Co-parenting is your single most important right, as well as your single most important responsibility with your ex-spouse post-divorce. If you can co-parent amicably (and no doubt that’s a challenge), your children gain stability and the chance to maintain close relationships with both parents. But just how can you deal with or even avoid the stress that comes from trying to co-parent when your relationship with that other parent is broken? It is easy enough to say it requires maturity and intent on both sides, but that doesn’t tell you how to do this. Advice: A co-parenting agreement that spells out respective responsibilities and limitations, enabling each of you to avoid unnecessary conflict with the other.

From Spouses to Co-Parents: Redefining your relationship around your child

Creating a joint custody and parenting arrangement, especially after a hostile split, can be exhausting and infuriating. How will you get past the painful history you shared with your ex and conquer the resentment? Decision making, interacting at drop-offs, or just speaking to a person you’d rather forget all about can seem agonizing. So it’s not easy. But it is the best way to guarantee that your children’s needs are met, enabling them to rightfully retain close relationships with both parents.

Consider redefining your relationship with your ex as one focused entirely around the well-being of your children, rather than about either of you. Your marriage is over, but your family still exists. Once your relationship with your ex becomes centered on your kids, you can both move on from the past. The first step to being a mature, responsible co-parent is to always consider your children’s needs first and, in doing so, you’ll find that you’re actually serving your own needs as well.

What is a Co-Parenting Agreement?

A co-parenting agreement (or plan) is a contract that you and your ex-spouse create and agree to. It sets forth the guidelines you will follow as post-divorce parents. This plan specifies how your children will be cared for, who will care for them, and where and when they will live or spend their time. A parenting plan, also called a “Custody and Visitation Agreement,” not only lays out time shares (the schedule for when the children will be with each parent) but also for decision making (how parents will make shared decisions about major issues such as your children’s health, education and welfare plans and contingencies).

A solid plan should cover more than just the details of pick-up and drop-off and homework time; it should also explain the parenting philosophy, overall goals and shared commitments to which have each and/or both committed. Specifically, the plan should:

  • Cover how the parents will meet basic needs for guidance, love, protection, healthy diet, medical care and sufficient rest.
  • Consider each child’s unique abilities, personalities, and special needs. Your plan should adjust to each child instead of forcing the child to adjust to it.
  • Provide secure and stable routines.
  • Cover consistent and fair times for vacations, day-to-day care, management and choice of homework and school activities, and holiday times/locations.
  • Prepare for key contingencies such as how a new partner of an ex-spouse will impact parenting and college tuition, as well as how far apart parents may reside in the event of a move, etc.

The age of each child dictates how detailed and flexible you need to be. Young children have an overwhelmingly strong need for consistency between homes while older children are more adaptable but may require more rules since they are beginning to develop their own lives and have their own associated responsibilities and activities. This means that eventually your own kids will have more say in how they spend their time. Establishing Parenting Plans can actually help future relationships by enabling new romantic partners to read what you and your ex agreed on and to understand, objectively, your intentions and commitments to your children.

Co-parenting plans by state

The non-profit Shared Parenting Works offers an online resource that allows you to access parenting plans by state, since each state has its own laws regarding child custody. Access co-parenting plans by state here.

A great template for developing a plan that accounts for everything from financial expenses (including claiming tax deductions and school tuition) to child care, birthdays and holidays, vacations, residences, parenting intentions, decision making authority, education, religious intentions, pets, nutrition, and changes in parents’ romantic relationships, among others, is available here. Due to the template’s comprehensiveness, not everything may apply; simply use the portions of the template that you need.

A useful guide to co-parenting that includes The Legal Agreement; What Is Co-Parenting and Why Do It?; Communicating With The Other Parent; Talking to Your Kids; When Your Kids Visit The Other Parent; Consistency; How Children at Different Ages May Be Affected; and Conflict With the Other Parent is available here.  Review the guide carefully, since co-parenting involves many things that go beyond what can be put to paper — such as how you should speak to your kids about the other parent and how to interact with your ex and your children to put the priority in order to maximize your kids’ consistent and healthy development.

Co-parenting tips

Kids will adjust more quickly and easily to divorce and have better self-esteem when they:

  • Feel secure about and are confident of both parents’ love
  • See both households are consistent, so they know what to expect and what is expected of them.
  • Observe their parents working together, which also helps them understand and model positive problem solving and conflict resolution skills
  • Have a healthy example to follow as they grow into their own futures
  • Are not put in the middle of their parents’ conflicts and unresolved issues
  • Are never used as messengers between parents, and are not exposed to their parents’ conflicts about their past relationship.
  • Are never told negative things about one parent by the other or are made to choose one parent over another.

Co-Parenting agreements are valuable in a number of different respects. They help focus parents on what is important—the welfare and interests of their kids. They reduce conflict by establishing clear guidelines for everything from financial responsibilities and shared expenses to birthdays and holidays — as well as religious upbringings. Further, they help establish consistency and foster a sense of security in children just as those kids are adjusting to the divorce of their parents. The result is that co-parenting agreements help exes parent as a team, making them more effective parents, period. You want your kids to be less able to manipulate you or to play you against each other; and agreements enable you to do this by presenting a clear and united front, especially in terms of discipline and expectations.

Divorced parents who enter into an honest conversation about co-parenting and commit to developing and following a comprehensive co-parenting plan have everything to gain. Parenting is a challenge, albeit a rewarding and loving one,  even under the best of circumstances. When you add dual households, residual relationship issues between parents, and the tremendous stressors that arise out of divorce, complications increase exponentially. Even so, this needn’t negatively impact children’s upbringing and development. Successful co-parenting between exes is very possible. It’s up to you as a dad to decide how successful you will be and to ensure you are doing what a good dad does best: putting the best interests of your children first.

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