Co-parenting After a Separation or Divorce: For Parents

A man hugs two smiling children.
Photo by Blake Barlow on Unsplash

By Megan McQueen

When I was teaching, I often supported families as they navigated a transition from parenting together in one house to co-parenting in different households. I reminded families that children are resilient and there were ways to support them through the process. Families are also resilient! Caring for yourself and holding your family in your heart will help guide you in making helpful, hopeful decisions for your loved ones.

Going through a separation or a divorce can be traumatic for both children and parents. Take steps to temper the stress. You may be navigating feelings of grief, anger, disappointment, or maybe even relief, freedom, and joy. Many children and adults have many different feelings and that is okay. Lean into your support network for help managing your emotions. Find a trusted counselor who can help you through this process. By caring for yourself, you will model important habits for your children. You will also be a stronger, more present parent if you can maintain your focus on your childrens’ needs when you are with them.

There are tools you can use to put your child at ease and build their resiliency as you move through this transition. 

Focus on the positive moments. Talk with your children openly about the strength of your family. When processing a traumatic event in my life, I learned the phrase, “Strength comes from love.” This has become my mantra when facing challenges large and small. Relationships may affect me deeply at times, because I am loving deeply. I don’t want to change that about myself. Remembering my love as my source of strength becomes powerful. We must learn to accept things out of our control (while working toward improving them, if possible). We cannot be positive about everything, of course. It is important to acknowledge our true feelings and deal with them. But try to reframe things when you can. As Neil Barringham says, “The grass is greener where you water it.” 

Build a social network. Find people who care for you, share your joy, and listen to your struggles. Realize that each family member will need people for these roles. Help your children connect with counselors, teachers, cousins, and friends. You may need to seek out new or different resources as you navigate new economic situations and possible new legal territory. There is no shame in asking for help. You are caring for yourself and your family and allowing others to do the same.

Teach your child healthy ways to process their feelings. Give your kids quiet time with you to connect. Even if the separation happened a while ago, kids may unknowingly have feelings of resentment or abandonment that it might help them to work through. Try the “Rewind, Remind” technique adapted from The Whole-Child Brain. You can go back through a stressful story and retrain your mind to think differently about a situation. Talk through a stressful event and tell your child that they can pause the story whenever they would like to by saying “pause.” They can fast-forward to another part of the story until you arrive at the end when there is some closure. Then, go back to a part of the story that was skipped and talk through why that part was difficult. Notice any physical changes – increased heart rate, shallow breathing, etc. and talk your child through calming exercises. Breathe deeply together. When calm and processing the challenging parts of the story, you are telling your brain that you are safe, even though this hard thing happened to you. This resiliency-building exercise can be used for all kinds of difficult life events or future challenges you’re anticipating. 

Show interest in your child’s life when you’re not together. Ask about how they spent their days apart from you. First, center yourself so that your conversations are genuine and do not seem that you are digging for information about their other parent. Ask open-ended questions such as: What was the best part of your day? What was your not-the-best part? (Some families call this the Rose and Thorn or Highs and Lows). If you are not getting many details back from your child, try questions such as: Did you go anywhere in the car? What did you do after lunch? Or you can play games such as Guess Which is Real. Your child can tell you two things that happened and one they make up. Your job is to guess which is which. This is a fun way to cultivate connections and build your child’s ability to remember and recall.

Maintain consistent boundaries and expectations at both homes. Kids thrive with structure and routine. As best as you can, talk with your co-parent about what expectations are important to keep in place at both homes. Try to maintain consistent guidelines and routines. 

Just as your marriage or partnership did not fail, it just completed its time, your family is not broken; it is evolving. As difficult as this period may be, know that you are not alone. Many other couples have had to navigate this transition and you will also. Keeping your childrens’ needs as priorities will help guide you through this time. 

Books:

Picture books:

Middle grade: 

Adult: 

Web Resources:

  • Co-Parenting The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Parenting Advice contains ideas specific for co-parenting.
  • Co-Parenting Tips for Divorced Parents The Help Guide focuses on mental health and wellbeing as they explore tips for parents.
  • Family Resiliency The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Parenting Advice site shares research-based ideas for building resiliency.

Megan McQueen is a warmhearted teacher, coach, consultant, and writer. She grounds her work in empathetic education, importing a strong sense of community and social skills to those with which she works. Megan prioritizes emotional learning and problem solving skills. When not at work, she is most likely playing with her husband, two children, and puppy.

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