There’s no time of the year that forces co-parents to communicate quite like special occasions. Special times like birthdays, Christmas and Thanksgiving have a way of emphasizing the separation that comes with shared custody, but they don’t have to. Co-parenting with an ex doesn’t have to symbolize the end of a romantic relationship; it’s simply the beginning of a new kind of partnership.
Immaturity, unresolved feelings and resentment all make co-parenting more difficult than it has to be. The drama has nothing to do with the kids but they are often the innocent bystanders that get caught in the co-parenting crossfire. Remember: At the end of the day as much anger as you may have toward that person, on some level you have to deal with this person for the rest of your life and that’s a long time to be miserable.
Your family may not look like anything on the Hallmark Channel, but that doesn’t mean that every dinner or “switch-day” has to turn into a VH-1 reality show fight filled with F-bombs and empty threats. Here are 15 tips that make co-parenting easier on both parents and children, especially during special occasions.
It sounds simple but some of the biggest arguments start because one parent creates an agenda without making the other aware of their intentions. You cancel happy hour with your co-workers to pick up the kids from school, only to find out your ex already has that covered. No one likes to be inconvenienced or left out of the loop. Make sure everyone is on the same page about schedules and what’s expected as far as values and rules.
2. Choose a schedule that’s convenient for the child.
The holidays aren’t always fair when it comes to parenting, but what really isn’t fair is interrupting the celebration so you can get “your” time in. Look at it from your kids point of view: They’re baking cookies with Grammy and Grandpa and here comes daddy at the door talking about, “Let’s go ice-skating!” Transitions are difficult for children; don’t make them harder. If parents can’t agree to spend time as one big family, avoid planning switch-days on Christmas Eve, in the middle of the child’s birthday or other awkward times.
3. Be the bigger person.
Arguments can easily turn from being about the needs of the children to proving your point or being the “winner”. But while you’re running victory laps because you got your way, your child ends up being the loser. Don’t sweat the small stuff like he was supposed to there at 4 and showed up at 5. You don’t have to always wave the white flag, but bickering back and forth accomplishes nothing but making your child feel tense and uncomfortable.
4. Always make the child the top priority.
If you can’t find common ground with your co-parent, try to think of the situation from your child’s point of view. Your child isn't going to remember where he/she spent their birthday if their memories are just filled with arguing parents. If you have conflict you need to address, save it for when you’re alone as opposed to in the middle of Chuck E. Cheese. Your child doesn't deserve to be embarrassed or scared because you feel some type of way.
5. Keep problems private.
He hasn't paid child support in months his mom pays all of his bills. You may think you’re just being honest, but kids don’t need to know everything. Your child is not your therapist or your friend. Problems should be kept and solved between adults. Shared custody is hard enough on your child, the last thing they need is the burden of your personal problems.
I often tell the young mothers I work with that empathy isn’t the same thing as making excuses. As much as we want to believe that parenting is something most people naturally fall into when the baby is born, that adjustment can be hard especially for fathers. Mothers are sometimes quick to assume that if children aren’t raised their way it isn’t the right way. Give a father a chance to be father. Practice patience and understand that fatherhood is a role many men have to gradually grow into. But if you immediately write him off, he’ll never have the opportunity to prove himself.
7. Get it in writing.
Even parents that are on the best of terms can benefit from a legal document that spells out each parent’s rights and responsibilities. Court involvement doesn’t always have to mean someone is losing custody or visitation. A court-ordered agreement can clearly define boundaries when there are gaps in communication. Legal intervention or mediation just offers extra protection when parents have difficulty compromising.
8. Be prepared for a not-so-perfect holiday.
Perfection is overrated. Be prepared that no amount of hot cocoa or sugar cookies can replace feelings of grief, separation and sorrow. Don’t spend time trying to repeat holidays past. Creating new traditions while incorporating parts of the past will help your child feel safe to navigate the holidays in a new way.
9. Don’t use your children as messengers.
If as an adult woman you send messages through your children because you’re afraid of confrontation, then I seriously question your maturity as a mother. You think if it comes from the child then daddy could never say no. But putting your children in the middle of your battles is selfish and cowardly. If you have an issue, put on your big girl pants and talk to your co-parent like an adult; leave the kids out of it.
10. Put your egos to the side.
Separate your personal feelings from what’s best for your child. Be honest with yourself if you have some unresolved romantic feelings, or jealousy. Once you admit that you have personal issues that have nothing to do with co-parenting, you can work on resolving them. The worst thing you can do is punish the children by keeping them away from their father just because you resent a new girlfriend or the fact that that your co-parent is making progress in life without you.
11. Don’t use your children as leverage.
Threatening to “take the kids” shouldn’t be casually thrown around because you’re angry. It gets old very fast and slowly breaks down the relationship between you and your co-parent as well as the kids. Kids aren’t your personal property; they’re people who shouldn’t be used as pawns whenever you’re upset.
12. Practice consistency with rules and routines.
One way to ensure stable behavior form your children is for everyone involved in their lives iis on the same page as far as rules, routine and discipline. A drastic difference in bedtime, dinner routines, and rules can be confusing for a child and eventually the children will manipulate the inconsistency their advantage. It won’t be perfect or easy, but in the long run you’ll have a stable better adjusted child.
13. “Dropping off” can make switch day a little easier.
As long as parents can agree on a time, “dropping off” ensures that parents and children don’t feel special moments are rushed through or interrupted by an impatient parent who is picking up. When a parent is having their time with the children, if they know they have to drop them off at a certain time, they can plan events or activities for the time that they have without feeling like they have to constantly keep an eye on the clock.
14. Keep basics at both houses.
I’ve lived in two places at once and it’s not easy. (Which house is my laptop at? Where did I leave my pair of jeans?) I would like to think I’m an adult who transitions pretty well and having two addresses was very frustrating at times. So I can only imagine how a child may feel going between houses with very little control or independence. Keep basics like toothbrushes and even a change of clothes at both houses to ease the frustration that can come with forgetting things.
15. Make plans with friends when it’s not “your” holiday.
Your kids are your life, so it’s understandable to feel like you don’t have one when they’re gone. But it’s not fair to make them feel guilty for spending time with their father by reminding them of how lonely you’ll be without them or calling their father every five seconds. Make plans for the weekend they spend with their dad so you don’t have time to obsess over every second they’re out of your eyesight. Make sure they have a way to contact you, especially during the holidays so they can feel connected to both of you.
What shared custody conflicts have you experienced?
Toya Sharee is a program associate for a Philadelphia non-profit that focuses on parenting education and building healthy relationships between parents, children and co-parents. She also has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog BulletsandBlessings.