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Dealing with joint custody

Joint Custody: What Is It, and How Does It Work?

I spoke with divorce attorney Kathy Wagner about joint custody recently. She shared some critical insights from her 30-plus years of experience practicing family law in Somerset County, New Jersey. While there will be similarities in family law state-to-state, there are also important differences, so be sure to Google custody law in your state before taking action on any of this.

The difference between physical and legal custody

In New Jersey, the person who has physical custody has actual possession of the child, meaning the child lives primarily with that person. Having legal custody means having the right to make decisions for the child in the areas of health, education, and general welfare.

When the parents are married, both of these powers are vested in both parents. This means the child lives with both parents, and both parents can and do make legal decisions for the child.

After the parents live separately, the physical and legal custody arrangements must be settled with a custody decision either amongst themselves, memorialized by the court in the final judgment of divorce, or by a family law judge if the parents cannot agree.


Remind yourself of what your children deserve. Read How to Help Your Child Cope with Divorce.


The best interests of the child dictate the custody arrangement

In New Jersey, family law judges determine what custody arrangement is in the “best interests of the child.” The judge begins by presuming that children benefit from maintaining “frequent and continuing contact with both parents” and from having both parents “share the rights and responsibilities of child-rearing.” N.J.S.A. 9:2-4. Then the judge weighs the following factors, among others, in determining what custody arrangement is in the best interest of the child:

  • The parents’ ability to agree, communicate, and cooperate regarding the child
  • The parents’ willingness to accept custody and any history of unjustified withholding
  • The interaction and relationship of the child with the parents and other siblings
  • History of domestic violence
  • Safety of the child and/or either parent from physical abuse by other parent
  • Preference of the child of sufficient age and capacity
  • Needs of the child
  • Stability of home environment
  • Quality and continuity of child’s education
  • Fitness of parents
  • Geographical proximity of parents’ homes
  • Extent and quality of time spent with child both before and after separation
  • Parents’ employment responsibilities
  • Age and number of children

Contrary to popular belief, a judge will never exclusively use one factor—like a parent’s income level—as the sole deciding factor in who gets custody of a child.

There are three types of custody in New Jersey

In New Jersey, custody can be summarized by these three possible arrangements: Joint, Split, and Sole custody. Sole and Joint custody is defined specifically by New Jersey law.

Joint custody

This is what married parents have by default. Both people can make decisions about the child’s welfare, and the child lives in the same home as both parents. After a divorce, parents can often retain joint legal custody, even if the child lives mostly with one parent or the other.

According to state law, any joint custody arrangements must include specific instructions for consultation between parents on important decisions and residency of the minor child.

Split custody

If parents have more than one child, the court could split the children between the two parents. This is rarely done—in most cases the courts won’t split siblings apart so long as there is another option. In exceptional cases, such as there being a child from a previous marriage or a large age gap between siblings, the court might be more willing to split custody between parents.

Sole custody

Sadly, some people just aren’t fit to be parents. It could be due to alcoholism, criminal behavior, or abuse, but in any case, the case courts will not leave a child in the care of a parent who seems abusive or negligent. In these cases, one parent takes legal and physical custody of the child, while the other parent loses those rights.

Unless the other parent is found to be abusive or negligent, the parent with sole custody must still make arrangements for the child to have time with the other parent. The statues provide no guidance for what constitutes “appropriate parenting time,” and this is a frequent cause of custody battles.


Learn about the relevance of drug use in divorce in Coparenting Through Divorce: Drug Use, Drug Testing & Family Court.


How does joint custody work?

Again, parents can share joint physical custody, joint legal custody, or both. If parents share both, then it is common for their child to live with one parent during the school week and with the other the remainder of the time. The parents consult with one another regarding major decisions and collaborate to parent their child as best they can despite the divorce.

Joint custody obviously requires a great deal of civil and constructive communication between parents, and not every divorced couple is capable of this.

Can we make the joint custody arrangement without a lawyer?

It’s highly recommended that you speak to an attorney and file a motion with the court if you want to change the child custody arrangement set by the court. Of course, you have the right to represent yourself pro se if you wish, but be forewarned: the courts won’t make special accommodations for you as a layperson, and you will be expected to follow the same procedures as a lawyer.

If you and your Ex try to change the custody arrangement without going to court, this can be problematic in that if either of you decide not to follow your new arrangement, the new arrangement cannot be enforced by the court. In fact, it is the person insisting on the new arrangement that will be found in the wrong by the family law judge, who knows only about the original arrangement.

Find the best lawyer for your joint custody case

Family law is a highly specialized area of practice, and laws vary state-to-state. In New Jersey, custody disputes are settled in separate courts from other legal matters by dedicated family court judges. Even if you and your Ex seem to agree on most things and believe that you can make joint custody work, you need to find an experienced family law attorney in your area who can help you craft an arrangement that works for your family and get that arrangement approved by the court.

Veronica Baxter is a blogger and legal assistant to Katherine K. Wagner, Esq. Katherine practices divorce and family law in Somerset County, NJ.

Whether you are considering a divorce or already navigating the confusing experience, one thing we see making a significant difference for women is the conscious choice to not do divorce alone. 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.

SAS offers women 6, FREE months of email coaching, action plans, checklists and support strategies for you, your family, and your future.

“A successful divorce requires smart steps, taken one at a time.”

~ SAS for Women 

family learning how to coparent

20 Spot On Steps for How to Coparent Pre- and Post-Divorce

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.

Coparenting pre-divorce

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.

Coparenting post-divorce

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.

Parenting while divorcing with children

Divorcing with Children: A Step by Step Process

Divorcing with children means having to deal with the consequences of ending your marriage as well as ensuring the wellbeing of your kids. During this time, your life might start to feel like one long game of whack-a-mole, each item on your to-do list and each problem you have to solve popping its head above ground just long enough for it to be a nuisance.

Many moms simply don’t know how to make things right when their family has changed so irrevocably. And can you blame them? They are changing too.

When it comes to your children, however, it’s important to stay aware of the fact that they need structure and support to be both emotionally and physically healthy. Seventy-two percent of divorces occur within the first fourteen years of marriage. Put in context, these numbers mean that young children are often affected by divorce the most.

And yet, divorcing with children is never easy for parents or children, no matter their age.

While you struggle to pick up the pieces and move forward as you rebuild your life, you’ll also have to be there every step of the way supporting and encouraging your kids. Your adult children will certainly manifest their own reactions (just like younger children), but you are no longer responsible for their day-to-day survival in this world.

Is their such a thing as a good divorce? The general answer is not really. Sure, there are divorces you are grateful for and divorces you wish you’d had sooner—but divorce is rarely a decision you come to without careful consideration and a little heartbreak. Still, there are things you can do to make the transition easier for yourself, your soon-to-be Ex, and your kids. Here are some of the most important steps to take when you are divorcing with children.

Handle reactions in a healthy way

Prepare for your children to have an avalanche of angry and sad reactions to your divorce. These are inevitable regardless of how old your children are or the reasons for your divorce. As a parent, you have to make sure these reactions are handled in a loving, healthy way.

Acknowledge the emotional responses they are having. Denying the fact that they’re hurt or angry will only make matters worse. Reassure your children that it’s perfectly okay to feel upset, betrayed, sad, or lonely. Help them let these emotions out so that the healing can begin.

It’s best to have the conversation (and we do mean the conversation—you should figure out how to break the news of your divorce to your children before you sit down with them) as a family and to get your soon-to-be Ex involved early on. Regardless of the status of your relationship, assure your children that they’re still and will always be loved. Ask questions, like “is there anything we can do to make you feel better?” They might ignore you at first, but eventually they may feel like opening up and start talking about their needs.

Answer the important questions

Once the dust has settled and you’ve addressed your children’s immediate reaction to your divorce in a healthy and safe environment, the real questions will start.

We all know that children can be brutally honest. That’s why you need to prepare your answers for some of the most candid and difficult questions you’re going to face.

Some of the questions your children are likely to have during your divorce include:

  • Who am I going to live with?
  • Will I still get to see my mom or dad?
  • Where will I spend the holidays?
  • Where will I go to school?
  • Will I still get to see grandma and grandpa?
  • Does mom or dad still love me?
  • Will we have to move, and will I see my friends again?

Chances are that you don’t have all the answers to those questions yet. Honesty is still the best policy in these situations. Tell your children that you don’t know quite yet, but that you’re working hard on a plan that ensures everyone’s happiness moving forward. You can also give your children books on divorce to help normalize the situation.

Build a strong support network

Like I said, having a “good” divorce isn’t always easy or even possible. After all, you cannot control other people—your children and your soon-to-be Ex or the way they handle negative emotions.

The only thing you own and can control is your behavior.

You should work toward building a strong support network when divorcing with children. You know your kids will need all the comfort they can get during and in the aftermath of your divorce (even if it happens to be a civil and good one).

Loving, extended family members can be a tremendous resource, both for you and your kids. During a divorce, you might be pressed for time, dealing with appointments and work and meetings with your lawyer while still managing all the mundane everyday things that need to happen for you life to keep running smoothly. Aunts, uncles, and grandparents can deliver a lot of practical caregiving assistance or help with the daily logistics of it all.

The warm and familiar presence of a family member is comforting and reassuring when everything else in your children’s lives seems to be changing rapidly.

Think about the practical aspects of divorce

Healing emotionally is obviously important (especially when divorcing with children) but so is ensuring the best future for your kids. You will have to face the fact that divorce means having a series of difficult conversation with your Ex—accept it and move forward.

Those conversations will have to focus on things like custody, child support, and spousal maintenance. Sorting these issues out of court will be the most painless way to determine what’s best for everyone involved and move on faster. Occasionally, though, a peaceful agreement just isn’t going to be possible.

You know your Ex well, and you know what reaction to anticipate from him*. It’s highly recommended you speak to a divorce attorney before approaching potential challenging issues you foresee coming up. Knowing what your options are will give you a bit of leverage during the negotiations, and an attorney can educate you on what you don’t know. Do not commit to custody or parenting plans without this legal knowledge.

Remember that you’re not always on mom duty

When divorcing with children, creating and activating your support network will give you the much-needed chance to fall apart and grieve while you step away from parenting. Remember the fact that you’re a human being and that your marriage just ended.

A grieving process is necessary, and it’s healthy. Understanding what grief is and allowing it to wash over you for as long as it takes will actually help you close this chapter of your life and move on to the next one.

Can you fall apart during and after divorce? Absolutely! And you should, of course, when the time is right.

There will be days when you’ll feel like staying in bed and not even brushing your teeth. If grandma and grandpa could help with dropping the kids off at school during such moments, you’ll get the opportunity you need to feel what you must—to be angry, overwhelmed, lost, sad, betrayed, or abandoned. (Possibly all at the same time.) Let those emotions out. They need to come out in order for you to metabolize what you’ve been through.

Don’t be afraid to look vulnerable in front of friends or your parents. No one is expecting you to be strong and tough during your divorce (except maybe your kids). If you give yourself an opportunity to mourn what you must—maybe what you’re mourning isn’t even him, really, so much as it is the fantasy that kept you hoping your marriage would turn around—you’ll be better positioned to reclaim yourself and who you want to be as you move forward with your life. You’ll be a better mom if you understand your healing process.

There is no doubt a divorce makes you face your fears. It delivers challenges and changes you never thought would cross your path. At times it will feel like you have to learn fast and have all the answers to every crucial decision. Empower yourself to slow down and seek the information you need to learn about your choices BEFORE making any decisions.

Get informed. Knowing what your options are before you decide anything will allow you to make healthier choices and create a plan. This will anchor you as you endeavor to be honest with your children. Keep the lines of communication open with them and your husband or Ex (if possible). While the divorce process is painful, the way you go about it will determine your and your children’s emotional outcome.

Since 2012, smart women around the world have chosen SAS for Women to support them through the emotional, financial, and oft times complicated experience of divorce. SAS offers women 6 FREE months of email coaching, action plans, checklists and support strategies for you, your family, and your future.

“When a woman comes through divorce with the proper guidance and her questions answered, her life stands before her like something she could never imagine while she was is in the dark.” ~ SAS for Women

Elizabeth S. Coyle is the current Director of Client Services for JacksonWhite Attorneys at Law based in Mesa, Arizona. She serves as a paralegal for the Family Law Department of the firm.

A family dealing with parental estrangement walking on a dark path alongside a building

When is it Parental Estrangement and When is it Parental Alienation?

Divorce is full of big words—the ones the lawyers and courts toss around, the ones your friends and family are scared of, and the ones your divorce coach and therapist use to label processes and behaviors that seem almost incapable of being contained so easily. When it comes to divorce and children, two common terms parents become aware of are parental alienation and parental estrangement.

Even the smoothest divorces can impact your relationship with your children. But it’s not always easy to pin down the source of your specific issues. Your mind starts racing. Is it something I said during the divorce? Are my children angry with me? Or disappointed? And which is worse? And when the answers to these questions don’t come quickly, you begin slipping down that slippery slope. Have I broken them somehow? Maybe it’s not anything I’ve done at all—maybe it’s him*. What has he been saying to them?

Two different things could be happening here, and you have more control over one than the other.

But what exactly is the difference between parental estrangement and parental alienation?

Parental estrangement

The source of parental estrangement can be murky. Your children have cut off contact with you or, at the very least, there is a growing distance between you. You get a sense that your children are blaming your for something but what that blame is for is less clear, especially if your children aren’t the type of people to freely share their feelings and opinions. But with estrangement, your children’s feelings are their own. They have not been influenced by their other parent (even if that other parent, coincidentally, shares many of the same feelings).

If you feel estranged from your children and they’ve communicated to you why that is, you might feel defensive, but as hard as it may be, we recommend you keep those feelings from your kids. Children often see things as black or white and right or wrong. Little moments or impulsive actions take on vast meaning. Your children are experiencing so much for the first time, and divorce has a way of dredging up all of it—the good and the bad. Even if you can’t understand where your children are coming from, you must respect their point of view and work with them from that perspective.

Know that it’s okay to accept each other’s differences, but as the parent in this situation, you should defer to your children’s point of view to repair your relationship. Whether the reasons your children are distancing themselves from you are real or perceived, they are still their reasons.

Are you experiencing parental estrangement?

Think through your divorce: Were there times where you let your stress levels get the best of you? Did you get depressed and disappear? Did you get angry and lash out? Did you turn to substances to numb your pain? In what ways did your divorce disrupt your children’s lives? A new home? A new city?

Did someone hit pause on your lives? Have you remembered to press play again?

Have you been giving your children space? Maybe it’s actually too much space. Maybe what they really need is a more hands-on form of support. Sometimes if you wait for your children to “come around on their own” they just, well, never do. They learn, instead, to get by on their own. They take your space as a hint: You’re alone now. Time to suck it up, and grow up. Make sure your children understand that you are still their parent even if the dynamics of your family have changed. Play an active role in repairing and creating a new relationship with your children.

Sometimes parental estrangement feels a lot like parental alienation (more on the latter below) because “the symptoms” of both situations overlap in some cases. Both situations are isolating, for the parent and the children. And both situations can have long-term effects on your relationship with your children. The key difference? With estrangement, there isn’t another parent behind-the-scenes working against you.

Parental alienation

With parental alienation, you know exactly who the perpetrator is: your Ex or, perhaps, even yourself. In this situation, one parent is actively campaigning against the other parent, both manipulating their children and monopolizing their time to foster negative feelings toward that other parent.

It’s a subtle difference, but it’s one that matters. While this is nothing short of devious, it’s hard to repair the rift without causing more mental harm to your children in the process.

You can’t, for instance, outright call their other parent a liar because that plays into the same mental games of alienating your children from their other parent. You can’t get the courts to cut off or reduce visitation without proof that your Ex is actively working against you, and to gain said proof would mean pressing your kids to testify against their other parent. Perhaps worst of all, even if you do “fix” your relationship with your children, those achievements are likely to be temporary—your Ex, after all, is still out there waiting for his next moment to strike.

Are you experiencing parental alienation?

Parental alienation can be hard to distinguish from parental estrangement. You can’t know what your Ex is saying to your kids, and for obvious reasons, you shouldn’t ask your children to divulge private conversations—it can be hard on them to repeat the negative (and perhaps genuinely horrible) things that your Ex may have said.

But there are some telltale signs of alienation: One parent constructs a negative narrative around their children’s other parent. They list off reasons for the divorce, for instance, and always put the blame on the other parent. Or they suggest that the other parent doesn’t care about their kids because they don’t spend as much time with them. Or maybe it’s less deliberate—one parent consistently vents to friends and family members about their Ex and the children overhear, or post-divorce, one parent is depressed or otherwise in a bad spot while the other parent is seemingly thriving.

Regardless of the specific ways in which you’ve become alienated from your children, the rift will grow worse over time. Your Ex is, in effect, poisoning your relationship with your children, and like most poisons, they grow stronger the more a person is exposed to them.

Parental estrangement vs. parental alienation

Parental estrangement, then, is when you can look back at your actions throughout your divorce and recognize that you’ve made choices that have left your children feeling unsupported in a time of need. Even if you can’t recognize this yourself, your children have likely accused you of doing so.

Parental alienation is when your children’s other parent is actively poisoning your relationship with your children. It’s an ongoing psychological battle that isn’t about your children’s best interests or yours or even your Ex’s, really. It has more to do with power than anything. But here’s the other thing we haven’t mentioned yet about parental alienation—over time, it becomes an actual syndrome. By that, we mean that parental alienation syndrome is habitual. A pattern develops, routines settle in, and your children may no longer play passive roles in the damage that’s being done to your relationship. Instead, they begin to see the world through the eyes of the parent who’s targeting their other parent.

What you can do in the case of parental estrangement

If your life involves parental estrangement or you’re hoping to avoid it, there are some things you can do to start to repair your relationship with your children. (Depending on the specifics of your situation, some of these may help in cases involving parental alienation as well.)

  • Has your child spoken up about the growing distance between you? Don’t wait for them to “get over it” or “come around.” Address your children’s concerns directly by listening to them, trying to understand, validating their feelings, and telling them that you want to work on their concerns with them so you two can repair your relationship.
  • Don’t wait for your children to contact you to repair your relationship with them—you are the parent. Even if your children have hurled insults your way, ignored your messages, or placed an unfair amount of blame on your shoulders, you need to take the first step and reach out. Even if your children have crow’s feet and their fair share of grey, this particular dynamic will never really change. Your children may eventually come around on their own, to be sure, but you may lose more time than any of us is comfortable with if you wait too long.
  • If you’re struggling to get through to your children, know that persistence is key here as are the words you use—let your children know you love them, that you want to repair your relationship, and that you’ll keep checking-in with them so that they know you’re there when they’re ready to talk to you. We’re not suggesting that you harass or stalk your children, to be clear. There are ways to reach out that feel less invasive than a text or call, like a letter, for instance.
  • Don’t violate your children’s boundaries. Don’t show up unexpectedly at their school or other parent’s house to talk or force your company on them. This can backfire and cause your children to feel even more distant from you.
  • Do not give up on communicating with your children—no matter how long they ignore you. You might feel abandoned, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow. But, again, you are the parent in this relationship, and your children were never here to emotionally support you. Call your children on their birthdays and holidays even if they don’t answer. Set an example of the type of relationship you want to have with your children, and in time, they may grow to appreciate that you never gave up.
  • If your children do come around and feel ready to speak with you, they might want to talk about the aspects of your relationship that made them distance themselves from you in the first place. Whether you agree with their side of your story or not, you must do your best to react neutrally and find a way to work together to overcome your past. An unwillingness to see your shared history from your children’s perspective is just one reason you may have been cut off from them in the first place—and while that may seem harsh, it has more to do with your children feeling as though they are living in one reality while you exist in another. There is no greater distance than that.
  • Be ready to admit your shortcomings to your children. Of course, we know that we’re simply humans—we’re far from perfect. But your divorce and how you handled the aftermath may have been the first time in your children’s lives where they really came to understand this firsthand. Don’t sweep your mistakes under the rug. Own your flaws, and let your children see you work through them.
  • You might be ready to move on, but your children might need more time to be angry or sad or confused. To just feel and experience whatever emotions are flooding through them. If you children are acting out, don’t punish them or push them to get over their feelings. Instead, make sure they know that their emotions are valid and that you are there for them whether they are ready to move forward or not.

Understand that a “repaired” relationship with your children may look different than you thought it would. If there’s one thing we all know, it’s that you can’t change the past and you can’t return to it. Before divorce, you didn’t have to deal with things like a custody agreement, a different home, or your Ex’s new partner. Your relationship with your children—indeed your entire lives—have changed in fundamental ways that you simply can’t ignore.

What you can do in the case of parental alienation

There are a few additional things you can do to try to repair your relationship with your children when your Ex is actively working to poison it.

  • Let your children know that their mental state comes first. Explain that they might feel upset or pressured or mad at you but that’s okay—they don’t need to tell you why, but if they ever want to talk, you are there for them and will always love them unconditionally.
  • See if your Ex will agree to therapy for your children. This way there’s a third party there to help your children navigate their relationship with both parents and work through any negative feelings they may have in a safe environment.
  • Don’t worry about being right or about proving your Ex wrong—instead, model healthy parent-child behavior by not crossing that boundary and focus on things that are within your control. Focus on strengthening your relationship with your children and not tearing apart their relationship with their other parent. Forcing your children to be the middlemen between you and your Ex will only isolate them further.
  • Work on good coparenting skills with your Ex. This is especially true if the alienation is accidental more than purposeful (though in either case, we realize this isn’t always easy, especially if some sort of betrayal was responsible for your divorce). If your Ex is in a bad place mentally and is using your children as a therapist, talking to them about what’s going on and appropriate places for help might work wonders in repairing your relationship with your children.

In general, you want to be clear with your Ex about the fact that, post-divorce, you two have every right to be upset and vent about one another, but that, for the sake of your children, that should be done privately. And because children have a way of overhearing things they shouldn’t, it’s best to vent your feelings when they’re not at home.

Why is the difference between parental estrangement and parental alienation important?

Name your demons, and maybe then you can face them. Divorce is different for everyone. It’s the naming of each part of the process—contemplation, finding a lawyer, awaiting your divorce decree, to list a few—that makes us feel like we’ve arrived somewhere and are now standing on firmer ground. The more information we have, the more prepared we feel to face whatever comes next.

But naming your demons isn’t enough. You have to take ownership of them or you will never feel like you are truly in control of them. And that’s why knowing the difference between estrangement and alienation is so important.

With parental estrangement, feeling in control means being honest with yourself: Do you want a relationship with your children? Then stop making excuses for yourself. You know now that you and your children can live without one another, but is that what you really want? Whatever attempts you’ve made in the past? They didn’t work. Think long and hard about why, and next time, approach things differently.

With alienation, feeling in control means exercising an extreme amount of patience and accepting that, ultimately, you’re not actually in control. It means learning when to let go and focus on you for your best divorce recovery. Understand that you simply can’t change other people or push the clock forward so that time heals everyone all at once—it’s simply not an option. So let it go.

We choose to focus on what we can control, and we recommend you do the same. Even though it may feel like it, you’re not the first person to weather this storm. Meet up with other divorced women. Use this time to travel. Lose yourself in nature so that you might find yourself again. Reach out to a divorce coach who can help you understand your choices and the actions leading to the results you really want—so you, your children, and your relationship with them make it safely through this time in your life.

Since 2012, SAS for Women is entirely dedicated to the unique challenges women face when dealing with divorce or navigating its afterward. Discover the smartest, and most educated, next step for you and your family. Schedule your free, 45-minute coaching session with SAS now.

*At SAS for Women, we respect same-sex marriages, however, for the sake of simplicity in this article we refer to your spouse as a male.

divorce process

The Divorce Process: What You Must Know as a Woman

We work with smart women, and because you’re here, we know you’re one of us. During the divorce process, we also know that sometimes, smart women believe they can outthink their pain, outlogic it. If their pain were a landmark on a map, a deep river splitting the ground in two, they’d lose whole days planning a route around it. But with divorce, the river is never ending, and the only way to get around it is to jump in and swim through.

If you’ve gone through a particularly bad breakup before, it’s easy to underestimate just how difficult the divorce process can be. It’s not just the emotional upheaval it brings to your life—for you may “get over” being married quickly. You may even move on to other romantic partners or physically reside in different homes, but none of this changes the fact that your union, your relationship, is legally recognized, something that may differ from relationships in your past. Your marriage isn’t truly over until the courts say it is.

These two sides to the divorce process, the emotional and the legal, require different things of you.

You’re on a journey, but this journey may sometimes feel like it’s pulling you in different directions, asking you at times to bury your emotions and focus on the practical and then demanding that you confront your demons so you can exorcise them.

Knowing when, where, and how to handle the myriad pieces of this divorce process is half the battle. Below is the easy-to-digest breakdown of the divorce process. As you read about and, even, journey through, keep in mind you don’t have to have all the answers—only some of them. Divorce professionals, the right kind of friends, constructive support groups, and family can help you get through the rest.

Decide what you really want

And that word really is important. We’re not talking about figuring out what you used to want. Or what you kind of want. Or even what you think other people want you to want.

We’re asking what you really want. Getting that honest with yourself can be absolutely terrifying because acting on whatever your truth is might mean tearing your world apart and putting it back together.

If you want a career that your husband doesn’t support, then for you each to be happy, you may have to leave him. If you want a lifestyle your husband doesn’t buy into, then you might have to leave him. If you want a marriage built on open communication but, instead, your husband would rather close parts of himself off and keep secrets, then you might have to leave him. If you want to be happy and your husband thinks “happiness” is a different thing than you, then you might have to leave him. No matter what problems you are having in your marriage, everything hinges on that question of what you might have to do and the fear that’s keeping you from doing it.

Sometimes deciding what you really want means making it a point to get in touch with friends or family members who know you best, who will be honest with you and who, in turn, you can open up to. Other times it means getting still and quiet, digging down into the depths of yourself and taking a look at what you find there.

Of course, there will be pain as you “go there.” But chances are there’s already been a lot of pain, which is what brings you to reading this page.

Get the support you need before you act

We recommend a woman get fully informed on her choices in life before she makes any big decisions, including telling her husband she wants a divorce. And that the best first stop for that, strategically and economically, is with a seasoned divorce coach—a “thinking partner” who can you help you understand both your emotional and legal journey, what your choices truly are, and what good decision-making looks like.

A coach will bring down your stress levels by helping you understand what questions you must answer first and which ones can wait, or what type of divorce (traditional, mediated, collaborative, or DIY) is right for you. And if you’re not sure about getting a divorce—if you’re just wondering what “normal” even means in a marriage—a coach can help you with that too. (That’s right, meeting with a divorce coach does not mean you are necessarily divorcing.) A coach will also be able to make good referrals, like the best lawyer for your circumstances or the name of a well-respected mediator to interview.

Depending on the circumstances of your marriage, you may have the impulse to punish your husband throughout the divorce process in any way you can. Maybe I’ll blindside him, you’ll think to yourself. I’d love to see the look on his face when he’s served with papers. But doing this starts the divorce process off with nothing but charged emotions, ill will, and resentment—and that’s a bad recipe for both your own recovery and any relationship you and your Ex might have in the future. To say nothing about what it could do to the kids. A divorce coach will help you understand what to do with your anger or sense of betrayal, so you don’t lead from a reactive emotional place that often leads to worse, spiraling lawyer costs and wasted energies.

Consult with a divorce lawyer

A divorce lawyer isn’t just going to file paperwork for you and represent you in court—a good one will also help you set expectations so that you understand going into the divorce process what you’ll be facing. Divorce laws vary state by state, and every case operates on its own timeline. If your soon-to-be Ex isn’t being cooperative or there are circumstances, like abuse, that make protecting both yourself and your children especially crucial, then your attorney can help you by taking steps with the court, like an order of protection or, at the very least, ordering your husband to move out of the marital home.

Prepare as much as you can before filing

Prepare, and then prepare some more. The more knowledge you have throughout the divorce process, the more in control you will feel. But don’t just stop there. Get copies of family photographs or other mementos that you’re sentimental about. Set up your own bank accounts and credit cards if you don’t already have them, and change the passwords to your accounts so that your husband no longer has access to them.

Gather important documents, like birth certificates, mortgage statements, and insurance policies, and make sure you understand your financial situation. If you’re working with a divorce coach, she can put you in touch with a certified divorce financial analyst who can help you understand the big picture, like if you can afford to keep the house. After divorce, it’s not likely that you’ll be able to maintain the lifestyle you led as a married woman, and the more that you prepare for this new future, the better off you’ll be.

Be kind to yourself

There’s the end of your marriage, and then there’s the end of your marriage. By that, we mean, there’s the moment you truly realize your marriage is over. You’re not in love anymore, or maybe something has happened—a betrayal, for instance—that you can’t come back from. And then there’s the moment you actually do something about the end of your marriage—you talk with a divorce coach, consult with an attorney, you negotiate the terms of your divorce, and you file the paperwork.

Everything we’ve covered so far deals largely with the practical, legal, and financial aspects of divorce, but mixed up in there are a whole lot of emotions. Even if you feel a sense of relief now that your marriage is ending, you’re feeling so many other things it’s almost impossible to pinpoint your exact mood from one moment to the next.

Are you happy? Maybe. Are you miserable? Always, except when I’m not. Are you lonely? Even in a crowd. Are you angry? Oh, yes, there’s a lot of that to go around. Are you keeping it together? I have to.

Much of the divorce process is riding out these highs and lows until the road evens out again, the journey becomes smoother, or maybe you just become better for all of it.

Get ready for life after divorce

Your divorce is final when you receive your signed divorce decree, or judgment of divorce, from the court. After that you can change your name, if you want to, and take further steps to separate yourself as much as possible from your Ex financially, such as removing them from insurance policies or your will.

But if you have children, then coparenting them can be another obstacle you must learn to overcome—hopefully together, with your Ex.

Even with DIY divorces or mediation, the divorce process can be long, and the ending of a marriage can feel a lot like grieving. But what, exactly, you are actually grieving feels uncertain. Your relationship with your husband? Your sense of family? Your ability to trust others? The image you projected as the perfect couple, the couple your friends liked? Or what your marriage could have been?

After divorce, all of it seems to have gotten so far away from you, and perspective takes time. Be patient with and kind to yourself. We recommend practicing self-care throughout this journey (and really, always) and taking steps to find your support network if you don’t already have one.

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.

parental alienation syndrome

Parental Alienation Syndrome: What Is It? And How to Cope

Children who have been trained to not like one of their parents are often seen in custody disputes. Such training, programming, or what some might call “brainwashing” can be labeled as parental alienation when its goal is to somehow strengthen the role of the abusing parent. Parental alienation becomes a “syndrome” when the child, having been programmed to denigrate the other parent, now plays a role at keeping the “targeted parent” estranged and alienated.

Parental alienation syndrome may sound clinical and technical, but it refers to an all too common occurrence during and after divorce: one parent who attempts to poison their children against the other parent—and who, through control or emotional abuse, succeeds in having the kids adopt and enforce this view.

Many of us recognize examples of parental alienation—your spouse tries to monopolize your children’s time. He* paints a one-sided portrait of you and your marriage (ignoring all the good parts), while reminding the children of how many times you’ve failed them. He tries to provoke you so that you’ll take him to court, and because he is convinced of his own moral high ground, he will relish in it when you do.

Your perpetrator will make you a victim and then turnaround and call himself one. He will say he’s trying to protect your children and “do what’s best for them”, but he is so focused on hurting you and your relationship with them that he’s lost sight of what is healthy, what is indeed beneficial to the children. His tactics inevitably result with your children becoming the worst kind of collateral damage.

What’s happening to the kids

When a parent is successful at turning the children against their other parent, the children’s respect for the targeted parent quickly erodes. For example, your children may begin to openly insult you, or they may demand to spend more time with your Ex. They may begin to act out, or shut down, and their academic performance may slip. If you and your Ex find yourself in an argument, your children may repeatedly (overtly or covertly) side with him.

Your children might adopt the language of your Ex, as they process the world through “his eyes.” This goes beyond the subtle (and perhaps not so subtle) manipulations of your Ex coming to fruition.

Your children are now choosing their other parent over you, yes, but they too are suffering for it.

With so much at stake, healthy coparenting means avoiding parental alienation at all costs and being conscious of good parenting skills.

However, an insidious dimension to the problem is that perpetrators of parental alienation often display behaviors associated with good parenting: meaning, they show up for school events and pickups. They are deeply involved in their children’s lives such that it looks like they are doing everything right as a parent. And yet their engagement is often tightly wound with control and personality disorders, like narcissism. They use lies and manipulation and power as their weapons. At the end of the day, what they really care about is winning.

So, how do we “fight” against parental alienation and its syndrome?

First, we must learn to recognize it. And part of recognizing it is accepting that we women are often the perpetrators.

Until the 1990s—when women were more often the traditional, stay-at-home parent—it was mothers who had more time with their kids and therefore more time to “emotionally overshare,” or to use their children as a sounding board for marital problems. And it was fathers who were more often the targeted parent. Today, as more and more men are the primary caregivers or at least sharing a greater portion of that responsibility, the traditional roles played out in parental alienation are shifting, too.

This said, the “stay-at-home” factor does not necessarily dictate who the perpetrator is. There are ample examples of the moneyed parent using his or her economic edge to offer “a more privileged lifestyle” to a child—resulting in the child favoring the privileged parent.

What is clear is that parental alienation can be perpetrated by either parent and by either gender, but the result always impacts the children.

If you are feeling the stress of a difficult marriage, or struggling with independence as a single mother, we encourage you to find a healthy place to vent and get support for the challenges facing you. It may be hard, but strive to speak respectfully of your Ex to your kids. In our work supporting women through and past divorce, we’ve seen all too often what happens when a woman ignores this advice: her children grow older, and as they eventually circle back to their estranged parent, she is held responsible for the traumatic breakdown of the past.

The remaining information is directed toward our female readers who feel they may be at risk or are currently suffering from parental alienation syndrome.

Distorted memories and perception

If you’re suffering from parental alienation syndrome, your Ex is likely a master manipulator—he’s so successful at this, in fact, that he can distort your children’s memories and perception.

Mom isn’t tired and overworked. She isn’t casual, or maybe, even a little bohemian. No, “she’s let herself go,” “she can’t keep a home,” “she’s a mess,” or “she can’t be trusted because she’s lazy, irresponsible” or “she never grew up.” Or maybe your marriage ended because of an affair, and when your children gather the courage to confront your Ex, he plants the idea that you may have been sleeping around too—or that you, not him, are the adulterer. You broke up the family.

Suddenly your children look at you and what “they know” differently. Men who do this tell themselves they are simply keeping it real or they “just want their children to know the truth,” but more often they’re projecting or downright lying—they are trying to lessen your role, connection, and significance.

Strained familial relationships

The sad fact is that if your Ex is truly successful at alienating you from your children, he’s likely successful at separating them from your extended family, too. The pain and disappointment your family feels from being barred access to your kids will be real and will heighten your pain, too. Your Ex might invent or bend truths to make your parents and siblings (your children’s grandparents, aunts, and uncles) look like strangers or worse, enemies. He’ll find reasons and excuses to keep your kids from being with your family because he’s “protecting them,” but really it’s because your family is an extension of you.

Low self-esteem

How we define our sense of self worth is complicated. If your Ex is targeting you, he’s teaching your children to view your traits and interests as negative. But your children, being part of you, likely share some of those traits and interests. Suddenly they might want to hide parts of themselves away. They might feel ashamed because they know they are part of you.

One of the worst parts about being a victim of parental alienation is that your children don’t usually realize what’s happening.

They don’t have the distance or maturity to understand it either. Even though they are feeling and suffering through all of the above, they will, still, often choose your Ex. It’s a toxic relationship in which your children are constantly seeking validation from the very person who is least likely to give it to them—or, more to the point—to the person whose validation is likely to be fleeting.

This is an abusive relationship: for the love your Ex is extending is conditioned on your children’s rejection of you.

Parental alienation syndrome and support

Abuse and parental alienation have become central issues in some divorce cases.

If you’re dealing with an abusive Ex (and, arguably, alienation in any form is abuse) then we suggest finding a lawyer who understands and recognizes an abuser when she sees one. Do not underestimate your Ex. Do not allow your positive, rose-tinted memories of him to sway your ability to do all you can to protect yourself and your children.

And because you’re here, reading this, know that if you are suffering from parental alienation syndrome, there’s a real chance your children are suffering with you, perhaps in silence.

There are research support groups and organizations nearby that will educate and empower you. Learn about parenting tools that can help you maintain healthy boundaries yet communicate essential information between you and your Ex. Relying on the old way you communicated never worked before, and confronting your Ex about his behavior won’t help either.  Let go of the concept of “coparenting” — the otherwise healthy approach to communicating regularly with your Ex. (because it’s in the best interest of your children’s development). And understand that your endeavoring to survive as an estranged parent. Know that trying to talk to your children directly about how alienated your feeling can backfire as well. Your children may be punished by their other parent just for engaging with you. Don’t give your Ex an invitation to stir things up and make your divorce recovery harder. You’ve got to keep going, working on yourself, because one day, chances are your children will circle back to you. When they do you want to be everything you can for them. Strong. Independent. Healthy.

Parental alienation syndrome is real and coping with it may be a long and lonely battle—and indeed, it’s a battle that may not even be possible for you to truly win. Divorce, as with much of life, isn’t that black and white. But don’t give up. Find regular time for self-care with a therapist trained and experienced in parental alienation. Cultivate a support system with other parents who understand how isolating your experience is right now. They can give you perspective and help guide and protect you during those hours you feel your most alone.

If you already find your children slipping away from you, leave room in your life and in your heart for the possibility that they will one day come back because we’ve seen it all, my friend—and it’s not all tragedy. Sometimes we do get our happy endings, but we have to play the long game, to let go of the idea that we are in control of the where and when.

Since 2012, smart women around the world have chosen SAS for Women to partner them through the challenging experience of divorce and re-creation. Now you can secure female-centered support and smart next steps coparenting and rebuilding your life with Paloma’s Group, our virtual group coaching program for women post-divorce. To learn if Paloma is right for you, schedule your quick 15-minute chat now. To promote sisterhood and protect confidentiality, space is limited. 

*This piece was written for SAS for Women, an all-women website. At SAS we respect same-sex marriages, however, for the sake of simplicity in this article we refer to your spouse as a male.

References: Clawar, S. S. and Rivlin, B. V. (1991), Children Held Hostage: Dealing with Programmed and Brainwashed Children. Chicago, Illinois: American Bar Association.

Best coparenting skills

8 Skills for the Best Coparenting

Figuring out the best coparenting skills while dealing with your Ex isn’t always easy. After divorce, routines are disrupted and then pieced back together. Emotions are strained. Energy levels are low to nonexistent. And while kids bounce back quicker, on some level, they may be sharing some of these feelings too—a breeding ground for the sort of emotions that cause children to act out or hide themselves away.

The good news is that the some of the best coparenting skills are similar if not the same as those parenting skills you were practicing before your divorce. The key is to not let them fall to the wayside after divorce and to brace yourself and your children for the ways in which your lives are about to change. That sort of honesty and vigilance will shield you from some of the worst of your post-divorce recovery.

Below are eight of the best coparenting skills we wish to share. Keep these in mind as you navigate your divorce and post-divorce journey with your children’s other parent.

Putting your children’s interest first, always

This might sounds simple, but it’s effective—you might not always feel like you’re making the right choices, but if you’re making decisions with your children’s best interest in mind, then you’re already doing your job as a parent. When faced with a tough choice, take a deep breath, push petty concerns out of your mind, and place the image of you children center stage. Just focus on doing right by them because the rest of it is outside of your control.

Communicating with your Ex without using your kids as messengers

Children often become middlemen when it comes to divorce, but in today’s world, there’s just no excuse for it. With cellphones, email, websites, and court recommended apps like Family Wizard, there’s no shortage of ways to speak to your Ex without actually having to hear or see him*.

Using your children as messengers places an undue burden on their shoulders—a burden that becomes even heavier when those messages are nuanced and weighted. Your children may forget to pass one along, or they may be scared of how you or your Ex will react. To avoid this, it might help if you use a professional tone when you speak with your Ex. Make sure you listen even when you disagree, and keep your conversations focused on your children.

Being patient

Patience is a virtue any day, but you’ll have to stretch this skill a lot during your divorce recovery. When we aren’t patient, we can snap like rubber bands. Sometimes that looks like an eruption festering inside us: we sulk. Sometimes it bursts out: we shout. But research shows that yelling at your children actually makes their behavior and your relationship with them worse not better. When you shout at your kids, they can feel a sense of rejection which might result in low self-esteem and self-control.


Read: What to Do When Your Child Acts Like Your Ex-husband


Rather than berating yourself for lashing out at your children (even when you told yourself you wouldn’t), try to come up with a strategy to use next time. Part of your plan might be giving yourself some distance from the situation, if possible. Take a short walk. Get some fresh air. You might also do your best to put yourself in your children’s shoes—what’s really upsetting them? Is it the divorce or something else? Could you have played a part in it, even unintentionally? What can you do to make sure your children feel seen in this moment?

Creating a sense of consistency

Yes, you and your Ex live in different houses and spend time with your kids on a different schedule. But when it comes to “the rules” and how to discipline your children, attempt to develop consistency. When’s bedtime? What constitutes a healthy meal? Is snacking okay? How much screen time, if any, is allowed? If necessary, what’s an appropriate punishment for breaking these rules?

When one parent has to bear the burden of being “the fun one” or “the strict one,” it’s never a good thing. Your children need to understand that they can’t take advantage of either of their parents or play them against each other. You are all on the same team even though you live under different roofs.

This is one of those best coparenting skills that you’d likely been practicing before your divorce, but after, the discipline needed to keep it up increases. Which brings us to our next point.

Respecting the differences between you and your Ex

Maybe your Ex loathes watching movies but loves the outdoors, or maybe he’s soft-spoken when it comes to the small stuff but great when it really matters. These aspects of your Ex’s personality may be different from yours—and while that’s okay, your children may go through an adjustment period when they realize that who you and your Ex were as a couple and who you both are as individuals might not look exactly the same.

So if your child comes home complaining that Dad took her hiking. Again. Or that his idea of a home-cooked meal is always some variation of meat and potatoes. Remember that this is not an opportunity for you to buddy-up with your child, chiming in with, “I know, I always hated that about him, too!” For overtly or subliminally badmouthing your Ex will only backfire in the long run. Instead, try using this moment as an opportunity to explain to your child that every person is different and that every experience is valuable. Your daughter might not appreciate hiking now, for instance, but when she’s older, she’ll likely look back on these memories fondly. Differences can be fun too. Together, you and your children can have “your own thing” that’s unique to your relationship.

Making the transition between visitations smooth

When you and your Ex pick the kids up from each other’s homes, are bags packed and ready to go? You can keep certain basics at both homes, like toothbrushes, underwear, or hairbrushes, to cut down on the amount of packing that needs to be done each visit and to make each place truly feel like it’s “theirs” rather than a place they only sometimes occupy.

When they arrive in your home, give them time to adjust to the atmosphere and expectations that exist under your roof. It’s different from your Ex’s house—and kids need time to adapt. At the end of your visits, are the kids really prepared to leave—have they made their goodbyes and had a proper meal? Try to create a sense of calm around these arrivals and departures. When children are rushed out the door abruptly, it feels more like they are being torn away from their parent rather than merely saying goodbye for now.

Speaking positively about your Ex

In fact, we’d take this one step further. If you hear your children talking about your Ex negatively, try to communicate your displeasure (obviously this does not apply to situations involving abuse or neglect, in which you should 100% listen to your children). Put on a frown, and encourage them to put themselves in your Ex’s shoes. Each and every one of you is going through a difficult time—a transition period—and being kind to one another is one way you can help see each other through it. And respect for each parent is important.

Children can quickly get in the habit of using you as a sounding board to complain about their other parent, but it’s a habit you should try to curb as soon as possible. Your kids need to understand that you and their other parent are not enemies.

Being boring, when the time calls for it

Research shows that children need time to do regular things with both of their parents and not just stuff that’s entertaining. That’s true whether you’re married or divorced. For one, boredom can even lead to creativity and self-sufficiency. It also keeps expectations realistic.

When your divorce is still fresh, for instance, it’s easy to get into the habit of wanting all your time with your children to be fun and exciting. You might try to fill up each and every moment so that time passes by faster and there’s little to no time for dwelling on the past (or the fact that one parent is now missing from these activities). This type of non-stop action doesn’t lead to the natural pauses in conversation—ones that might in turn lead to parenting opportunities—or allow your children to develop a normal routine. You start to become less of a parent and more of a friend.

Your relationship with your coparent doesn’t need to be antagonistic (although we understand if you’re past finding ways to get along and more focused on how to simply get by). Together, you can develop a plan that benefits both you and your children. These may be some of the best coparenting skills, but they’re even more tools to add to your coparenting utility belt out there. There’s no way for you to master each of them all at once, but with practice, you can get there.

If you are seeking an education on best practices for coparenting as you support your children through one of the toughest moments in your lives, you will want to know about Gaia’s Group, SAS for Women’s virtual group coaching class for coparenting mothers. We all need a thoughtful, committed plan for helping our children weather and move beyond separation and divorce. Doing it the healthiest way is a choice. 

*This piece was written for SAS for Women, an all-women website. At SAS we respect same-sex marriages, however, for the sake of simplicity in this article we refer to your spouse as a male.

what to do when your child acts like your Ex-husband

What to Do When Your Child Acts Like Your Ex-husband

At last, you are finally on the other side of the longest, hardest life change you have ever experienced: your divorce. Your emotions are stabilizing and the coparenting arrangement seems to be working (for the most part). You are free from him* and ready to move forward. You are taking steps to advance your independence. You are beginning to rebuild.

Suddenly, BAMM! Your Ex’s expressions are plastered on your children’s face! Your daughter has the audacity to use a phrase your Ex may as well have coined himself. Your son grimaces and suddenly your reliving the past, remembering the sneers and the way your husband used to dismiss or disrespect you. You are blindsided, triggered, and instantly repulsed. You are so offended—how can your children be so insensitive? Doesn’t she know you used to HATE it when her father said those words? Doesn’t your son understand that you left your Ex because you decided to no longer tolerate any form of disrespect?

One client told me that every time her daughter responded to her with “gotcha,” it felt like a razor’s edge. For my client, “gotcha” was not an innocent word but a word that sounded like a parroting of her Ex when he was “pretending” to listen. And many women feel much the same. It’s not easy figuring out what to do when your child acts like your Ex-husband.

You’re divorced but still haunted by your Ex

What now? You can’t divorce your children. Should you react by yelling at them to stop their behavior? The fact is, none of this—not your divorce and not the ways that your children remind you of their father—is your children’s fault. Your children didn’t choose their father, you did. Besides, have you ever been on the receiving end of a derogatory comment like, “You are just like your mother”? How did that make you feel?

In my experience as a family and teen coach, lashing out at your children and blaming them for your triggers could have lasting damage on your relationship. It could put your kids on the defensive, wanting to protect their father. It could impact their self-esteem because you are attacking your children’s character. And it could compound guilt your children may already be feeling about the divorce.

Yes, that’s right. Kids of divorce sometimes carry guilt because they often think it’s their fault their parent’s relationship didn’t work out. They might conclude this based on what they heard and felt during the events leading up to the divorce, which later manifests as guilt.

Figuring out what to do when your child acts like your Ex-husband is a part of coparenting you weren’t prepared for. While it may feel nearly impossible to contain your reaction in the moment, doing so will leave space to build an amazing relationship with your children in the long run and will help you heal and build immunity to these inevitable triggers in the process.

Manage your response when you feel triggered

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” is a well-known quote by Jim Rohn, motivational speaker and self-help guru.

Not only are your children genetically 50 percent of you and their father, but they are spending time with each of you, so it is only natural that they will pick up some tendencies and expressions from both of you.

Therefore, when your children do or say something to trigger you, the first step is to do a quick analysis. What about this bothers me? Is this my pet peeve or an actual behavioral problem that will affect my children’s personal relationships?

If it’s a pet peeve, use your emotional intelligence to guide your response: “My children are not my Ex. This is not personal. I choose to let it go.” Tony Robbins always says, “What you focus on expands.” Hence, if you don’t like it, don’t focus on it!

Confront behavioral issues

If it’s a behavioral problem, keep your relationship with your children in mind as you parent the behavior from a place of compassion and empathy, in an age-appropriate way. Remember, your children learned this behavior and can successfully unlearn it with proper parenting from you.

If you wonder what “proper parenting” looks like now that you’ve survived divorce and are on your own, consider joining a professionally-facilitated parenting support group for women to get the support you need as a mother to stand strong.

Make time for self-reflection

Finally, if the hurt and emotion you are experience is defeating you, it’s a glaring sign that you haven’t healed yourself. Maybe it’s time to lean in and clear the burden once and for all, for the sake of your relationship with your children and any other relationship you hope to have in the future. Take time to heal through self-help alternatives, or speak to a professional coach who can help you face, explore, and abolish those feelings once and for all.

The topic of this article was inspired by a beautiful client of mine who endured a horrific divorce and custody battle. She was still putting the pieces of herself back together when she noticed that sometimes, if her 9-year-old son was hurting or feeling bad, he would say hurtful or vindictive things to her, such as “You’re fat,” or “You have no friends.” Ouch! The pain went right to her core.

As her coach, I had so much compassion for her as she realized the pain her Ex inflicted could still reach her through her children. Through the power of transformational coaching, she discovered the solutions resided within her.

Today she realizes right away that those comments are not coming from her son but are behaviors that his father often models. As a mother, she can respond with compassion and empathy to disarm him and then let him know that while she understands his frustration, taking it out on her or others is not appropriate or acceptable. She is earning her son’s respect while teaching him an effective way to navigate his emotions and have a healthy, loving relationship, without once mentioning his father.

In closing, the next time your children act like your Ex, bite your tongue and remember that they are not their father. Your loving connection with them matters so much more than your past relationship with him.

Cindy Thackston is a compassionate, certified professional coach and founder of Rate Life a 10!, Youth and Family Success Coaching. She works with families with tweens and teens who are facing various challenges that are causing disconnection and a breakdown of the family unit. To learn how Cindy helps families reconnect and create a thriving family culture, visit her website at www.ratelifea10.com to schedule a free consultation.

*This piece was written for SAS for Women, an all-women website. At SAS we respect same-sex marriages, however, for the sake of simplicity in this article we refer to your spouse as a male.

badmouthing your children

Why Badmouthing Your Coparent Hurts Your Child

Once we get married, most of us assume that we’ll spend the rest of our life with that person. We’re in love, we have kids and maybe even a house together—everything is perfect. But then something changes, and all our hopes and dreams are shattered. What are we to do? Do we file for divorce? Or, do we stay in a relationship that’s become toxic?

While this decision can be hard to make, you have to think about what is best for you.

Quite often, women decide to stay married for the sake of their kids. But think about it this way—how can your kids be happy if you and your partner are constantly arguing? Getting a divorce and coparenting might sound like a challenge, but the children should be your top priority. If your heart is in the right place, you’ll find it’s a challenge you’re up for.

Of course, you do need to keep in mind that even after the divorce, you will have to keep seeing your Ex if you decide on joint custody. It can often be difficult to maintain a civil relationship if there is still some lingering resentment. Finances, schedules, and lifestyle changes can all make it harder for you to coexist.

Unless your Ex decides to completely abandon you and the children, you should look for a way to include them in your kids’ lives. Maybe your Ex is a terrible husband, but a great father. Because of this, you’ll want to avoid badmouthing the other parent in front of your child as it can be quite harmful to their relationship with your Ex. Here are some more reasons why badmouthing your coparent can hurt your kids.

Your kid will be adjusting to recent changes

When kids find out about their parents’ divorce, they will probably have a hard time understanding what exactly is happening. Depending on their age, they might cry, become isolated, blame themselves, or understand that this is truly the best option.

If you or your Ex move out, your children will have to adjust to constantly moving from one home to another. If one of you gets sole parental responsibility, the child will probably miss seeing you together and spending time as a family. Your children might also have to change schools. The last thing they need is to hear you complain about the other parent. This will make them feel even more confused and helpless, as they will not know how to act in this situation.

Your children aren’t your confidants or therapist

When you’re with your kids, try to find fun topics to talk about. Ask them about their day, what they want to read or watch, what they learned in school, etc. When the topic of their father comes up, try to stay calm and ask about their time together. Do not talk about your issues and tell them bad things about their parent.

You should not turn to your children to complain about your Ex. They do not need to know every single detail that led to your divorce. No matter their age, they are not your therapist, and you should not rely on them to make you feel better about your problems. Oversharing will possibly make them feel overwhelmed. If they have a good relationship with their other parent, you do not want to ruin this. So, if you need help, seek professional advice or talk to your friends.

The truth always comes out

The worst thing you could do is lie to your child about their other parent. If you spread misinformation, the lies will eventually catch up with you. Seeing as how your kid will still communicate with other members on both sides of the family, it’s quite possible that they will ask someone what the truth is. If they find out you lied to them, it can greatly affect your relationship going forward.

Your kids will feel forced to choose sides

Badmouthing your coparent—even when you’re on the receiving end of the complaints—makes your kids feel forced to choose sides. Even worse, they might develop a bad opinion about both of you, internalizing those feelings and becoming secluded.

This is especially true when children get older and become more self aware. It’s entirely possible that all those “bad parts” about your Ex that you list off are traits your children share, and you don’t want to offend or shame your children. Constant pressure and the stress of going back and forth between homes can often results in deteriorating health in the future, which is something you don’t want to contribute to.

There are so many reasons why badmouthing your coparent in front of our children is never a good idea, from making your children feel badly about themselves to ruining relationships within your family. No matter how you feel about your Ex, you should always try to stay civil and think of what is best for your child.

By Tanya Mayer for women. You can reach her at [email protected]

If you are seeking an education on best practices for coparenting as you support your children through one of the toughest moments in your lives, you will want to know about Gaia’s Group, SAS for Women’s virtual group coaching class for coparenting mothers. We all need a thoughtful, committed plan for helping our children weather and move beyond separation and divorce. Doing it the healthiest way is a choice.