Divorce and the Media

If you have children ages eight and up, they probably see a lot about divorce on TV and they’ve probably heard about the latest break ups. Every time a big celebrity couple (Sandra Bullock and Jesse James, Courtney Cox and David Arquette, etc.) hits the rocks, you can’t avoid it on TV. Frankly, most of what your kids see on TV about divorce is not good. TV shows, movies, and news reports frequently focus on the dark side of divorce –after all there isn’t much of a story when two people part in a reasonable way and make adult decisions together about their family and their assets. The news coverage always seeks out the dirtiest secrets (who cheated on who and what nasty things they have to say about each other after the fact).

Protect Your Children from Divorce in the Media
The best thing you can do is insulate your children from the gleeful media reports about this marriage or that falling apart, or this couple or that couple fighting to death over money or custody. Turn the channel. It’s harder to control what your tweens and teens watch of course. Instead of changing the channel, just be aware of what they are watching so that you can address it.

Encourage Appropriate Shows
Not all portrayals of divorce on TV are bad. In fact, there are a lot of shows that do a very good job of treating things fairly. 7th Heaven, although in rerun land now, is one show that often was able to deal with this topic in a fair and reasonable way. Drake and Josh is a show about two stepbrothers whose parents each got divorced. It can help kids to watch shows that have storylines about other kids who are going through the same things they are. Kate Plus Eight shows a family moving on after divorce. Shows like Divorce Court or other programs that show couples fighting do not help your child cope with your divorce.

Talk about It
If your child sees media reports or reads online about a celebrity divorce or custody case, don’t ignore it. Bring the subject up. First, ask your child what he thinks about. Find out if it has made him worried about anything and address his fears. Remind him that what you see on TV isn’t always true, and only the people involved in the situation really know what is happening. Tell him that sometimes TV exaggerates things that are happening to make them seem more exciting and interesting.

Even when he watches a show that treats divorce in a reasonable way, engage him in conversation about what happened and why it happened that way. Be prepared to admit when things on TV have gone better than things in your own life! You’re not perfect and neither is your ex.

Reality Check
Point out to your child that what happened or is happening in your family is completely different from the cases or shows he sees on TV. If your divorce is in progress, reiterate what the plan is and what is going to happen with living arrangements, custody, and so on. When the Alec Baldwin situation (where he left his daughter a voicemail calling her a pig because he couldn’t reach her due in part to the custody dispute) hit the news, it made a lot of kids feel especially uncomfortable, wondering if their parents thought that way about them. Reassure your child that both parents love him and want what is best for him.

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Balancing Parenting Styles

photo credit: renjith krishan

Jan prides herself on being a good mother. She is a highly motivated person who believes in punctuality and clear rules. She loves her children more than anything, but has some firm rules for the kids when it comes to chores, homework, curfews, and TV/computer time. She also makes lots of time to do things with the kids and is always looking for what she thinks of as teachable moments – opportunities to talk about big issues and lay down a good moral foundation for her kids. Her ex-husband Peter couldn’t be more different. When they were married, they fought a lot about what he called her uptightness and she called his lazy attitude. As you can imagine, Peter parents differently than Jan. He isn’t as worried about how much TV/computer time the kids have and lets them watch TV before their homework is done. He doesn’t expect them to do any chores at his house and in fact doesn’t do too many himself. Because Jan is so rigid about bedtimes and curfews, he often returns the kids late just to tick her off and sometimes lets them stay up late on the weekends. He even allowed their twelve-year-old daughter to stay out until 11 p.m., which Jan thought was ridiculous. Sometimes Peter doesn’t make dinner for the kids and says everyone has to find something in the fridge that they want. Jan and Peter continue to fight even after the divorce because Jan feels that the way he parents is outrageous, lax, and simply wrong. No matter how many times she patiently explains how important it is to have a routine, set bedtimes, and consistent rules at both homes, Peter simply won’t do things her way.

Jan and Peter might seem a bit exaggerated (but believe me, they really aren’t – I’ve seen cases with greater extremes), but I’m offering their story to make a point. It’s quite common for basic differences in parenting styles to become yawning gaps after a divorce. Each parent has a tendency to go further to an extreme after a divorce, as if to cement that his or her way is correct.

The end result of this is more conflict, anger, and resentment. Both spouses are learning to parent alone and it’s likely they’re both going to make mistakes. In fact, they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t. You might have noticed that separation and divorce rock you to the core and that also applies to your parenting. It’s often a time when people take a stand just to have something they can hold on to and this can result in a real clash between parents because they’ve lost the ability (and sometimes the desire) to work together.

The best way to handle a situation like Jan and Peter’s is to remember that no matter how certain you are that your way is the right way, there is no perfect approach to parenting. In fact, your kids will probably benefit from having parents with two different approaches because they will learn to be adaptable. Of course, there are some situations where this isn’t good – children with severe learning disabilities, for example, cannot adapt well and do need consistency. If one parent is lax to the point of endangering the children, that obviously is a bad situation. But in most other situations, the best thing to do is accept that you’re both different and that your children need both of you, with all your quirks.

Tips for Coping When You Have Different Parenting Styles
1. Reassure yourself that your kids are getting the basics: they are healthy, clean, fed, rested, loved and doing ok in school. If there is a real problem that endangers this, talk to the other parent, otherwise decide you have to let go.
2. Create a separation in your mind. What happens at the other parent’s house is outside of your control. Stop trying to monitor, evaluate, judge, and affect what’s happening there. Put up a mental wall that you will not climb over.
3. Get on with things when the kids aren’t with you. Don’t let yourself be consumed by worry and what ifs. Assume they are happy and adequately cared for and put it out of your mind.

4. Don’t question your kids about what happened at the other parent’s house. Listen to them if they share details, but don’t quiz them and try to elicit details about exactly what happened when. Encourage them to resolve problems with the other parent themselves when possible.
5. Realize you cannot change how your ex parents. He/she doesn’t want and won’t take your advice, tips, suggestions, or directives. You’re not in charge of what happens there, just as your ex is not in charge of what happens at your house.
6. Realize that having two parents who are different is actually a good thing for your child.

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Co-Parenting Basics

photo credit: Africa

Dave and Karen have just gotten divorced. Their divorce wasn’t pleasant but it was reasonable, especially when it came to custody. The kids live with Karen, and Dave sees them every other weekend and one night per week. Their divorce decree refers to their “co-parenting” plan and talks about joint legal custody with Karen having residential custody. Neither one of them is quite sure what all of these words mean or how they are supposed to co-parent when what they want more than anything is to start their own separate lives.

“Co-parenting” is a big buzz word when it comes to divorce. You’ve probably heard about the importance of co-parenting, but understanding what co-parenting really is and how to make it work requires delving beneath the hot word of the day.

Types of Custody Arrangements

Before you can even begin to try to co-parent together or understand what co-parenting is, it is important to understand what the custody options are when your marriage or relationship ends. There a variety of arrangements possible.  The biggest distinction is between legal custody and physical custody.

Legal Custody

Legal custody refers to parental authority and decision making power. Parents can have joint or sole legal custody. Parents who share joint legal custody are supposed to make important decisions about the child together (and is truly at the root of co-parenting). These include education, health, religion, and other major decisions. In theory, joint legal custody requires the parents to truly cooperate. In reality, often parents are given joint legal custody simply because it is a way of making the parent who does not have primary physical custody feel better about the situation. I’ve worked with several families where a schedule was easy to create, but the father would not agree to it because he did not technically have joint custody. Changing that wording made the agreement more palatable – parents like to be able to say, “I have joint custody of my children.”  Often this designation is in words only – parents who couldn’t work together before are not magically transformed into cooperative parents by a court decree.  Often the residential parent ends up being the one who makes many decisions about the child without the other’s input.

On the other hand, just because one parent is given sole legal custody does not mean that the other parent is completely shut out of participating in decisions about the child’s life. Your custody arrangement is what you make of it.

Physical Custody

Physical custody has to do with how the child’s time is shared by the parents. There are an infinite number of ways time can be shared – any possible schedule permutation can you think of. However, there are a few ways these arrangements can be characterized. First, let’s consider the child’s primary residence. In most custody arrangements, the child has one home base – the parent’s home at which he or she spends the most time. This parent is sometimes referred to as the residential or primary parent.

If one parent is given sole physical custody, it means that the child spends all of his or her time with that parent and does not see the other parent, This is rare, except in cases of abuse or neglect. Parents can also have joint or shared physical custody, which means they share the child’s time in a relatively equal way, such as alternating weeks or months, or splitting the weeks in half. As great as this sounds, it doesn’t work for many families. Most commonly one parent is given primary custody or residential custody and the other is given visitation.

What is Co-Parenting?

Generally speaking, co-parenting refers to two parents continuing to function as a parental unit after a divorce. Instead of going their separate ways and never speaking or cooperating, co-parents continue to see themselves as a parenting team who must work together and rely on each other to raise their children together. Joining together in this way is the best thing possible for the child, who needs to know he still has two parents who care enough about him to work together. Co-parenting is possible in most cases, except when there is domestic violence or control issues.

No matter what kind of custody and visitation schedule is in place, almost anyone can be co-parents. Co-parenting is not about equally sharing time or even making big decisions together; it is instead a state of mind. Your divorce has not ended your parenting relationship. In fact, you will be parents together for the rest of your lives, even after your children are adults. Co-parenting is a cooperative approach to the years ahead of you and a way of including both parents in the child’s life.

Co-parenting does not mean second guessing each other or having no individual freedom. Since you are each essentially parenting alone, you have to have the ability to make decisions on your own. What it does mean is trying to face the big picture of parenting together – working together to solve problems in your child’s life, presenting a united front on things such as curfews and household rules, and sometimes joining together in a happy way to celebrate your child’s accomplishments or milestones. Viewing each other as partners in your child’s life is at the root of co-parenting.

Co-Parenting Agreements

Co-parenting agreements are sometimes included as part of your divorce decree or family court order. Sometimes, though, co-parenting agreements are negotiated and created with the help of a therapist. Co-parenting agreements can be very short and simply list the schedule you will follow. They can also be quite long and incorporate other details about how you will parent together, make decisions together, and face problems as parents.

How to Co-Parent Successfully

The first step in co-parenting successfully is to talk to your children about the divorce together. The news that you are separating or divorcing needs to be shared by both parents together. Talking to your kids about why you are breaking up (only general reasons should be discussed, such “mom and dad are fighting a lot and need a break” or “we have decided we don’t want to be married anymore” and it must be emphasized that none of it is the child’s fault) sets the tone for your entire co-parenting relationship. It lets your kids know that you are still parents together and will continue to work as a unit.  If you aren’t comfortable talking to your kids together, then you need to seek help from a therapist who can assist you with this.

The key to making a co-parenting arrangement successful is respect. You must respect the other parent. You likely have a lot of bad feelings towards the other parent, but you need to find a way to separate your parenting from those feelings. Your goal is to create a good life for your child and you can do that by parenting together in a respectful and cooperative manner.

Flexibility is the other key to success. You have a schedule, but you need to be flexible with each other. Today the other parent may ask for a change, but tomorrow it will likely be you who is running late, suddenly has a business trip scheduled for your weekend, or wants to take your child to a special event on a day you aren’t scheduled for. Cut each other some slack. Also, try to approach your time sharing on a monthly basis. Don’t be uptight if you have three hours less with your daughter this week than you are supposed to. Things tend to even out over the course of a month, so try to look at the schedule in a long term way rather than an in a to the minute manner.

Evolution of Co-Parenting Agreements

One of the biggest changes in co-parenting agreements in recent years is the wording. Custody and visitation were words that were always used to explain how parents shared their time with their children, but more and more people are realizing that there are better words. Parenting experts today prefer to talk in terms of parenting time, parenting schedules, parenting plans or just simply agreements. These words are much more family-friendly and do not degrade the parent who has the least amount of time. There is also more recognition of the fact that the time really belongs to the child and not to the parents, so parents are learning not to refer to “my time” and “my days”.

Co-parenting agreements have become more and more specific over the years. For some families, they are pages and pages long. One family I worked with created a long document that specified each parent’s responsibilities to the finest details. This included bedtimes, types of meals appropriate for the child, and even details about who was responsible for what portion of the child’s laundry. The problem with very detailed co-parenting agreements is that they don’t give a lot of room for flexibility and have to be re-drafted as your child ages and has different needs.

Co-parenting is the best way to help your child through the divorce and the years afterward. Working together as parents after a divorce is not always easy, but it always offers big benefits.

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