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By Elise Fordham, Principal Lawyer and Practice Leader at Watts McCray.
As family lawyers, we’re all too familiar with the consequences of negative co-parenting relationships on our children. From our experience, we know that children need to feel loved. They need security and feel stable as they develop and grow.
How can you co-parent and raise your children after your relationship has irrevocably broken down? Our top tips are great for co-parenting, but it’s important to note in some situations (such as those which involve domestic violence), these may not be advisable.
Here are a few tips we advise, as family lawyers, to keep in mind to make the conditions ideal for healthy and successful co-parenting:
Let’s face it, the period following a breakdown in a relationship is tumultuous – and when children are involved, it’s nothing less than heartbreaking. Emotions are running at an all-time high, and sometimes it can be hard to hold everything inside.
In these circumstances, you need to remember that it’s okay not to be okay and that everyone needs a little help sometimes. You might have a night out with friends and express your feelings to them, or it might be with a professional to unpack your emotions. Or you might wish to reflect on your own. Whichever outlet you choose, do not let it involve your child. It’s important not to have adult conversations in front of them. Likewise, don’t involve them in your emotional discussions – including saying backhanded or negative comments about your ex-partner in their presence.
Your child may repeat it at school, to their friends or to your ex-partner and this will do more damage than good (not only for your co-parenting, but more importantly for your child).
Ideally, when a relationship breaks down, your child should not be aware of it until it occurs. As a parent, it’s important to shield children from adult conversations, including seeing or hearing any issues between you and your partner or ex-partner.
At the end of the day, no matter what your feelings are for your ex-partner, they will always be your child’s parent. They will always be a part of your life, and to be the best parents you can be for your child’s sake, you need to be able to effectively and successfully co-parent.
We understand that relationship breakdowns can be challenging, but it is vitally important that your child remains the centre of your focus. When you’re furious at an ex-partner, this is easier said than done!
In this situation, we remind parents that they need to make a conscientious decision to ensure that their child’s needs are put first and foremost, and ensuring that your child feels safe, stable, and loved, that their emotional and developmental needs are being met and that their cup is full.
You may find that adopting this approach will fill your own cup with a bit of positivity.
It’s important to establish some consistent co-parenting ground rules to ensure that there are reasonable expectations from the outset. Ideally, this will promote positive communication. Before the ground rules can be established, it is important to separate your feelings about your ex-partner and your need to co-parent effectively. Your emotions and personal feelings will have to take a back seat to prioritise your child’s needs.
Now back to the ground rules. To effectively co-parent, there needs to be a plan regarding the day-to-day routines because let’s face it, children thrive with routines, structure and predictability. These plans that will add to the stability include bedtime routines, homework rules, social engagement, extracurricular activities, phone access, and technology use.
Once you have agreed on the rules, it’s paramount to enforce them to the best of your ability. This will ensure that your child is receiving consistent care which will enable positive changeovers and mitigate against the old “But mum lets me do this at her house” or “Dad said I can.”
When a relationship ends, it is easy to let things sour. Emotions run high and we say things that we regret and do things we swore we never would. However, when children are involved – there is something more important than your own pride, your ego or your heartbreak. Your child is the most important person in the world, and they deserve the very best parents that they can have.
This means that you cannot use your child as a weapon or a bargaining chip. Don’t use them to manipulate what you want, to hurt the other person or to coerce them into giving you what you want.
Instead, be a shining example of how successful and healthy co-parenting can be – avoid degrading comments, being disrespectful or saying nasty things about your ex-partner, it will only add fuel to the flames.
Be the parent that put their child’s needs first, the one who includes their ex-partner at birthday parties, has amicable and respectful conversations (if it’s safe and possible to do so) and remains focused and prioritised on their child’s needs ALWAYS.
Making unilateral decisions for the big stuff (like education, health, religion, and travel) when co-parenting is a BIG NO NO unless your child is at risk.
It is important to remember that successful co-parenting means that all decisions about your child need to be made together. You need to demonstrate the same level of respect that you would expect in return.
Adopting this approach will ensure that your child is always a priority, and that they are being cared for by both parents who are operating a united front despite no longer being in a relationship. This will be far more beneficial to your child than having two parents who are at odds with one another.
COVID has taught us all to expect the unexpected. This same rule applies to co-parenting. It is imperative that you have a COVID Plan in place with agreed-upon rules for changeovers, time, vaccinations, and illness in the event that COVID impacts upon ordinary arrangements.
We would recommend making a joint COVID plan regarding:
Being organised with this COVID plan will avoid any unnecessary disagreements.
You should remember to remain flexible and adaptable because unfortunately, COVID is changing, and we need to change along with it. For a healthy co-parenting relationship, this is no exception.
It is never too late to be organised and keep all the communication (good and bad) on record. We recommend keeping communication in a written form so that there is a truly accurate record of these conversations (this may become important in the future).
Keeping a record of agreements, any conversations that are had regarding parenting, and any specific incidents where the communication has become less child-focused will ensure that all areas have been documented in the unfortunate event that your parenting matters require litigation and Court assistance. It may also prove useful to see what style of communication and co-parenting is or is not working based on viewable and tangible notes.
Relationship breakdowns are never easy on the parents or the children, so we recommend seeking the assistance of a professional to assist in managing the initial stages of your changing relationship.
Often it may seem that you have all of your emotions in check regarding your relationship breakdown, but unfortunately, our little ones do not manage their emotions as well. This means that they will need assistance during this time to unpack their own emotions and find a new “normal.”
Asking and seeking assistance in this area does not mean that you can’t do it yourself. Nor does it mean that you necessarily need help. Rather, it shows that you’re being forward-thinking and pre-emptively planning how to successfully create conditions for healthy co-parenting. This is a very child-focused decision, and we would certainly encourage anyone in these circumstances to seek the appropriate assistance to ensure that your child remains your primary focus.
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