Sharing custody means that a child’s parents or guardians do not live together and must negotiate caring for the child or children from two different homes. Usually this is due to a marital divorce or separation of cohabiting couples. Shared custody, or co-parenting, presents unique challenges for the parents who are trying to carry out the “best interests of the child.”
In the book “Healthy Divorce” by authors Craig Everett and Sandra Volgy Everett, sharing custody is viewed as a stage in the divorce process. Divorcing parents must rise to meet this challenge of learning to be parents and no longer spouses. The children’s adjustment during this period is strongly linked to the parents’ post-divorce adjustment and their ability to work together as parents. If resentments and bitterness are lingering, they will come out in the parenting relationship. This will definitely have a damaging impact on the children.
In other words, if you are a parent who has divorced and you harbor negative feelings towards your ex-spouse – GET OVER IT. If not for your own sake, then do it for your kids. Go to counseling, go to a divorce support group, pray that God will help you, but you must rid yourself of negative feelings towards your ex-spouse if you are going to effectively share parenting with your “Ex.” Do not let your negative feelings govern your behavior. You may not like your ex-spouse, but you must be able to treat them with respect. When I talk with children whose parents are divorced, the one wish I hear the most is “I wish my parents got along.”
To effectively control conflict and “get along” with your ex-spouse in co-parenting, the authors of “The Co-Parenting Survival Guide” say you must have determination and perseverance. Determination is the mutual agreement between the parents that “we can do this.” Perseverance is the agreement between the parents to “never give up.”
In order to accomplish healthy co-parenting, many parents need a structured and predetermined way to interact with each other that controls the conflict and encourages good communication about parenting issues. The authors of “The Co-Parenting Survival Guide” lay this out in what they call “The Parenting Phone Call.” This is a regular phone meeting that provides a vehicle for maintaining controlled communication. It should be scheduled at a routine and mutually convenient time when the children are not around to hear things they don’t need to hear.
The discussion agenda of the Parenting Phone Call is set out as follows:
- Good Stuff – start out by sharing the child(ren)’s successes and high points while you had them.
- Medical issues – share information about illnesses, doctor appointments, medications, etc.
- School – Academic performance, behavior concerns, homework, events, planning.
- Activities – Coordinating logistic on which parent will be at which event for which child. Cooperate concerning sign-ups, fees, and transportation issues.
- Caretaking – This is especially important for children under age five: nap times, toilet training issues, what are the current needs that change often?
- Behavior – Discipline issues and how they are being handled. Sharing “what works” in addressing behavior concerns.
- Scheduling – planning and coordinating important dates for the child such as birthdays, friends’ birthday parties, holidays, vacations, etc.
It’s common for some of the same old struggles to pop up in discussing these things. Most couples who divorce usually had a difficult time discussing things in their marriage, so it won’t get much easier post-divorce unless you avoid the same old traps. Avoid conflict when discussing these parenting issues by deciding beforehand that you will not vent negative emotions. It would be better to hang up than to engage in a yelling match over the phone. Keep away from bad memories and historical issues that don’t concern the parenting aspect of your relationship. If it doesn’t have to do with parenting, don’t talk about it!
If, after repeated attempts, you find that the phone conversation isn’t effective then try another way of communicating these issues. Try email, or texting, or try writing them down in letter form. If you find there are consistent sticking points in certain areas, then consider going together to a counselor or mediator to get them resolved. This is usually more effective, and cheaper, than dragging each other into court to resolve the issue! Never forget that you are in the business of raising children together. The best interests of the child should be the agreed-upon principle that guides you both.
For more information, check out the following books:
Everett, C. & Everett, S. V. (1998). Healthy Divorce: For Parents and Children.
Thayer, E.S. & Zimmerman, J. (2001) The Co-Parenting Survival Guide.