Even when a couple divorces, their connection continues forever when they have children together. A successful transition from a couple to co-parents is critical to ensuring the best interests of a child are being met. Whether they were married or not, when parents who are no longer together remember to keep their children’s best interest as their central focus, a mutually beneficial coparenting relationship can develop, mature and thrive. Children love both parents and want to be able to love and respect both parents. When their parents are able to encourage and facilitate their children’s love and adoration for each other, successful co-parenting can be done and as a result, children feel safe, secure and, most importantly, loved.
Successful co-parenting begins with each parent committing to treating the other with respect and to do their very best to communicate openly with the other. There certainly are times when the other parent makes it very challenging to co-parent and instead insists on counter parenting, making for a very difficult time in trying to co-parent and raise children together. In these circumstances, therapeutic intervention may be necessary.
One of the most stressful things that divorced parents are dealing with now are parenting time and co-parenting issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. These general guidelines regarding custody, parenting time and how to successfully co-parent during this crisis are helpful:
- If there is an order in place addressing custody and parenting time, follow that order. The only exception is if the best interests of the child dictate otherwise.
- Courts do not like self-help and unilateral violations of court orders. How one behaves and co-parents now and the good faith, or lack thereof, shown to the other parent will matter. Courts will hold the parent acting unreasonably or in bad faith accountable, in time.
- Now more than ever, parents must work their hardest at cooperating, communicating, compromising, and co-parenting.
- Executive orders issued by a state’s governor must be followed. Social distancing, stay-at-home and all other COVID-19 directives are also to be followed.
- Exposure alone to someone infected to COVID-19 is not enough to deprive a parent of their parenting time. Should someone show symptoms or evidence of illness, that may yield a different result and an expectation to self-quarantine away from the child.
- Your child is listening to you. Be careful in how you speak and what you say. Do not instill unnecessary fear or worry. Limit exposure to the media.
- Be creative. If one parent misses parenting time, offer virtual time and be generous with make-up time.
- Find ways to turn this crisis into an opportunity to create vivid, yet fun, memories with your child with stories for them to tell for years to come.
- Do not badmouth the other parent in front of or within earshot of your children.
- Keep the children out of any dispute and do not use them as messengers.
Other tips for parents who are trying to successfully co-parent with one another include this list of things that must never be said to their children. If both parents commit themselves to never saying these things to their children, it truly will be the best gift they can give to them.
- “Mom and Dad are breaking up and it’s all your fault.”
Be sure that you tell your children (and consistently and repeatedly assure them) that the break-up has absolutely nothing to do with them and both Mom and Dad love them very much and will always love them very much.
- “Mom and Dad are breaking up and you will never see Mom or Dad again.”
Be sure that you tell the children that Dad and Mom will remain in their lives. Explain that things will be different with everyone not living together but Dad and Mom love them and will always be there for them. Explain to them that they are not getting divorced from their parents.
- “Mom and Dad are breaking up and Mom/Dad took all my money, stole from me, etc.”
Do not involve your children in the divorce. Children don’t want to know and don’t need to know the details. Don’t show them or read them the letters from your lawyers; leave them out of it! Allow your children to be children by making the decision not to involve them in adult issues.
- “Your Mom/Dad is a jerk, tramp, spendthrift and other colorful adjectives I cannot put in print.”
Be sure not to badmouth the other parent. This alienation is very painful to the children. Children love both parents and when one parent badmouths the other, it hurts the children. Make your children aware that it is perfectly acceptable to show love for the other parent and encourage it. It will come back to you two-fold. Give your children the permission and freedom to love the other parent.
- “Your Mom/Dad left me, cheated on me, destroyed me, hurt me, etc.”
Again, this is very destructive to children. Angry feelings conveyed to children can cause them serious problems including depression.
- “Your Mom’s/Dad’s brothers, sisters, parents are jerks too and were mean to me when I was married to your Mom/Dad.”
Let children love the other parent and their extended family. Do not put pressure on the children to choose sides. Allow and encourage them to love and be loved and they will be happy children.
- “Mom and Dad are breaking up and Mom/Dad moved out while you were at school.”
Be sure to talk to your children in advance of the separation. Both parents together should communicate their decision to divorce to the children. Tell the children Mom and Dad will work together to meet their best interests. This discussion may also take place with a therapist’s assistance and guidance.
- “Give this check or note to Mom/Dad or tell Mom/Dad this or that or call Mom/Dad and tell her/him we are arriving late.”
Do not use the children as messengers. They will feel as though they are being asked to take sides.
- “Do not even ask me to buy your Mother/Father a Mother’s Day/Father’s Day card or a Christmas gift.”
Do just the opposite; encourage it. Buy a gift for your children to give to the other parent. Recognize these important days and teach your children that these special occasions should be acknowledged.
- “Do not telephone your Mom/Dad when you are with me. This is my parenting time.”
Encourage reasonable, non-intrusive yet frequent telephone contact with the other parent.
- “I would like you to meet my new girlfriend/boyfriend.”
Be a good role model to your children by using good judgment when introducing your children to a new person in your life. The children are still dealing with your divorce, so be patient and put the children’s best interest above yours.
- “Whatever you do, do not tell Mom/Dad.”
Do not put your children in the middle and certainly do not tell your children secrets that you don’t want them to disclose to the other parent. This will only teach your children to be deceptive and dishonest.
- “Tell me what Mom/Dad said about me or did this weekend.”
Don’t pump your children for information about the other parent.
- “You are acting just like your Mom/Dad.”
Don’t compare your children to your ex-spouse. Your children are individuals and while you may like or dislike certain qualities about your ex-spouse that you see in your children, such comparisons can be harmful and painful to children because they are aware of your negative feelings toward their other parent.
- “I promise to buy you a house, build a swimming pool, vacation in Hawaii so long as you come and live with me/come and see me.”
Don’t make promises you cannot keep. Do not manipulate your children.
- “Do you want to live with me? You can come and live with me.”
Don’t ask children this question. It is too much pressure for children and too great a burden for children to bear.
Being a good co-parent takes hard work, patience, and sometimes, a thick skin. When done well, the sacrifice and selflessness is well worth it, particularly in the eyes and in the heart of your children.
Jeralyn Lawrence is the Founder and Managing Partner of matrimonial, divorce and family law firm Lawrence Law. She is First Vice President of the New Jersey State Bar Association and President Elect of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Lawrence Law has offices in Watchung and Red Bank, New Jersey.