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Co-Parenting: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

When parents divorce, they are usually awarded joint custody of minor children. Of course, this makes sense and seems on face value to be an attractive option—they each get to spend time with their children and be a significant part of their lives. However, the “devil is in the details” and there are many obstacles to making this work for the parents and most importantly the children.

One of the issues that frequently arises is the appropriateness of attending the child’s activities on “the other parent’s time”. It is easy to say “of course you go” but there are caveats to this. The most important one is that both parents are able to “behave” and act appropriately in each other’s presence. Divorce brings out powerful feelings to do with abandonment and betrayal, and particularly in the early stages it may be tempting to act these out at inappropriate times (such as during joint attendance at a child’s activities.) Do not use these as occasions to discuss controversial topics such as child support. disagreements re-parenting issues or anything that may become heated (which for some people may mean just about anything). Even glaring at your ex can be seen by your child and create a very negative experience for him or her. If you are able to attend such an event and focus on the meaning this has for your child solely, it can be positive for all involved. If it is not “your time” with your child, make your departure quickly—a brief hug and “I’ll see you Friday” should be sufficient and allow the other parent their time. Of course, if you are all able to have a friendly chat about the game (and nothing else) all the more power to you. The most extreme version of this friendship with an ex would have to be a friend who used his wife’s ex as his dentist (a brave guy indeed.)

A major pitfall in joint custody is trying to control what happens when your child is with the other parent. The harsh reality of divorce is that what little control we may have had over a spouse while married. is gone and the other parent is free to do pretty much what they want as long as it does not meet legal definitions of abuse or neglect. While we may be horrified that our child is fed fast food, or allowed to stay up what we consider too late, the reality is that the other parent is free to make these choices. A child can learn to handle different rules and expectations from each household they are a part of, but will be damaged if there is acrimony about this between the divorced parents. Work on doing all that you can to enhance your relationship with your child but try to eliminate control of expectations of what your ex does (often a challenging task.)

And there is at least one place that I am aware of where child’s activities and parental control can collide. I am thinking of a former client of mine, whose 12-year-old daughter was passionate about and skilled at soccer. She joined a traveling team, which included weekend trips to play teams in other areas of the state. The girl greatly enjoyed these tournaments, but her father began to resent the time they took away from his visits with her. He refused to either take her to the tournaments or relinquish “his weekend” with his child. After much arguing between the parents about this, the case was ultimately brought before a judge who wisely, I think, sided with the mother, giving the girl freedom to attend the tournaments. The father’s relationship with his daughter was greatly harmed by his failure to put her needs ahead of his (isn’t this one of the unique hallmarks of the parent-child relationship.)

Yes, co-parenting can be quite a challenge but it is up to each of us to decide how best to handle the many situations that arise therein and whether we fall in the good bad or ugly category.

Linda Kaiser, LCSW has worked with individuals, couples and families in both private practice and clinic settings for the past 50 years. She is available for consultation through GYL law.