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Help Your Child Cope with Parental Relocation

If you or your ex are relocating, you know it is going to be hard for your child to stay close to the non-residential parent.  However, if you are the residential parent, there are many things you can do to encourage them to interact and many ways to provide support during this difficult adjustment.

Plan It Out

The most important thing you need to do when your child is no longer going to be living near the other parent is to sit down and have a detailed talk together as parents about how you’re going to make this work.  If you’re the one moving, you may have had to get court permission and a court-approved plan for visitation, but even so, there are details that need to be worked out.  It’s essential that, as the residential parent, you make it clear to the other parent that you want his or her relationship with the child to thrive, despite the distance.  You need to emphasize that you want to support their relationship.

Spell It Out

Once you and the other parent have a plan, share it with your child.  Your goal is to reassure your child that the long-distance parent is still going to have an parenting important role.  For younger children, it can help to use to a calendar to show when they will go visit the other parent.  Color that area of the calendar in or use stickers to make it stand out.  Share all the details of the different ways child and parent will be able to stay in touch in between visits.

Plan Expenses

Discuss travel expenses.  If your child will be traveling to visit the other parent, who is going to do the driving, or who is going to pay the airfare?  Arguments over these costs are the most common stumbling blocks to long-distance visitation and if you can negotiate them now, you’ll save yourselves, and your child, a lot of heartache later.  Many parents share these costs, but if there is a large financial disparity between your incomes it may make sense for the wealthier parent to pick up the cost.

Make a Tech Plan

 

Schedule regular times for calls, Skype, or FaceTime between parent and child. If your child is old enough, getting him his own phone can make it easier to stay in touch. Create an open door policy so that the other parent can call or text the child at any time.

Share

Non-residential parents often feel out of the loop even when they’re living in the same town with their children, and it can be worse if they are across the country from their child.  As the residential parent, make a point to share things that are happening in your child’s life with the other parent.  Instead of throwing out homework papers that come home, stuff them all in an envelope and mail them every week or snap photos and text them.  Forward along the school or classroom newsletter.  Email photos you take of your child and record dance recitals, plays, or important games.

Reach Out

Don’t hesitate to pick up the phone, or encourage your child to do so, to ask the other parent for suggestions for school projects, sympathy over a sprained ankle, or help with a friendship problem.  Remember that a lot of the time our work as parents happens when our children reach out to us with a problem.  The other parent won’t have the opportunity in those moments unless you encourage your child to reach out.

 

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Making Kids Go on Visitation

It happens in every family at one time or another.  You have a parenting plan in place that seems to be working pretty well with everyone’s schedules.  And then one day, your child simply refuses to follow it.  Most often this is a refusal to go on visitation with the nonresidential parent.  It can be baffling and upsetting for both parents when this happens.  The nonresidential parent feels hurt and betrayed and a bit angry too.  He or she begins to wonder if the other parent somehow put the child up to this.  The residential parent feels frustrated and worried.  He or she wonders if there’s something going on at the other house he or she is unaware of.  And both parents are hit with a sudden disruption of the schedule they had adjusted to.

So what do you do when your child won’t go?  The first thing to remember is that while it’s always important to listen to your child’s feelings and opinions, spending time with the nonresidential parent is not optional.  Your child doesn’t get to pick and choose when she is going to go or what circumstances will gain his approval.  There are days when kids don’t want to go to school, but you don’t let your child stay home on those days.  Similarly, you can’t let your child decide to just skip visitation.

Visitation is more than just a schedule.  It is a connection to both parents.  And continuing to have a connection with both parents is absolutely essential for your child.  Children are not in charge of visitation.  Parents are.  Children’s opinions are important, but not decisive.  Children are not old enough or mature enough to hold the authority to decide when and if visitation happens.  If you give your child that authority you will confuse and overwhelm him.  Your child wants and needs to know that both parents are an unconditional part of his or her life.

Now that being said, there can be real problems with visitation that lead to a child’s refusal to go.  Talk to your child and find out why he doesn’t want to go.  Often it’s just a general annoyance with the other parent or a vague sense of dissatisfaction.  This isn’t good news, but it isn’t bad news either.  You have to remember that it will pass.

If your child has solid complaints about visitation, suggest that she discuss them with the other parent.  If your child isn’t able to verbalize this, then it’s ok for you to convey the message, but you must remember that children’s perceptions of things may be skewed.  A complaint of “Dad is always working and never spends any time with me” might in reality turn out to be a case of where Dad had one project he had to finish up last Sunday night and so could not play video games.  If there is a real complaint about visitation, it’s important to remember that this problem exists between the child and the parent.  The other really should not get involved unless it is a dangerous situation.  Part of having a real parent-child relationship is working out problems together.

If your child refuses to go on a scheduled visitation and there is no real reason for the refusal, you and the other parent must present a united front.  Insist together that there is no other option.  If the residential parent gives in, he or she becomes an accomplice, making the other parent angry and proving to the child that he or she does not really respect the other parent’s role.  If the nonresidential parent gives in, this is a sign to the child that he or she doesn’t really care and is seen by the residential parent as yet another failure.  The best plan is to work together to get your child to go.  If your child refused to get out of bed to go to school, you would find a way to make him go.  You’ve got to do the same in this situation.

If your child is a teen, she may need more control over visitation than younger children are allowed, however this does not mean that she can write the other parent out of her life.  Teens need to feel some control over their lives, and need time for school, jobs, friends, and activities, but they also do desperately need real connections with both parents.

It is upsetting for everyone involved when a child refuses to go on visitation, but if both parents insist together that there is no choice, then no one will be the villain and your child will have to cope with the reality of the situation.

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Could Nesting Work for Your Family?

Instead of getting a divorce and having two separate homes the kids rotate through, nesting is a newer concept where the kids remain in the existing family home and the parents take turns staying there. Some parents each get their own new place and rarely some will share one other place that they are never actually in together. Often parents rotate on an every other week schedule, but any schedule that works for the parents is definitely possible.

The idea is that the kids remain safe and sound in the “nest” or family home. Their living arrangements don’t change and they aren’t shuttled around from place to place. It allows the kids to have a more stable environment and familiar surroundings as they adjust to the divorce. The children experience as little disruption as possible and can continue with the same school, same activities, same schedule, and essentially the same life as prior to the divorce. The benefits of that are huge.

Nesting can be quite expensive though. Maintaining the existing family home as well two additional homes is a huge financial burden most families cannot take on. Nesting can also be challenging for the parents. You’re sharing a home with your ex even though you’re never there together. You don’t actually see each other (except for planned meetings or occasionally passing on your way out) yet you’re sharing a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living area. All of the conflicts you had about not doing things the same way or disagreeing about how a household should be run will continue.

It can also be difficult to uproot yourself every other week and stay someplace else. Packing clothes, work things, toiletries, medications, and everything else each week can result in some giant mix-ups.

Another challenge is that after divorce, it’s common for the parents to gradually evolve and make some changes about who they are, what they think, and how they live their lives. This is often gradually reflected in parenting styles that can change. If this happens during nesting it can be confusing for kids who may find the parents suddenly are implementing different rules within the same home (Mom says no eating in the family room, but Dad says it’s ok, for example).

I worked with some families who tried nesting and most found that it worked as a short-term transitional method. It wasn’t something they wanted to do long-term, but they found that for a few months to a year after the divorce it was a great way to help their kids adjust and also give themselves time to figure out what to do with the family home and to find other places to live permanently.

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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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