Whether you are divorced, thinking about getting divorced, or somewhere in-between, it’s hard to maintain a strong coparenting relationship with an Ex. It’s important to remember, no matter how old you or your children are, it’s likely their father* will always be a part of your life (though one can hope that role gets smaller over time). Learning how to get coparenting right is crucial.
While it may not always be clear what “good coparenting” looks like, we know that bad coparenting often leaves you feeling exhausted. Many divorced parents feel like they are doing everything on their own. And that’s another kind of soul crushing—you’ve already lost your partner in love, but you hoped that your partner in parenting would always be by your side.
If you have gone through an especially bitter divorce, one where heated words were exchanged or an affair was involved, keeping coparenting in mind at all can be especially difficult. But your role as a parent doesn’t end at your Ex’s front door. If you simply don’t want to know what goes on in your Ex’s home besides that your children’s basic needs are met, you’re cutting off a part of your children’s lives that is important to them—the part of their life that involves their father. Yes, your relationship with him has changed, but their relationship with him hasn’t. Or, at least, it shouldn’t have to.
There is a big difference between parenting on your own and coparenting with your Ex to make decisions about your children together—decisions that will help them grow into happy and healthy adults who have a strong bond with both parents.
Because we understand that divorce is never black and white, that it has a way of bringing out the worst in us, we have some tips on how to coparent pre- and post- divorce that will support you during your journey.
1. No matter what the terms of your divorce are or how you feel about your Ex, it’s important to maintain your composure and lead discussions about your divorce with dignity and integrity. Keep your children in mind always.
2. When you tell your kids about your divorce for the first time, try to make sure your husband is there with you and that you both agree on the boundaries of what can and cannot be said. You want your children to be informed of how the divorce will affect them and your family as a whole, but you don’t need to give personal details that can damage their view of their other parent. Hearing the news from both parents reinforces that neither of you is abandoning your children. For support on how to break the news or keep speaking to your children about this tough subject, check out books for smart suggestions.
3. If the above is not possible because your husband cannot control himself, then you might have to come up with a script to start a dialogue with your children about your reasons for divorce without your husband. We’ve had clients in the past tell us how poorly this first divorce talk went—husbands who make the talk all about their own feelings, their pain, and who leave little room for the kids to talk.
You know your family and you know why you are divorcing your soon-to-be Ex. Trust your instincts, measure your unique situation, and figure out what needs to be done.
4. Try to have regular check-ins with your kids and see how they are doing throughout your divorce journey. Let them know that you are open to hearing whatever their thoughts and feelings are, without resentment or judgement And that you will try to explain as best you can without putting the burden of personal information (like an affair or a list of their father’s flaws) on them.
5. Remind your children that they are loved by both you and their father throughout the divorce process and continue to do so after—when settling down into your new life. This might seem cliché, but depending on the age of your children and the state of your marriage prior to your divorce, this whole experience may be quite surprising for them and shake the foundation of love and support they thought they had.
Remind your children that your divorce has nothing to do with your love for them nor your Ex’s love for them. This can help your children get over their initial shock.
If figuring out how to break it to your children is just the tip of the iceberg as you consider or begin divorce, learn about Annie’s Group and how you can get the support you need for your next smartest and healthiest steps.
6. Make sure your kids have a strong support network during the divorce—outside of you and your Ex. Have the kids visit with family members. Make sure they feel comfortable talking to their friends and knowing they can have a life independent of your divorce and your needs. You want your kids to have safe spaces and safe people they can turn to during this stressful time in their life.
7. Keep in mind that, whether you initiated your divorce or not, you still have more power and more control over the situation than your children do, which makes things easier for you to process than your children. Even if you don’t really fully understand the reasons for your divorce, you have a better sense of what happened because you lived it.
Sometimes your kids will resent you—sometimes it may even feel like they hate you. But that’s okay. It has to be. Just like you, your children are in pain and stressed, but they may lack the maturity to get through this period of their lives without lashing out or shutting down. It’s your job to suck it up and take one for the team. It’s your job to support your kids, to reinforce that they are loved, and to remind them that you are still a family.
8. You might be excited—elated, even, to leave your old life behind—to move on or still grieving, but your kids are likely to be stressed, shocked, or even resist a possible relocation. Not only do your kids have to get used to two different households, they have to get used to two entirely new places filled with new people and, possibly, new rules. This, combined with the stress of the divorce, is a lot for children to handle.
Be sure to let your children know that you understand why a new move is difficult for them and try to reassure them that they can still participate in the same activities and keep in touch with their old friends as well as make new ones. Encourage your kids to share their anxieties and concerns about the move, and reassure them that you and their father will be there to support them through it.
9. While you want your kids to be open and feel comfortable telling you what happens at their father’s house, don’t force your kids to be messengers or to spy on your Ex. Some kids will want to tell you everything, and some don’t.
After your kids visit with their father, make basic conversation starters like “did you have a good time?” If your kids want to talk, they’ll talk. If they don’t want to talk, don’t push them. Sometimes kids want to be left alone. If you have a strong coparenting relationship, hopefully your Ex will let you know if there’s anything noteworthy going on when he has the kids.
10. Sometimes, however, kids do have behavioral issues after returning from their other parent’s house, because or despite of the coparenting relationship you have with your Ex. Children take time to adjust between two different households. Kids can compartmentalize their world but only so much, and sometimes the stress of moving between households causes a temporary state of aggravation that will pass as they readjust to being home with you.
One of our clients shared that “the first 24-48 hours were the roughest…it was like they were carrying the aggression from their other household into mine. It took more time than I would have liked, but the children did eventually calm down and readjust to the atmosphere in our home. I came to expect this buffer period as normal.”
11. To be a rock for your kids pre-, post-, or mid-divorce know that you will need someone on your side to help support you as well. This help can come from a close friend group, your family members, or a divorce coach who has helped women like you navigate this challenge. While your friends and family might want to help you through the divorce process, they might not have the experience nor expertise to guide you along the right path.The more confused you are throughout your divorce, the more confused your children will be.
12. Seek outside support for your kids. You can ask their school or public librarians for books specifically to help children through a divorce, or you can ask their guidance counselor at school if there are any activities or special groups to help children with divorced parents. You can also talk to the school or even an outside psychologist to work with your kids or to work with you on a recovery strategy for your kids.
13. Make sure to look for books on divorce that are age-appropriate for your kids, with or without the help of a librarian. It’s important to sit down with your kids, read these books, and be there to help them process their feelings and to clarify anything they might want to ask. Divorce books can’t heal your kids on their own—most of these books work best when you are there to help guide the healing process along.
14. As tempting as it may be—as much as you may want to call your Ex out on ditching the kids for yet another weekend visit, or curse him under your breath for some new low he’s stooped to on social media—do not disparage your children’s other parent. Even, and this is a really hard even, if he has disparaged you in front of your kids. Teach your children it’s inappropriate to talk about other people in that way, and that you’ll talk to their other parent about the matter. Do not sink to his level.
15. Try to actually use the word coparenting, as awkward as that might feel at first. Going from a parent to a coparent is a major step in recognizing your divorce from the person you thought was your lifetime partner. Using the word coparenting signals that you are looking to work with your Ex to make sure your kids have the love and support they need from both households.
Sometimes your Ex will have needs that push up against yours, but that’s what compromise is for. For instance, say your Ex’s friend gave him tickets and a timeshare so that he and the kids can go to Disneyworld for the first time ever, only that family vacation would fall on your birthday. This might hurt you, but in the long run, it’s likely it wasn’t an intentional slight. The experience would help your children bond with your Ex post-divorce, and, quite frankly, give you a break from parenting and time to yourself.
What is right for your kids might sometimes come at the expense of your own feelings, but that territory comes with the job of coparenting after divorce.
16. Speaking of weekends, a great way to coparent is to communicate through a neutral platform that also shares a calendar with your Ex, one that not only notes who has the kids at what time but also special school events, activities, doctor’s appointments, and so on. If you have a specific schedule your kids follow that you find helpful, include that to show your Ex what you do when you’re with the kids that seems to work really well. You never know—your Ex might surprise you and adopt your schedule as a model for their own.
17. You cannot control your Ex’s behavior, even when it comes to your kids. You can talk to your Ex about it, shout about it, text about it, send long emails about it, and so on, but unless a court has deemed his behavior dangerous or declared your Ex an unfit parent, his actions are out of your hands. What you can do is talk to your children about how their other parent’s behavior is affecting them and see if there’s anything you can do to help.
18. If your coparenting relationship is difficult or is going through a rough patch, repeat this as your morning mantra: “I cannot do anything about what happened, but I can have a major impact on now, tomorrow, this month, and next year.” Research into parenting and divorce shows that how you react to things that effect your children (such as your Ex missing visitation) can help your kids process what is happening and teach them either healthy or unhealthy coping mechanisms. If your reaction in the moment, even to bad or shocking news, is calm, cool, logical, compassionate, and collected, your kids will learn the same behaviors from you.
19. Once you and your Ex are living in separate households, make sure you have a trusted family member, friend, or a neighbor close by who has a spare set of keys to your house and can check in on your kids from time to time if you get held up at work, stuck in traffic, or delayed on a trip. This helps reinforce that the kids have multiple people in their lives who love and support them and gives you someone to fall back on.
20. Be flexible with holidays and special occasions. While it’s good to keep up past traditions, it’s also not a bad thing to put your own spin on a holiday after divorce and to make the experience unique for you and your kids in this new stage of their life. You and your Ex will create new traditions with your kids. Sometimes these changes can come out of necessity—you might have less time and money to spend—but that doesn’t mean you can’t create something during the holidays that makes your kids feel loved and valued.
Above all, know that it’s okay to make mistakes
You are not Super Mom, and you shouldn’t expect yourself to be a perfect parent all of the time. Don’t hold it against yourself. One of our clients shared that, soon after her divorce, she ordered special monogramed bags for her kids that they could bring with them from house to house. She thought it’d be a nice gesture, but her kids looked at the monogram and just saw a reminder of their broken family. Even our best intentions can backfire. Forgive yourself, talk to your children, and find a way to move forward together.
Know that, no matter how your coparenting relationship turns out, your kids with your support will one day grow up into the happy and healthy adults you knew they could be. That those adults will see the efforts you’ve put forth throughout their life. Most of the time, insight takes age. Even if you’re parenting a teen through a divorce and they seem mature, a teen is not an adult and may not yet recognize the pitfalls and traps of navigating a coparenting relationship—or what you as their mother have really survived and triumphed through. Stay committed to them and you Mama Bear. Stay strong.
Since 2012, smart women around the world have chosen SAS for Women to partner them through the emotional, financial, and oft times complicated experience of divorce and divorce recovery. Experience SAS firsthand. Schedule your free, 45-minute consultation to hear perspective, next steps and the best resources that will honor your life and who you are meant to be.
*At SAS we respect same-sex marriages, however, for the sake of simplicity in this article we refer to your spouse as a male.