The word “co-parents” denotes an amicable situation, in which two people are working toward the good of another: their child.

In reality, of course, co-parenting is not so easy.

When two parents are coming from opposite sides of the parenting spectrum, how can they create a co-parenting plan that meets their child’s needs? When Seattle attorney Cynthia First guides a divorcing couple through the process, she often keeps a photo of the couple’s child at the negotiating table during the parenting planning stage.

She also uses the children’s names often in the conversation and may pull in child specialists that can help parents understand the various “ages and stages” for their child.

“Remember that the goal for both parents is to have a happy, two-home family, in which the kids can have different, wonderful activities and memories in each house — activities that are supported by the other parent,” First says.

Be consistent.

“When your family is falling apart, you feel like your life is falling apart,” Perry says. “For kids, one of the best things we can do to help them avoid feeling this way is to provide a sense of rhythm and structure. Maybe Monday night is pasta night and Wednesday is ‘go out to eat night’ no matter whose house they’re at. Then they can think, ‘Well, everything is different, but at least I know what I’m having for dinner.’” Talk to your spouse about keeping some form of consistency at both houses. An easy way to do this is to have similar bedtime rituals and set bedtimes at mom and dad’s houses or to insist on a regular time for doing homework or household chores, regardless of whose evening it is with the children.

Give them a sense of “we.”

It is more difficult for divorced parents, but giving children a sense that they belong to a family unit is important for self-esteem and future success in life. “We know that children who are raised with a strong sense of ‘we’ will have a strong sense of ‘I’ later in life and be able to set healthy boundaries for themselves,” Perry says. “If you are able to get along and be appropriate with your ex, try having a family dinner once a month.” If you are not on good terms with your ex, you can still emphasize the “we” in your child’s life, by saying things like, “At mom’s house we have dinner at this time,” or “At dad’s house, we relax without television and listen to music before bedtime.”

Explain why you and your ex can’t spend time together.

Perry says children need to know that you and your former spouse are trying to be the best parents you can be. “If you can’t be appropriate with your ex, explain it to your kids,” Perry says. “You can say something as simple as, ‘Remember how hard it was when mom and dad were together and fighting? The best way to solve that was to spend time apart. We’re not spending time together because that’s not healthy for you and we want to be the best parents we can be to you because we both love you very much.’”

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

First says many of her clients get creative with their parenting plans. One couple, in which one spouse was a firefighter with an odd rotating schedule, agreed to keep that odd schedule until the children turned 18. Others have come up with 50/50 parenting time plans in which one parent has the kids on Monday and Tuesday nights, the other parent takes them on Wednesday and Thursday nights and they rotate weekends. Some parents have even taken up “bird-nesting” arrangements in which the children stay in the marital home and the parents rotate back and forth to their respective “other” houses.

Be flexible when you can.

Life happens. There may come a time when you have a huge work project due and need your co-parent to fill in with the bulk of the childcare. Likewise, your former spouse may call on you to help them in a parenting pinch. Work on building an amicable relationship with your former spouse if you want your co-parenting years to go smoothly.  “Parents who can cooperate are nearly always available to fill in for the other parent, or to be flexible when life happens,” First says.

Remember that you are co-parents for life.

Although most people think about the needs of minor children when it comes to co-parenting and divorce, First says new research shows that divorce can be extremely difficult for a couple’s grown children as well — especially for children between the ages of 18 and 34 years old. “These children are forming their own families and permanent relationships and, even if they knew their parents should have been apart long ago, the actual divorce can be traumatic,” First says. “They may even regress to their teenage behavior around the parents, or they will try to parent the parents.” First usually recommends that these adult children seek help from a trained mental health therapist to better understand their emotions and reactions to their parents’ divorce.

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