Guidelines for Cooperation
The following guidelines will help you help your children move back and forth between their two homes. All co-parents should seek to live according to these guidelines.* Consider how you might make each a reality in your situation. Remember that you are responsible for your contribution to how you and your ex interact. Change your part of the interaction even if you believe your ex spouse is to blame for the negative exchanges that have occurred in the past.
- Work hard to respect the other parent and his or her household. Agree that each parent has a right to privacy, and do not intrude in his or her life. Make space for different parenting styles and rules as there are many healthy ways to raise children. Do not demean the other's living circumstances, activities, dates or decisions, and give up the need to control your ex's parenting style. If you have concerns, speak directly to the other parent.
- Schedule a monthly (perhaps more often) "business" meeting to discuss co-parenting matters. You can address schedules, academic reports, behavioral training and spiritual development. Do not discuss your personal life (or your ex's); that part of your relationship is no longer appropriate. If the conversation turns away from the children, simply redirect the topic or politely end the meeting. If you cannot talk with your ex face to face due to conflict, use e-mail or speak to the answering machine. Do what you can to make your meetings productive for the children.
- Never ask your children to be spies or tattletales on the other home. This places them in a loyalty bind that brings great emotional distress. In fact, be happy when they enjoy the people in their new home. ("I'm glad you enjoy fishing with your step dad.") If children offer information about life in the other home, listen and stay neutral in your judgment.
- When children have confusing or angry feelings toward your ex, don't capitalize on their hurt and berate the other parent. Listen and help them to explore their feelings without trying to sway their opinions with your own. If you can't make positive statements about the other parent, strive for neutral ones.
- Children should have everything they need in each home. Don't make them bring basic necessities back and forth. Special items, like clothes or a comforting teddy bear, can move back and forth as needed.
- Try to release your hostility toward the other parent so that the children can't take advantage of your hard feelings. Manipulation is much easier when ex spouses don't cooperate.
- Do not disappoint your children with broken promises or by being unreliable. Do what you say, keep your visitation schedule as agreed, and stay active in their life.
- Make your custody structure work for your children even if you don't like the details of the arrangement. Update the other when changes need to be made to the visitation schedule. Also, inform the other parent of any change in job, living arrangements, etc. which may require an adjustment by the children.
- If you plan to hire a babysitter for more than four hours while the children are in your home, give the other parent first right to that time.
- Suggest that younger children take a favorite toy or game as a transitional object. This can help them make the transition and to feel more comfortable in the other home.
- Regarding children who visit for short periods of time or spend time in another home:
- Sometimes it is tempting to only do "special activities" when all the children are with you. That may leave some children feeling that they aren't as special as others. Do special things with differing combinations of children (it's all right if someone feels disappointed that he or she wasn't able to go).
- Let the lives of those living with you remain unaltered, as much as possible, when other children come for visitation.
- Keep toys and possessions in a private spot where they are not to be touched or borrowed unless the owner gives permission (even while they are in the other home).
- Help children adjust when going to the other home.
Visit www.SmartStepfamilies.com for stepfamily resources, conference information and training events.
*Adapted from Everett & Volgy (1994). Healthy Divorce. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Inc. and Visher & Visher (1996). How to Win as a Stepfamily. New York: Brunner/Mazel. Posted by permission.
- If the children will go on vacation while in the other home, find out what's on the agenda. You can help your kids pack special items and needed clothing.
- Provide the other home with information regarding your child's changes. A switch in preferences (regarding music, clothes, hair styles, foods, etc.) or physical/cognitive/emotional developments can be significant. Let the other home know what is different before the child arrives.
- If you and your ex cannot resolve a problem or change in custody or visitation, agree to problem solving through mediation rather than litigation.