Your Child and Co-Parenting

by Brette Sember

Here's What You'll Find Below:  • Getting Your Child's Cooperation
  • Children's Reactions by the Ages
  • Kids Who Don't Want to Go on Visitation
  • Kids Who Want a Change in Custody
  • Children Overwhelmed by the Schedule
  • Kids Taking Sides
  • Manipulation by Your Child

discussing visitationSuccessful co-parenting means not only that the parents work together, but that the children cooperate with the process as well. All of you have to work together to help this new family structure work effectively. Helping your child adjust to your new situation takes time and patience.

Getting Your Child's Cooperation

When you talk to your child about the parenting arrangement, it is important that he first understand that kids do not get to make decisions about parenting. Allowing your child to think this gives him too much responsibility and blame. Instead, let your child know that your hope is that all of you can work together to make the new schedule comfortable. Your child's input is essential. If something isn't working or feels uncomfortable, you want him to speak up.

The message should be that you are all still a family and want to find a way to make the schedule work together. Your goal is to support each other and find a way to divide time that helps everyone in the family feel included. Your child doesn't get to make the schedule, but she has input in it. She doesn't get to choose where she lives, but again, her opinion is important to both parents.

It is also important to be clear that living with a parenting schedule isn't always easy. It takes effort to make it work. There will be times each of you will feel frustrated or upset, but that doesn't mean the whole plan should be tossed out the window. Instead, it means you all need to be patient with each other.

Children's Reactions by the Ages

How children react to and adjust to parenting plans varies with their ages. Babies generally do quite well, as long as their personal schedule is closely kept to in both houses. Toddlers are also routine-oriented and a solid schedule will help them adjust. It's important to remember that toddlers are emotional creatures and behavior you might see as out of left field is in fact a normal condition of the age, and not at all a reaction to the parenting situation. Toddlers are learning to play off their parents' emotions, and can pick up on how you feel about a situation. If you can approach the situation in a calm and pleasant way, it will help your toddler.

Preschoolers are verbal and anxious to tell you exactly what they want. It is very important not to give into a preschooler's demands about the parent schedule. The schedule must be followed -- period. If you start caving and making changes based on what a four-year-old says, you will find your schedule in ruins.

School age children are growing and discovering new interests. You may find that you need to make changes to the schedule based on activities, play dates, and school events. School age kids are likely to ask questions about why the divorce happened, and scheme about ways to reunite their parents. They are also likely to begin thinking about how the parent they are not with is feeling -- worrying about him or her being lonely or sad. Some of this is projection, but some is true empathy. It's a good idea to help your child understand that you always think about her and miss her, but that you are happy with the schedule.

Pre-teens may be entering an age of rebellion (many parents find pre-teens to be as difficult as teenagers used to be perceived as). If they don't like the schedule, they are going to tell you and may act out if they don't get their way. Teens are likely to feel constrained by a visitation schedule. They have their own life -- friends, job, activities, sports, studying, etc. -- and are likely ready to begin having some say over where they are when. The goal is to make it clear that having a relationship with both parents is required. She doesn't get to blow one parent off because she’s mad at that parent.

Kids Who Don't Want to Go on Visitation

Throughout your child's life you will have periods of time when he does not want to go on visitation. For many kids, this takes the form of basic whining and difficult behavior. This is normal and is just part of the adjustment process. There are some kids who become radically opposed to visitation and do things like hide under their beds, lock themselves in the bathroom, and so on. Visitation is not optional. If your child cried about going to school would you just give in and say, oh ok, you can stay home? Definitely not. Visitation is just as important as school (more so actually). If your child gets upset, try to find out what the problem is. Often there is something at the root of it -- Dad won't let me play video games, or I'm going to miss Amanda's party. Try to find out what is creating the problem and deal with the problem, not with issue of visitation, because as far as you are concerned, there can't be an issue with visitation. It has to happen.

Kids Who Want a Change in Custody

Some children will say that they want to live with the other parent. Lots of parents get thrown by this kind of statement, when in fact, it's a really normal reaction. Kids often don't know what they really want. When she is with one parent she may feel she wants to live with that parent -- or she may say that she hates that parent and wants to live with the other. Kids are going to be confused. It's hard to have two parents in two places and want to be with both of them.

There are some kids who very strongly feel they want a change in custody. What you should keep in mind is that courts always are interested in children's opinions, however, they are given more weight the older they get. This means that you should do the same thing. A six-year-old who says she wants to live with mommy is much different from a 16-year-old who says the same thing.

Ideally if a change in residential custody is ever going to happen, it should happen by agreement. This is almost never the case. No parent wants to voluntarily agree to let his or her child move out and live with the other parent. In most cases, the court is going to decide a change of custody. If you have a teen who is very certain about what he wants, it is a good idea to listen and try to avoid court. If you protest a change in custody, your teen is likely to feel you are fighting against him personally. I worked with many families of teens where custody fights ended up being personal affronts to the teens themselves. It's quite common for teens to identify with and want to live with the parent of the same gender.

Children Overwhelmed by the Schedule

upset little boyNo matter what your schedule is and no matter how perfect it may seem to you, you need to observe your child to see how she is handling it. A schedule that seems balanced to the parents can be overwhelming to the child. Some kids simply can't handle a lot of transfers -- going back and forth between houses frequently. These are kids who need stability. For them, longer stretches at each house may be the answer.

There are also kids who have a very hard time with a schedule that limits time with the non-residential parent. Waiting two weeks to see that parent can be really hard for a child who needs constant contact. If your child seems to be struggling with the schedule, it makes sense to consider changing it if you've given it a good try and your child is not adjusting as well as you hoped.

Kids Taking Sides

Another common problem is children who take sides. Often it may seem like your child is taking your side, when in actuality, he is going to the other parent's house and doing the opposite -- seemingly taking that parent's side as well. Kids want to please the parent they are with, so it's important not to read too much into things your child says to you.

There are kids who end up firmly planted on one side of the family battle lines. Some boys feel very resentful of their fathers for leaving and feel a need to protect their mothers. Girls can demonstrate a lot of anger towards their mothers as well. While there are some gender links to this, any child can end up angry at either parent. You and your ex have to make it clear that the schedule continues. You must absolutely support each other and tell your child that time with that parent is essential and not negotiable. If you don't play into the game, it may just go away.

Some kids maintain festering resentment against a parent no matter what. These are situations when a good child or family therapist can help a lot. Don't assume you should just give up -- therapy can be very helpful for everyone.

Manipulation by Your Child

All kids are masters of manipulation, however children of divorce may have the opportunity to perfect this behavior, simply because it is harder to catch them at it sometimes. Your child may have his own agenda -- reuniting the parents, getting one parent in trouble with the other, changing the schedule to be with the parent who is more lax on discipline, and so on. To avoid this kind of manipulation, it's important to maintain open communication with the other parent. Lots of families get into trouble when the parents rely on what the child says instead of what the other parent says. This means you and your ex have to develop a level of trust that allows you to talk to each other and believe each other when it comes to parenting.

Successful co-parenting is a team effort. The parents must be the team leaders who work together to keep the children on board with the process.

Brette McWhorter Sember is a retired family attorney and mediator and nationally known expert about divorce and parenting after divorce. She is the author of:

  • "The Divorce Organizer & Planner"
  • "The Complete Divorce Handbook: A Practical Guide"
  • "How to Parent with Your Ex: Working Together for Your Child's Best Interest"
  • "No-Fight Divorce: Spend Less Money, Save Time, and Avoid Conflict Using Mediation"

Learn more about Brette on her web site.

Copyright © Brette McWhorter Sember. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org.