Separations and divorces are common in the U.S., and out of those split-ups come children living in two households. These kids often experience situations and conflicts that their friends living in an intact household don’t .We talk to a co-parenting specialist about how the parents’ behavior, ability to compromise, and desire to put the child’s needs above their own, can lead to successful parenting and well-adjusted, happy kids.
- Karen Bonnell, Co-parent Coach, author of The Co-Parents’ Handbook: Raising well-adjusted, resilient and resourceful kids in a two-home family from little ones to young adults.
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15-39 The Challenges of Co-Parenting
Marty Peterson: Many American couples will separate or divorce while their kids are still young, and this can make for an emotionally charged and often chaotic situation for everyone involved. And there are a lot of concerns to address such as deciding how the child will be cared for and where; what school will they attend; who will make healthcare decisions, and more. To help parents address these concerns in the best possible way for their children, Karen Bonnell wrote “The Co-parents’ Handbook: Raising well-adjusted, resilient and resourceful kids in a two-home family from little ones to young adults.” Bonnell is a co-parent coach and, along with contributions by child specialist Kristin Little, she helps parents navigate the sometimes-troubled waters of raising a child in two homes. Bonnell says that when parents split, and the courts get involved, it’s best if mom and dad have a plan to present that’s acceptable for both of them…
Karen Bonnell: The courts want to empower parents to be great parents, to be good parents, to work well together, and if they can start out on that foot as they dismantle their spousal or partnership relationship, all the better. The court doesn’t want to interfere. What they do want is for kids to be well-cared for and well-supported, and they want to minimize conflict. Part of the reason why most states have adopted the need for a parenting plan, it’s actually a conflict manager, that parenting plan. It’s a way of saying, “Hey, if you can’t agree, this is what you’re going to do. This is when the child is going to transfer from one home to the next. This is how pick-ups and drop-offs are going to happen.” And so that’s really the purpose, and the court is all about healthy kids, hoping to have two-home families run smoothly for that outcome.
Peterson: She says that all of the disappointment, anger and betrayal has to be set on the sideline when parents are around their children to keep the kids from having to bear the burden of their parents’ discontent. Bonnell says that parents have a responsibility to not only be civil when they’re with their children, but also make sure that their involvement in their lives creates an environment of stability and love…
Bonnell: The biggest thing is, will I be loved? Will I be cared for? And, am I going to lose a parent? If I know that I’ll be loved and cared for and I’m not going to lose a parent, and my parents are going to be okay, that’s another way that you can lose a parent, right? Somehow they’re not okay. They’re not financially stable enough, they’re not emotionally stable enough, so there are lots of ways we can lose a parent. As we work with co-parents, we’re ever cognizant of how this separation and divorce unfolds, needs to take into consideration the okay-ness of the parents, the accessibility and the engagement so that kids have the experience of, “Okay, I’m really scared, this is uncertain, and as time goes on, things restabilize, I’m secure again, I have my parents, life moves on.”
Peterson: There are several potentially touchy situations when a child is cared for in two different homes. One is where the child will spend holidays, birthdays and vacations. Bonnell says that splitting the child’s time equally between homes can be detrimental to the child, even though it seems to the parents to be the right thing to do…
Bonnell: I really work with co-parents not to count hours and days and overnights and a Saturday visit here and a Christmas there. Early on in separation and divorce, parents often do best if they can share some of the holidays, so let’s just use Christmas as an example. You know, you have them for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, maybe I even come to your house where the children are in residence and I come for that hour and a half of Santa gifts and the kids and I leave and they have Christmas dinner with me and my family. And that can work out beautifully for the first year or two, the first holiday season or two after the separation and divorce. In the long run, that attempt to balance everything actually becomes a disadvantage for children, and if we look at it through their lives, as time moves on maybe mom and dad recouple, and maybe we have step-siblings or half-siblings. That kind of residential arrangement never allows children to be either fish or foul, they’re always caught in between – every holiday is split. They never just rest in and go, “Wow! I have Christmas with dad this year, and when that happens it looks like this.”
Peterson: She says that for the first few years, it’s natural for parents to want to spend the holidays and birthdays with their kids. But Bonnell says that eventually, parents have to consider the feelings of the children who are moved from one home to the other over a short period of time…
Bonnell: We help parents anticipate what the developmental arc of, okay, at first it’s really scary. I can’t imagine a Christmas without my children and then evolving to a place of, I want everyone to be comfortable, including my children not being pulled in and out every holiday, in some ways the needs of parents more than parents feeling secure that children are loved and cared for wherever they are.
Peterson: Another situation co-parents can find themselves in is when one or both parents enter into new adult relationships. Bonnell says that it’s best if parents ease into involving their children with a new romantic partner, by introducing them as a friend for the first three months or so…
Bonnell: Later, at four and five months we might do a backyard barbecue, or we might have other kinds of limited engagements, but it’s not until you’re more certain that this person is hanging out on Saturdays and Sundays at the house or creating any sense of family. What we want to avoid for children who have been through a separation and a divorce is a repetitive experience of attaching or beginning to attach to someone and having them leave, often precipitously because they don’t have insider information about why we might have broke up. So, I just say to parents, be thoughtful of that, and how they introduce their children to a romantic partner and when.
Peterson: She also suggests that parents in advance who is going to break the news of a new romantic partner. Do you want to find out from each other first?
Bonnell: Or do you want your children to return from residential time and going, “Hey, mom has a new boyfriend!” which might be fine. The other parent might stand there and go, “I heard, that’s really wonderful. I knew you were going to meet him.” That might be more ideal. So do you want to know from each other ahead of time or do you want to find out from the kids? And that’s a choice point.
Peterson: Bonnell says that parents who have the best interests of the child at heart, and who put their own emotions in check after a split, rarely need to go back to court to resolve small issues. However, there are times when it’s important to call in a third-party to help get the childcare routine back on track…
Bonnell: My first recommendation when parents can tolerate this is to start with a co-parent coach or a mediator. Go to a neutral third party who can really help. See if you can break that apart effectively on your own without involving the legal system. If it’s a big enough issue that you have to bypass that – because it’s urgent, it’s health related, there’s safety involved – then clearly to immediately to your attorney and deal with that in a very, very appropriate way. But for the, what I would call, the lower-level issues which may not feel lower-level but they’re not health and safety issues, they’re extremely bothersome but the kids are safe, I would start with a lower-level intervention which, again, a mediator. Or you might bring two collaborative attorneys into the room who would give you some idea, what would the courts say on this issue? How would the courts address this issue? So that, again, the co-parents really hold onto all of their power to resolve things on their own to the extent that they can.
Peterson: Divorce is tough for everyone – parents, kids, and extended families. But Bonnell says that children who split their time between two homes can often benefit from the experience…
Bonnell: Kids in two-home families often exceed their peers by about age 10 or 12, they’re exceeding the peers in one-home families often in skills like organization, self-management, often in terms of being able to manage age-appropriate household responsibilities. Part of that is when you have a parent in one home with children, you’ve got a team of three there and then as they move over to their other parent’s house there’s a team of three there. And they have to operate as a team. When you have two adults in a family they can kind of do things for kids that kids are actually capable of doing. So when you only have one, it’s a little bit more divide and conquer what needs to happen to keep the household running. So children in one-home families learn those skills.
Peterson: You can find out more about raising children in two homes in Karen Bonnell’s book, “The Co-Parents’ Handbook,” available in stores and online. She also welcomes listeners to log onto her website at thecoparentshandbook.com for information and to ask questions about co-parenting. To learn more about all of our guests, you can visit our website at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher.
Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Nick Hofstra and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.
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