached the end of this, kudos to you. You have already put significant time and energy into finding out what you can do to support and care for your kids during and after a separation. Well done.

Don’t give up if you fail. Don’t give up if you shout at the kids, get mad, say something yucky about your ex under your breath or otherwise fail to follow through on some of what is written here. It isn’t easy. You can’t and won’t be perfect. And you don’t have to be. You just need to be good enough. You need to be a good enough parent to your kids, as adults need to be goodenough co-parents for your kids.

You got this. Hang in there. It does get a tiny bit easier with time….slowly – but surely.

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