You could see it in her eyes: Jayden was afraid to speak in front of her parents. She looked around the room as if to say, “Get me out of here!” Bombs were ticking inside both parents… another battle in their war against each other could begin at any moment. Last week it became clear how explosive their arguments could be. These two would fight over the most mundane dribble to escalate their adversarial battle. And, they were both blinded as to the extreme pain and irreparable damage they were causing Jayden. Michael mentioned that Jayden should bring a sweater as they met for the custody exchange. Melodie obviously interpreted this as a dig and implication that she was a bad mother and would allow their daughter to catch a cold. She couldn’t resist the challenge. “It’s too warm for a sweater… she’ll just lose it.” Here we go with the tug of war. “I’m right … you’re wrong… I win … you lose…” Jayden seemed to be shrinking away with every round. “Let’s go now Jayden!” screamed a red-faced Michael as he tore the sweater off a hook on the wall. While watching this scenario take place, there is no question as to why these two had separated—but, it’s also clear that their bickering is causing Jayden unbearable pain and distress. They have to find a way to work together if they really wanted to give Jayden any chance to grow into an emotional healthy young girl.
Today’s families appear in many forms, and the “nuclear” family now has many definitions. With changing family structures come changing roles and relationships. “Parenting” can be performed by separated parents, by grandparents, siblings or other adults. Often parenting involves parents who don’t live under the same roof, and who don’t always agree on philosophies or details. For the sake of the children—and for everyone involved—agreements must be made to establish rights and responsibilities; and today more than ever, these are divided between adults in co-parenting arrangements. How can you live apart, and work together? In spite of stress and anger that can linger between the parents after a break up, parents have a long haul and will remain linked as a two household family by their children. And, a united parenting team provides the children with security and stability. The children love both parents. When the two people they love the most—the two main authority figures in their lives—bicker and argue, life becomes very confusing and threatening. Can you imagine if the children’s teachers at school bickered with each other in front of the class? Most parents would be up in arms at such an environment for their child. Yet, these same parents have no qualms about this same environment at home.
Most parents going through a divorce agree that their children are the most important issue they face in the litigation, and all discussions should keep the child’s best interest in mind. Finding peaceful means of sharing parenting roles ensures that the children benefit in terms of self–esteem, achievement, and quality of life. Divorce occurs at alarming rates, and therefore parenting issues between parents no longer connected to each other must be addressed for thousands of families in every city. The best arrangement is always an agreed custody and parenting plan designed and implemented by the parents themselves. When parents are incapable of working out a parenting arrangement and work together, the parenting issues are thrust into the court for the person in the black robe to make the decisions for the parents. When each parent gets to see the child… whether their child gets braces… does the child go to private school?…or get to play soccer?
Don’t think that young children are the only ones at risk; children of all ages are thrust into the uncertainty and heartache of divorce. And, in fact, adolescents and teenagers can be very dramatically affected by the fighting. Disputes can arise regarding visitation, support and almost anything. And, while living in separate households can actually be more beneficial to children than remaining in a house of constant turmoil and hostility, parents can irreparably harm their children by involving them in the disagreements that arise during the divorce proceedings and beyond. In order to prevent damage to their children, parents must make good choices about how to dissolve their marriage and to move forward. They can either:
Accept that the marriage is over and attempt to co-parent the children, or
Maintain an adversary relationship with the other parent that spills over into parenting.
Parenting involves true focus on the child and remembering to “take the high road” when it comes to bickering. During a divorce, a parent should forego his or her anger, for the sake of children involved. Getting in that last insult accomplishes nothing, and hurts the children who witness the act. Children deserve the love, affection and respect of both parents, and when households are breaking up, a civilized and united parenting relationship is the best gift one can give to their children.
The divorce is not the end of interaction between parents. After all, the parents will participate in a life-long relationship while attending extracurricular activities, graduations, children’s weddings and sharing grandchildren. Clearly, life would be happier if these events didn’t have the stress of the divorce hostility looming over them. When the children are the true priority, parents put their own anger aside and work with the other parent to raise their children.
Unfortunately, a lot of divorced parents believe that the other parent is completely unreasonable, and they are unable to work with them (hence the divorce). How do divorced parents co-parent in these situations? Learn these rules, carry a copy with you, and read them every day. Someday your child will thank you.
Approach discussions with the other parent objectively, and stay on subject. Never imply “I am right…you are wrong.” Keep respectful and open-minded in your discussions. This will help to keep lines of communication open.
Do not make negative comments about the other parent to children; no matter how outrageous the other parent may act. (Note: If you truly believe there is abuse or neglect by the other parent, consult immediately with a therapist and an attorney. And, if there is an emergency situation, the local child protective services and law enforcement agencies should be contacted immediately.)
Never discuss the litigation with the children or allow them to review court documents. These are adult issues. You should approach the child custody issues as an opportunity to try to reach an agreement with the other parent. All attempts should be made to be a “united parenting force” for your children, if appropriate under the circumstances.
Do not use children as your pawns in your game. Never discuss child support with the children, and do not involve the children in passing messages to the other parent.
Do not undermine the other parent’s authority. If the other parent imposes discipline (such as grounding or a time out), support the decision. If you have questions or concerns about the discipline, discuss this respectfully outside the ear shot of the child. Of course, this does not mean to support child abuse. But, assuming we have a non-abusive method of discipline, consult with the other parent before questioning the decision in the presence of the children.
These rules are simple, but occasionally, ex-couples need help in learning to live by them. Consider help for learning to work together. Resources for developing co-parenting skills exist in special classes and in private therapy to help parents. These resources could be recommended by your attorney/s, therapists, medical professionals, your child’s school, or the court; so if you feel a need, take the initiative and ask for a referral. The time you invest now learning to co-parent can help everyone move forward to discover new paths in life.
After the divorce is final, the parents have the opportunity to focus on the parenting without the problems of the marriage. Clearly, the children should benefit. Children develop and grow very quickly, don’t fill their growing years with memories of battles and confusion. You only have one opportunity to raise them—don’t waste it because you are angry over the divorce.
Follow the example of Jon and Karrie, a married couple raising her children. Dave, who is Karrie’s ex, lives a few blocks away, and their co-parenting skills are so great that they have all become friends. The three adults sat together at Dave and Karrie’s son’s soccer banquet. All three showed pride in the role they play in raising this child. When Jon and Karrie went away last weekend, Dave happily watched the kids—and he even took care of his ex-wife’s dog!
Elisabeth Camaur is an attorney and Certified Family Law Specialist by the California State Bar Board of Legal Specialization with the firm of Camaur Crampton Family Law in Irvine, California. In 1994, she also became licensed in Virginia and has practiced family law in the Washington, DC area.