Co-parenting after divorce

By Elisa Shackelton, October, 2006
Colorado State University Extension
Director, Moffat County

Each year divorce impacts millions of lives in the U.S., from young children to adults whose parents divorced decades ago. Because children can be caught in the middle of post-divorce conflict for years, parents need to understand how their behavior impacts children following a divorce, and strive to work together to shelter them from behaviors that can negatively impact the adjustment of the entire family for years to come.

Children need to be loved by both parents
Popular media and educational resources in the past focused on issues related to "single parenting" and "custodial parenting," but the times have changed and family life professionals and researchers now acknowledge that, in most cases, maintaining a relationship with both parents is vitally important to a child's development and well-being throughout his lifetime. Current research and parenting resources now emphasize "co-parenting" as well as the unique challenges of being a "residential" or "non-residential" parent. Additionally, there is a growing body of information related to helping divorced parents stay connected with their children from a distance, whether it's living two hours apart or in different countries.

Focus on children instead of ex-spouse
To enable children to maintain a strong relationship with both parents following divorce, parents must learn to co-parent in a way that fosters children being able to comfortably communicate with, visit or live with each parent at various times. Focusing on the needs of the children rather than on one's ex-partner is typically the best way to accomplish this. A workable relationship is one that involves both parents negotiating the day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year needs of their children. Many people effectively deal with difficult situations in the workplace, using negotiation and teamwork skills, yet neglect to utilize these same skills with their ex-spouse.

The benefits of establishing a workable co-parenting relationship following divorce include:

  • Agreed future direction for the children.
  • Shared parenting responsibilities.
  • Improved involvement with the children and both parents having a more active role in their lives.
  • Increased financial security for the children.
  • Less pressure on one parent to make and take full responsibility for all decisions.
  • Provision of a more stable environment for the children.
  • Reduced legal conflict.
  • Reduced stress for the children and both parents.
  • Children who are able to develop healthy and safe ways to work through their own feelings.

Post-divorce conflict negatively impacts children
A major stressor for children is persistent conflict between parents following divorce. Because divorcing parents may use their children to manipulate and/or control each other around a variety of personal, social, and financial issues, it is not uncommon to see an increase in children's risk factors for behavior problems, depression, delinquency, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, school failure and dropout and suicide. Parents who express their rage toward their former spouse by asking children to carry hostile messages, by denigrating the other parent in front of the child, or by prohibiting mention of the other parent in their presence are creating stress and loyalty conflicts in their children. Not surprisingly, when parents encapsulate their conflict and do not put their children in the middle, these children do not differ from children whose parents had low or no marital conflict.

As noted in the "Children's Bill of Rights," from the University of Missouri Extension, children of divorce have:

  • The right to be free from parental conflict.
  • The right to love both parents.
  • The right to be loved and supported by both parents.
  • The right to spend time with each parent.
  • The right to be treated as a human being and not as a possession.
  • The right to enjoy being with both parents.
  • The right to have pictures from the past.
  • The right to the best financial support by both parents.
  • The right to develop or maintain a relationship with each parent.
  • The right to have a relationship with all grandparents and relatives.
  • The right to be free from choosing one parent over the other.

Working together helps children adjust to divorce
Because children look to their parents for signs that the family can and will get through this difficult period in their lives, divorced parents who work together are more successful at meeting their children's short and long-term needs. Divorce can be very frustrating and painful, but both parent's number one goal should be to shelter their children from post-divorce conflict. Being mindful of their children's needs will ensure a more successful adjustment to the divorce and the changes the family is experiencing.

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Updated Wednesday, January 08, 2014