Dear Mr. Dad: Last week you wrote about co-parenting strategies. But you made it sound like it’s an arrangement that works for everyone. I’m a divorce lawyer and I can assure that it doesn’t. Please explain to your readers why parents would want to co-parent in the first place, as well as when it’s likely to be successful and when it’s not.
A: The most compelling argument for co-parenting is that it’s by far the best option for everyone.
- Parents like it. Former couples who share physical custody of their children fight less and are generally happier with their custody arrangements.
- Judges like it. Divorced co-parents are about half as likely as sole-custody parents to go back to court to settle their disputes.
- Kids like it. Because co-parenting exes each have a significant role in their children’s life, kids get the benefit of spending time with both parents. A parental breakup can make children feel frightened, out of control and, unloved. And if one parent disappears—or almost disappears—those feelings get worse.
- It nearly eliminates child-support default. Parents (dads or moms) with shared physical custody keep in much closer contact with their children than those who don’t share custody. As a rule, people who see their children pay their child support.
Co-parenting Works When …
- Parents live near each other. Even though they’re moving back and forth between two homes, children should be able to keep going to the same school and participate in the same extracurricular activities.
- Parents see each other’s value to the children. Both parents must recognize how important it is for the other to have a healthy relationship with the children, and how important those relationships are to the kids themselves.
- Parents cooperate. Former spouses must be able to put aside their personal differences and work together. This means trying to come up with a set of common rules for behavior, discipline, and parenting style. If they can’t agree completely, at least agree to accept and respect each other’s choices.
- Parents don’t fight in front of the children. The single most accurate predictor of children’s long-term adjustment and well-being after divorce is the level of conflict between the parents.
Co-parenting Doesn’t Work When …
- Parents can’t stop fighting. It simply won’t work when one or both are verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive, especially in front of the children.
- Parents put the kids in the middle. Too many parents use their children to carry messages back and/or to spy on the other parent. Researchers have found that adolescents who feel caught between their parents are more likely to experience depression and anxiety and engage in more risky behavior such as smoking, drugs, fighting, and stealing than adolescents whose parents are more cooperative.
- Parents live too far apart. Successful co-parenting is based on joint physical custody. That typically mean that the kids will switch between mom’s and dad’s house on a fairly regular basis. If the parents live too far apart, that’s nearly impossible to sustain.
- One parent tries to turn the children against the other. It’s called “parental alienation” and it’s one of the nastiest and most damaging things a parent can do. One reader summed it up like this: “It is usually, though not always, the wife who badmouths the ex-husband to the children, poisons their minds, and drives a wedge between them that lasts for years. What kind of a parent would deliberately want to make their child feel uncared for and unloved by the other parent? It is purely selfish, mean spirited and vindictive.” Well put. The fallout from parental alienation is awful and we’ll talk more about it in a future column.
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