Co-parenting after a split: focus on the kids, say experts

Tips showing a united front.
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Watching Erin Silver hike along a trail in Arizona with her kids and their dad, it'd be easy to assume they she was a happily married mom.

She's happy – but divorced from her kids' dad.

"We realize we have to work together whether we're married or not," said Silver, 36, a Toronto-based freelance writer who spent the holiday season with her parents in Arizona. Her ex visited for a few days, staying in a hotel. "Our kids come first."

Silver and her ex are co-parenting, meaning that despite being divorced, they're both actively involved in raising their boys. And while it's not extraordinary for two divorced parents to be raising kids in 2017, amicable co-parenting is still a surprise to some and – no surprise – it requires hard work. Good co-parenting involves drawing clear boundaries with your ex, navigating bringing new partners into the mix and having straightforward talks with your kids, say parenting experts.

"It's about being adult and putting the kids first and putting our personal hurts and grievances aside," said Alyson Schafer, a Toronto family therapist and author of parenting book, Honey, I Wrecked the Kids. "You may end your marriage, but you will have a to share the responsibility of raising your kids. You can't ever cut this other person out of your life."

Schafer admits that advice may sound trite, but she's seen that for ex-couples, putting aside differences for the sake of the kids can be the hardest part of co-parenting. And once that foundation is set for the parents, they must build on it, making clear to their kids that both mom and dad still love them, but that they're not getting back together – a universal fantasy kids have after their parents initially split – and working to address issues that will arise over a lifetime of birthday, holidays and everything in between, she said.

"It's very, very possible that things can go incredibly well," said Schafer. "You can have a good marriage and a good divorce."

Still, the public and the media seem surprised when exes get along.

Take Kate Beckinsale and Michael Sheen: the two actors split in 2003 but remain close, co-parenting their daughter, Lily Sheen, now 17. Beckinsale occasionally posts photos on Instagram of herself with Lily and Sheen, sometimes accompanied by Sheen's current girlfriend, comedian Sarah Silverman. Each post prompts a slew of articles focusing on how Beckinsale and Sheen manage to co-parent so amicably, with particular interest directed at Beckinsale's embrace of Silverman.


Indeed, blending families can come with additional co-parenting challenges.

"You chose that person, you love them," said Deborah Moskovitch, a Toronto divorce coach and author of The Smart Divorce. "That doesn't necessarily mean your kids are going to love them too."     

Moskovitch advises that parents only introduce serious partners to their children, and that they do so slowly. Recognize the situation may be tough on kids – and on the ex-partner too.

That's a challenge Sarah Drayton faced six years ago when her ex's new partner, Paulina O'Kieffe, became a stepmother to Drayton's daughter.

"I wasn't receptive to what she was presenting at the time, because I was so young and immature. I took it as a threat," Drayton told CBC's Metro Morning.

The two eventually worked through their issues and they've now turned the lessons they learned into a website called You, Me and She, offering tips to other families working through co-parenting situations.

As for Silver, she admits there are challenging times in her co-parenting situation, which she calls "a work in progress." But she's focused on her kids, and the long game.

"We always put our kids' best interest at the front of it, no matter how angry we are or how frustrated," she said. "We've got a lifetime of raising kids together – and enjoying grandkids together."

Co-parenting tips from divorce coach Deborah Moskovitch, family therapist Alyson Schafer and co-parenting coach Anna Giannone, the author of Co-Parenting in Harmony: The Art of Putting Your Child's Soul First:

Drop "my ex": When speaking about your ex-spouse in front of your child, call them "your mom/dad" or "my child's father" or by their name. "Ex" is a negative word, said Giannone.

Show a united front: Especially during birthdays, graduations and other major celebrations, make an effort to be there together, or at least let the child know you're both proud. "You never want to leave the kids with dread about a certain celebration or milestone," said Moskovitch.

Your kid is not the messenger: Communication between parents should happen between parents, their mediator, or their lawyer – never their kids, said Schafer. That means no "you tell your father"-type comments.

Free love: Accept that your child needs both parents involved in their life and that they may love new step-parents and step-grandparents too. "A child needs to know they are not only loved by mom and dad but that other people love them too," said Giannone.

Rules change: Accept that when your child is at your former spouse's home, the rules for eating, bedtime and homework may be different, said Schafer. Don't fight it. "It's better for them to drop half a grade point in geography…. than to have their parents at war," she said.

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto-based journalist who writes about relationships, health, technology and social trends. You can find her on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.