Tips for successful co-parenting

Tug of war: what children get stuck in when parents do not cooperate

Co-parenting is the cooperative parenting by exes in the best interests of their child. It involves sharing parental duties. It may also include step-parents should the separated couple seek new partners.  It is of utmost importance that the parents work together to raise well-balanced, disciplined children despite any differences that they may have. This involves some level of civility towards each other, which may seem obvious but which is not always the case and many fail at. They engage in constant arguments, belittling and bad mouthing each other and sometimes going as far as alienating the other parent, denying them access to their child and cutting off all communication. This is bad for the kids as they have a right to have a relationship with both parents.

When you behave badly towards your ex in front of your child, or bad-mouth them to your child, you diminish yourself, your ex-spouse, and most of all,  you diminish your child. You dent their self-esteem. You put them in the awkward position of choosing between parents whom they love in equal measure and worst still you make them blame themselves for the breakup.

So how then do you make co-parenting work? How do you create an environment that allows the children to enjoy the love of all their parents while not sacrificing important aspects such as discipline?

Realize that you are ex-spouses not ex-parents

Whereas your relationship may have come to an end your parenting is forever. As painful as the breakup is, you will have to put that aside when it comes to matters that concern the well-being of your children. Talk to each other and cooperate on all issues regarding the children such as school activities, hobbies, interaction with extended members of the family, birthdays and other milestones in their lives. Your children desire to have a relationship with the both of you. They don’t care about what happened or who did what to who. Focus on loving them and demonstrating this love by showing up for them. That is all they want

Speak positively about the other parent or don’t speak at all

When parents badmouth each other or use mean and unkind words when speaking about the other parent, the children feel like they are being put down as well. In their minds they translate it to mean that they too are just as bad simply because they are an extension on their parents. Using comparison statements like “you are just like your mother/father” especially in negative light, chips away at your children’s hearts and should be avoided at all costs even when there is truth to the statements. For example if a parent promised to pick up the children to spend some time together,  doesn’t do it and the kids get upset or sad about it say something like “I know you’re sad that daddy/mommy wasn’t able to make it today. I am pretty sure there is a perfectly good explanation for it and he/she will tell you the next time you meet “. This is a much better response than “Your father/mother can’t keep his/her promises, this is one of the the reasons why I left her”. Get the gist?

If you really cannot say anything positive then don’t say anything at all.

Have and keep visitation schedules

After separation or divorce it takes time for the children to adjust to the new living arrangements. They will miss their old family and want it back. They will also really miss the absent parent. Parents need to provide some level of structure and predictability in their interactions. Children thrive in environments with structure so try to have this as much as you have control over. Make visitation schedules that allow them to spend time with the parent who is away and try as much as possible to stick to it. Agree on certain routines to be practiced in both homes for example meal times, playtime, bedtime, household chores, curfews and the like. That way both homes are similar to some extent and you can spare yourself the agony of having the kids being spoilt while with the other parent which is a very common issue.

Not all the rules will necessarily be applicable to the other household but both sets of rules need to be honored. It is your job as parents to reinforce them not just with words but in action because children are constantly watching your actions.

Your children are NOT messengers nor are they spies

Your children should really be left to be just that. Children. If you need to convey a message to the other parent and especially if it is a matter that frustrates you do it in person and resolve it without putting your children in the middle of it. Do not send your kids to deliver your messages or pry into the other household’s affairs by questioning them about the other parent and their activities. This puts them under pressure to watch what they say and do in a particular home. They will be afraid to mess up or let you down, which is completely unfair to them and robs them of their childhood and innocence.

Respect the privacy of the other home.

Co-parenting is not easy but you have to make it work for the sake of your children. Putting them and their happiness first is a good way to keep yourself in check as you work through whatever obstacles that come your way.

 

 

How to let your step-kids know you’re not a threat

When I first met my stepchildren I thought we would get along like a house on fire. You see, for one year while I was still dating their father I had soaked so many stories about them. He spoke so fondly of them, like all parents do about their little ones. You know that feeling when you have heard so much about someone that you feel like you already know them? That’s exactly how I felt. The only thing missing was for us to meet and I couldn’t wait. “Boy would they love me” I thought. We would have so much fun together from music, to video games, dancing, lets just say I had a fool proof plan in my head. Never did I once think or even imagine that they would not warm up to me.

My much anticipated day came after a dinner date with their dad. He asked me whether I was ready to meet the kids. “Of course I am ready, I thought you would never ask” I remarked and with that the wheels were in motion. For the first time I spent the night at my boyfriends house. It was pretty late when we got home, obviously the kids were fast asleep so I would get to meet them in the morning. And so it was that morning. We were introduced to each other and it was nothing like what I had imagined. There was an awkward silence after the initial greetings. I did not know what to do with them and they had no clue what to do with me either. My daughter looked at me from head to toe with curious eyes not knowing of what to make of this new lady who had spent the night in their home. I have never felt more intimidated in my life. Today when we look back we have a hearty laugh about all of it but trust me, back then? it was no laughing matter. My son simply said hello and continued watching tv and that was it, much to my dismay.

The subsequent meets did not get any easier. In fact it took about 3 years for all of us to get to know and appreciate each other and even more importantly for them to realize that I was not a threat to their relationship with their mother. You see that’s the main reason why children are skeptic of stepmoms. They do not know how to react to your presence. If they love you, they feel like they are betraying their mother. Its therefore important for you communicate the “no threat” message with your words and most importantly with your actions. So how do you do it?

Here are a couple of things I learnt on my personal journey that set the right foundation for me to have the great relationship I enjoy with my children.

  1. Allow the kids to spend time with their parent without you being present

When you first meet the children they don’t know where to place you. They were used to one mommy and/or one daddy. You are an extra person whom they have no idea where you fit in. They have to share their parent who is now your spouse with you in terms of both love, affection and time and it may not be easy to adjust to that. At least not instantly anyway. In a bid to bond with the kids most stepmoms want to be there for everything. Every single visit and time daddy spends with the kids they make a point to be present. This works against you as it only increases the feeling that you are stealing their daddy away from them. There should be a balance between the time you spouse spends with the children alone and the time spent with you.

Intentionally stay away for some of the visits if you are dating or if you are married set some time apart and let the children bond with their parent alone.  If you also have children of your own do the same with yours as they slowly adjust to sharing their time with others. It might seem counter-intuitive but this allows the children first to maintain the bond they shared with their biological parent when they were single and secondly to let their guard down and stop seeing the step parent as competition. With time you will find that you can now spend longer periods of time together as one.

  2. Accept to be background action for a while.

Before you came into the picture the family had their own way of life, a shared family history which you are not a part of. This is what makes stepmoms feel like outsiders in their own homes when they start out. Do not let this discourage you. It will take time to build your own new family traditions and memories that include you as part of the family. In the meantime get comfortable with being background action for a while. You see how in a movie scene of there is always the main characters who you focus on as the main story tellers then you have some extra people in the background who make the scene look more realistic. That will be you for a while, an extra person in the background. Some things will happen and you feel like you don’t exist. Like you need your effort and contribution to be recognized, and when you are not acknowledged your natural reaction will be to be more aggressive and show everyone especially the children how much you love and care for them so that you can win their affection, love and respect and not appear to be the “evil” stepmom.

The truth is that it takes time to develop the relationship and bond with the children. It may take a year or even longer so be patient and be comfortable being in the background. Do not feel guilty about not doing the things that typical parents do. When your stepkids become comfortable with you they will invite you into their circle slowly by slowly to the point where they recognize and respect you as a parent; but you cannot force your way through, they have to invite you.

For as long as I can remember my daughters school morning routine would end with a very adorable, heart warming goodbye to the dad. She would stand at the foot of the stairs and call out “Daaaaaad! have a great, wonderful, marvelous, successful and blessed day today” and she would stand there and wait until he responded in the same manner. If he mixed up the order of the words he would have to start it all over gain until he got it right. Then she would go to school. I heard this ritual every morning for a long time but I was never a part of it. Then one day as I lay in bed listening like I always did, after dad responded she said “tell Wendy I said the same”. I was overjoyed. Finally! for the first time in what seemed like forever I got my morning goodbye. I became part of the ritual. The same was to happen for the first time they said I love you, the first time they invited me for a sports day and many other activities that I initially did not take part in.

   3. Allow the kids to freely express their love for their mom

If you are full-time stepmom like me it means the kids live permanently you and then visit their mom occasionally based on the arrangement. They will automatically miss her and miss spending time with her. Its not easy for them because they are usually torn between liking you or God forbid loving you and loving their mother. If you insist on being treated just like their mother simply because you do the everyday mommy responsibilities in the house then you are in for a rude shock. You cannot and will never compare to mum no matter how good you are or how bad she is for that matter. The same rules just don’t apply. If you are incessant about it, you put them in a position where they are conflicted between loving you and being loyal to their mum. They will always choose to stay loyal to their mother.

Its therefore important for you to show them that you do not have an issue with them openly and freely spending time with and loving their mother in your home. Allow them to talk freely about their mum, their experiences with her and other family members like their aunties, uncles and grandparents. If they want to hang pictures of her in their room allow them to do so, along with many other gifts that they may receive from her. These are important for them since they do not get to see her often. What this does is that it tells them that you are ok with that relationship and you support it and in turn they let their guard down allowing themselves to be open to knowing you a little better.

4. Show genuine interest in your stepchildren

Children have hypocrite antennae and can smell a fake person from a mile away. They will know if you are genuinely interested in them and care for them or you are just faking. It’s not enough to love their dad. You have to genuinely care for them. Stepmoms may find themselves buying their way into their step children’s hearts through gifts and all manner of treats but it more often than not backfires on them. You cannot buy you stepchild’s love and respect. You have to earn it and the only way to do that is to start showing some genuine interest in who they are and the things they love, passively to begin with then more actively depending on their reception. In your interactions with them try and spot areas of common interest and activities that you can do collectively with all of them and those that you can do with each child individually.

In my case when we first started out, I would sit with the kids and watch Disney channel for an hour or so as they watched their favorite shows. There no conversation, it was not comfortable sitting there in silence but I did it anyway. What it said to the kids was “I am interested in you and what you do” and slowly it opened up avenues for random chit chat. After that I discovered my boy and I both loved cooking so we would exchange recipes and I got more involved in his cooking activities. The girl loved to dance and as luck would have it I had an Xbox so we would  play Dance Central on some afternoons and switch it up with FIFA for the brother so everyone was happy. Doing this helped me bond with them without the added pressure on them and me as well.

Don’t be afraid to let out the inner child in you. They already have a mom and dad to take of the serious stuff and that leaves a lot of room for fun stuff with you. Don’t pass up the opportunity.

5. Treat all children equally

If you and your partner both have children from a previous relationship ensure that you treat all the children equally regardless of their age and sex. The same rules need to apply to everyone. Make sure to communicate this verbally to all the children and make good on your word should anyone flout the rules. Children are very sensitive and they will quickly pick up any favoritism you apply. If you are going to get gifts make sure you get something for everyone. Older kids tend to be left out with the assumption that they will understand. They don’t. They are still children with different needs but still having the same craving of love and attention that little kids display.

These simple but powerful choices can enable you create the right perception of you, your role in the family and open up avenues for healthy bonding. They confirm that you are not there to compete or replace mom but you are another loving care giver and friend. A neutral third party that the children can turn to for anything they might be comfortable sharing with their biological parents.

What worked for you and what totally backfired in your journey as a stepmom? I would love to hear it, just leave a comment down below and if are already a stepmom or are dating someone with children from a previous relationship and you would like to learn more about what to expect when it comes to raising stepfamilies download a free copy of my ebook “The Truth About Stepfamilies” HERE