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.

 

 

Your girlfriends wont throw you a stepmothers shower so read this

Contrary to the extremely popular myth that stepmothers  are evil, there are quite a number of great ones out there. The smart ones. The ones who don’t try to replace the biological mother nor insist that the children call her mom. The ones who prepared to handle the complexities of step-family life. The ones who discover the things they can control and let go of the things they cannot. I could go on and on but that’s an article for another day. Am pretty sure you know one, a good friend of yours, your sister or may be even your mother. These step-moms always look like they have it together. They are happy and cheerful most times, giving you all manner of stories about their family, their spouse, their children and their family life in general. Listening to them am sure you have found yourself saying “You are so strong. I have no idea how you do it, if I were in your shoes, I would not be able to handle this with the courage, grace, dedication and commitment that you have.” If you are a step-mom you have probably heard this a million times from your friends and family. I know I have.

However, the truth is that there is really no such thing as a perfect step-mom. They may seem perfect from the outside but the truth is they struggle. Everyday, they struggle with the tiniest of things that ordinary families just don’t have to deal with. They constantly choose to rise every time they fall and believe me falls are in plenty in step relations especially for a family that’s just starting out. It eventually eases with time but with step-families every unique stage in family life especially for those that are centered around the children has the potential to generate memories of loss, new feelings of inadequacy or guilt, fear and other insecurities. All of which, if not handled properly can easily escalate to conflict for the couple and the children.

For those who are already stepmothers with several months or years under their belt, you will definitely understand what I have to say next since you have been through it. However if you are new to this or are dating a man with children and planning on settling down then this is for you. Unfortunately there are no models or manuals and your girlfriends will definitely not throw you a stepmother shower so here are some of the experiences all stepmothers go through that you are bound to experience yourself. This is to prepare you for the journey to come, to comfort you during any one of these moments and to give you courage and strength to keep going but more importantly to let you know you are not alone.

You will cry …. a lot

The dynamics of step-families are so different from those in original families. If they are not handled properly they have the power to turn into conflict causing you much stress in your relationships both with the children and with your spouse. Between meeting the children, meeting your ex-in-law, embracing your identity crisis and adjusting to suspicion, resentment, rejection and biological parent loyalties you will have plenty of moments to cry your eyes out. There is nothing wrong with that, its a good, healthy way to release your feelings. However,  after you wipe your tears you will have to take action in order to change your situation. Start by setting the right expectations. Step-families take time to bond and become one, for everyone to be comfortable with everyone. You are not the only one adjusting and not all the members will adjust at the same time. The adults tend to adjust much faster while the children are usually way behind. Do not ignore this fact. Learn how to deal with with all the dynamics. Equip yourself with right knowledge and apply this in your situation and slowly by slowly, step by step, day by day you will learn how to deal and live with it all. It will take time and lots of time so be patient.

You will doubt yourself

It is not surprising for stepmothers to question their abilities, their position and their success even when there are signs all around them that they are doing something well or at the very least they are on the right track. You will find yourself asking “Why did my partner pick me? who am I to raise and love someone else’s children? what authority do I have to parent yet I have never had children of my own? who am I to have a strong successful family? Can I really do this? what in the world did I get myself into?

These doubts will always creep in every once in a while. They can be your own internal thoughts or negative ones from people around you.  Honore de Balzac said “When you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt.” During these moments you will have to ground yourself. Don’t focus on past experiences and comments from other people. Surround yourself with people believe in you. Those who know you for who you truly are and remind you when you forget. Balance the negative by writing down 5-10 positive things about yourself and finally, take a break. If you are feeling overwhelmed and feel like things are not going so well, take some time away from that situation and focus on something totally different. Sometimes shifting your focus away from what you are stuck on helps you take a new perspective when you come back to it.

You will wish you could run away

Many stepmothers occasionally wish they were not in the situation that they are in, more so during the tough times. This is totally natural for us humans to do when things don’t go as we have planned. The Israelites did it when they were stuck in the dessert for 40 years before finding their way to Canaan. They were convinced that slavery was better. There are times you will feel stuck. You will have no idea which direction to go and your past will seem more attractive than your present. During this time its important to remind yourself of the big picture. Your promised land. The reason why you do what you do day in day out with dedication. That will help you refocus your energies positively.

You will be lonely

You will feel like a total outsider in your own home.  This is mainly because you have to fit in to a ready made family with its own history and traditions formed way before you came into the picture. Before you fully adjust to this accommodating old family traditions and developing new ones it will be easy to feel like the stranger in the family. Don’t despair, you can overcome these feelings. It will be important for your partner to help integrate you in the family. Changes like moving to a new house will help everyone get a sense of a new beginning for the new family since its neutral. Allow your partner to spend time alone with their children. What this says to them is that you are not stealing their dad away from them which will make them view you less as a threat and more as a friend. Take baby steps. Rome was not built in a day and neither was a successful step-family. Take it slow, let the children guide your pace. During those lonely moments, call up your girlfriends. Time spent laughing or crying with your friends helps restore and rejuvenate you.

You will overcome

Its not all doom and gloom. Despite the challenges, if you are set on succeeding and do everything in your power to achieve it, you will reap the rewards. Like I said, there are many great stepmothers out there, they went through the same ups and downs and succeeded. The only difference between those to make it to the other side and those who give up and quit, is perseverance. Only those who stick with it, those who are committed to the process are victorious. Ensure that you always have the proper perspective. Equip yourself with knowledge about step-family life whether its through reading or coaching and apply the strategies and tools you learn in your own circumstance. Then and only then will you have solid foundation on which you can build the kind of family you desire. One day you will look back and say it was well worth it.

Happy Hump Day!

Meet your ex-in-law: Part 2 Dealing with the challenges

In my last blog post we discussed the new member of your step-family, your ex-in-law. We saw how he/she is a big part of your family whether you like it or not and got into the most common issues and sources of conflict in your family due to this dynamic. If you missed it you can check it out HERE.

Today we will go through how you deal with these challenges, avoid unnecessary conflict and confidently deal with the ones that do materialize

Loyalty Declaration

Your partner needs to communicate your presence and relationship to both his ex and the children. He/she needs to let them know they have a new partner (the step-mom or step-dad) who is now going to be a member of the family. This should be done early enough during dating when the couple determines the permanency of their relationship. This gives everyone ample time to adjust the change slowly and at their own pace in all aspects of step-family life like the emotional, physical, spiritual, financial, legal changes involved. It also goes a long long in giving the step-mom/step-dad that first credibility before they form their own relationships with the existing family

No Threat Message

This is probably the single most effective way to avoid unnecessary conflict. The no threat message says to the biological parent that you realize you are not their children’s biological parent and neither are you trying to replace them. The earlier this is communicated verbally, in writing and with actions the better for all family members. This is especially true for the biological parent and their children.  For the children this will give them the freedom to love everyone without feeling like they are betraying their biological parent. Small gestures can go a long way to communicating this to children. For example, letting the children make phone calls to their parents, freedom to visit their parents, not badmouthing their parents in their presence

You are not moms/dads replacement

Its important to realize that you are not the replacement for the children’s mom or dad. The role of the step-parent is usually very ambiguous and confusing if one is not well educated on the step-family dynamics. Very many fall into the trap of staging a hostile take over forcing everyone to recognize and respect their position and authority. This approach will always backfire. Give yourself time to bond with the children and slowly you will earn their respect and they will look up to you as an authority. During this time your partner should take the lead role in the parenting aspects. Its also important that they discuss with the children minimum standards of respect for you the step-parent. The love will take time to form and patience is key

Couple Strength

This is extremely important for any step-family. The dynamics of this family presents a lot of challenges and if the couple is unable to present a united front, the challenges can escalated to levels that increase the stress and strain in the marriage. Discuss issues respectfully with each another and agree on resolution with each partner working on their contribution. Talk about the ex and the challenges you are struggling with and together with your partner agree on the best approach to overcome them for a stronger family. This also applies to any other challenges that will come your way

Be open to learning

Finally the secret to success of step-families is getting smart about step-family life. Getting smart means learning all you can about step-family dynamics, how step-families function, operate best, and why they have the unique challenges that they do. This will help you make informed decisions not just based on your emotions/feelings. Adopt the attitude of a learner.

Have a great week!

Meet your ex-in-law

One of the most common sources of conflict in step-families is the ex-spouse. An ex-wife, ex-husband, ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend always make the blood of a step-parent boil and their hearts bpm go from 62 to 162. For starters the thought that your partner would have chosen that ex and you in the same lifetime is unfathomable because you are just waaaaaaaaaaaay to different right? Yet here you are now in a situation where you are in each others lives whether you like it or not. No one really has a choice here simply because some DNA combined and formed tiny little humans and that is a lifetime connection.  Step-moms are especially most affected by this. Simply because they are up against ‘mom’. No one goes head to head against ‘mom’ and expects to win. Mom has trophies and mugs declaring she is the best in the world, she is thanked daily and is told just how much she means. Heck! there is a whole day every year dedicated just to her and all the wonderful things she has done in her children’s lives and in turn her country and the world. Songs have been sung for and about her. For step-moms who make it happen for their stepchildren day in day out with little or no recognition at all this can be a bit too much to bear especially if mom isn’t all that and a bag of chips in the parenting department.

Meet your ex-in-law. The only reason I call them in-law is because just like your in-laws they are a part of your family whether you like it or not, whether you love them or not. I can already see you cringing at the thought. I also struggled with it but honestly speaking, they are not going anywhere especially if they are actively involved in their children’s lives. As a step-parent the sooner you accept this the better for you. Its the first step towards the having healthy relationships with all those in your step-family.

Having an ex-in-law presents quite a number of challenges for the step-parent. In this 3 part article I will take you through the most common challenges and sources of conflict and how you can overcome them. So lets have a look at the common complaints

Badmouthing

This is the number one complaint for stepparents and more so step-moms. Basically this is the bio parent speaking ill of the step-parent in the presence of the children and vice versa. This is not healthy and all it does is create a rift in your family relations. A step-parent who badmouths a biological parent is setting themselves up for serious failure with regard to their relationship with the children. Essentially what they are doing is creating a loyalty competition from the children which a match lost before it even begins. Children will always side with mom and dad when they feel pressured to choose.

We all have opinions of the ex-in-law some good, some bad and some just down right ugly but there are other ways to sort out issues which are negatively affecting the family. Use these channels and leave the kids out of it.

Controlling through the children

Women have for a long time used their children to get what they wanted either for themselves or for their children. Not the best show of parenting skills but it happens. Am reminded of the story of Rebecca in the Bible and how she helped Jacob get the brothers inheritance by duping Isaac. Not cool…. not cool at all. Things are no different today. Some women use their children to get money to finance their lifestyles and push whatever agenda they want. They use their children to spy on the activities of the other home to see how they can sabotage or cash in on different situations. This creates a lot of mistrust and conflict in the step-family with the step-parents bearing the brunt of it all

Money

Studies have shown that one of the leading causes of divorce and conflict in marriage is money. If you think its difficult in a family where you are all blood, try handling finances in a step-family. Its like playing minesweeper. One click and boom! major conflict. When you combine his, mine and ours babies needs in a budget then the fireworks really start to spark. Now if there is no structure for all players to adhere to then everyone is always fighting for what they think is right for them or their children, easily forgetting that they are a family.

Lifestyle differences and income disparities between the bio and step-parents homes is also a source of conflict and if not managed well will only make the family break apart.

Insecurity

Everyone is anxious about themselves. The step-mom feels like an outsider who is unappreciated for all her efforts and is sidelined, the step-dad feels like he not king in his castle. He makes it happen for his wife and her kids but none of them recognize this. Bio mom feels like her position is threatened and will be snatched from her while bio dad if not stressed by trying to make everything right for his wife and children, is threatened by the man who is raising his children. Every player has their own fears. As humans fear presents only one option of us. To fight. Get them before they get me, attack them before they attack me. This may sound like good advice by soldiers on a battle field but these words are worrying in a family setting and if acted upon will only spell doom for everyone.

So how do you deal with the challenges? Find out in part 2 of ‘Meet your ex-in-law’