How to co-parent – from a kid’s perspective

Tips through the lens of a child of divorce on how to make your child’s life “easy peasy lemon squeezy”

Guest post by: Gabby Cleveland

Let me take you back to a time in grade nine when my life was completely flipped upside down. I was fourteen at the time and dealing with those newly teenage struggles that seemed like life-or-death. However, what set me apart was that I had to add in the stress of my family being broken apart into the mix. 

At the time, I had no idea the toll it would take on it. Hearing that my parents were getting a divorce was no shock to me, however, what was a shock then and for years afterwards, was the whirlwind of emotions I endured. 

The statistics which show that early teenage years are some of the hardest years to cope with a divorce, proved that I was in for a rollercoaster ride. At the time, I was kind of your typical self-centered fourteen year old girl who probably put on a “tough-girl” front and acted like having two separate homes would not affect me. 

I was wrong. 

Soon, living out of a suitcase, being put in the middle of my parents’ problems, and being “forced” to mature extremely quickly, greatly impacted me. The divorce affected me in ways I did not comprehend – and only recently have I been able to put two-and-two together that the reason I am a people-pleaser and have troubles accepting help and speaking up, is mainly because of my childhood. 

Yes, feelings of anxiety, stress and putting the needs of others in front of your own are common, however, from what I have learned, they are often enhanced in children of divorce and if they are not properly dealt with, they can resurface later on in life. 

One of Heidi’s top pieces of wisdom is that children of divorce just want to feel safe, loved and secure. 

Wanting to feel safe, loved and secure is where my people-pleasing tendencies came from because I was always doing everything to make my parents and others happy so I would in return feel safe, loved and secure. 

That’s not to say that I am now completely free of my people-pleasing ways, I honestly felt bad and guilty while writing this blog post. Nonetheless, having to work through these “issues” has become something that I am grateful for. 

Now that I am older and have become more self-aware, I notice when I am putting the needs of others in front of my own and I have learned what parts of my childhood each personal trigger stems from. It actually has helped me grow and now I feel confident enough and educated enough to give newly divorced parents some hard-hitting advice on how to properly co-parent through the eyes of an “adult-child.”

Stay away from the sh*t talk

According to family lawyer, Madison Brush, children are like sponges since they absorb everything that is told to them. With this in mind, bad mouthing your child’s other parent can be very detrimental to their mental health and their relationship with the parent who you are bashing on. From my experience, and from what I have learned through ranting with other children of divorce, this tip is THE most important one of them all. I cannot express enough how awful it is to hear hateful comments about someone you are taught to love and trust. This is also something that never gets easier, regardless of how old your child is. Sometimes I think parents assume that when their child becomes an adult, they are all of a sudden equipped to hear the good, the bad and the ugly regarding divorce details. In reality, bad mouthing one parent is something the child is never equipped to hear. When my parents would bad mouth one another to me, I would end up feeling lonely and confused. I did not know who to believe or trust when they would feed me with comments like, “your mom did this awful thing” or “I never did that your dad did __.”

Mo Money (talk) Mo Problems (avoid talking about finances)

As my friends who also have divorced parents and I have grown up, we have bonded over our parents now feeling as if it is finally okay to share financial details with us. Similar to the “no bad-mouthing” rule, it never gets easier (regardless of your age) to hear about gruesome adult details that concern your parents. Yes, I am now in my twenties but I am still a child in some ways. I do not understand the financials to do with divorce, nor do I care to understand them. When we grow up and the relationship between child and parent naturally becomes a little blurred, parents often feel they can have the same conversations with their adult children as they would with their best friend. For an alternative project, I asked two high-conflict family lawyers what their top piece of advice would be for divorced co-parents and they both said that sharing financials with children is very problematic. 

“I have clients that call me and say, you know, my three year old said, ‘mommy told me you’re not giving her enough money’. Or that she can’t have a new Christmas present because ‘daddy’s not giving enough money’,” said one of the family lawyers that was interviewed. 

This creates trauma in children and makes them have this false understanding that their family has no money at all. 

One thing to keep in mind: If it is a conversation you should be having with your best friend, you should probably be having it with your best friend – not your kids. Anything to do with divorce financials is definitely not a conversation you should be having with your children. Simply stating to your kids that money is an adult topic and that they should not worry about anything to do with family money, takes a lot of pressure off of their shoulders. 

Collaborative and flexible scheduling (allow your kids to be a part of the process)

Refer to the blog post, “Parenting Time Schedules – The Endless Tetris Game” for more tips. The schedule that is put in place once the child has two separate homes should not be something that just benefits the needs and wants of the parents. It should actually benefit and prioritize the child. A message that will be reiterated over and over again throughout this post is that the kids should ALWAYS come first. It is important to remember that the children did not choose to have their lives flipped upside down and therefore, the parents should constantly put their children first and make their lives as seamless and normal as possible. I strongly believe that one of the most important co-parenting tips is to allow children to have a say in the schedule making. Feeling obligated to move between houses each week was one of the things that stressed me out the most growing up. My parents originally agreed upon a set week on, week off schedule. There were weeks that I was happy to switch houses but the majority of the time I wanted to stay at one house longer than a week. This had nothing to do with “loving one parent more,” it was just because packing up and moving each week was overwhelming and stressful. I hated trying to balance homework, saying bye to one parent, going to swim practice, packing up all of my stuff and switching houses. I ended up literally living out of a suitcase for years and never felt settled in either home. Additionally, our strict schedule actually took a toll on me mentally as well. I constantly felt bad expressing to one parent if I wanted to stay longer at the other’s house. I would think about every excuse possible that I could use to justify my reasoning for not wanting to switch houses. I would say, “I’m so sorry, I still love you but I just….” instead of saying, “you know what mom/dad, I just really need one extra night at ___’s house.” These people-pleasing tendencies actually stayed with me for years to come, even when I finally put an end to the strict week on, week off schedule. My advice here is to allow your kids to be a part of the schedule making, always check in with them if they are doing what they want to do and make it known that you will not be upset with whatever they decide to do in regards to the schedule. 

Healthy and open communication (promote a respectful relationship)

When my parents were newly divorced I did not feel comfortable saying “guess what I did with mom this week” or “guess what I did on my spring break trip with dad.” In fact, this is something I still do not feel comfortable with saying to this day. Although they may not have outrightly said, “I don’t want to hear it” – actually now that I am thinking of it, they did say this a few times – I knew deep down that they did not want to hear about the awesome time I had with the other parent. Maybe I read into it a bit much, but because I knew they disliked each other, I felt very uncomfortable telling them anything that had to do with the other parent. On the other hand, they tried their best to not speak to each other and avoided each other as much as possible. In their defense, I would not want to speak to my ex either but I think the rules are a little different when you are co-parents. This resulted in my siblings and I feeling sad and stressed out because the thought of them interacting stressed us out. Instead of trying to work through this, I just rarely brought up the other parent regardless of whether or not I really wanted to share something with them that concerned the other parent.  My tip here is to promote a respectful, healthy and open relationship. What I mean by this is, check in with your children by asking “how was your time with your mom?” and respond with “that is great to hear I am so happy you had a good time.” In the end, don’t you want your children to have an equally strong relationship with both parents? Make them feel comfortable with sharing all of the exciting details from their past week, bite your tongue and finally, remember your kids come first. 

No middleman

I am sure that all children of divorce can agree that they have heard the phrase “go tell your mom/dad that, I don’t want to communicate with them” more times than they could count on their fingers. Something that I took for granted before my parents were divorced was just the simple pleasure of going home to both parents and saying “can you guys sign this?” or “my runners are too small, can we go out and buy some new ones?” When parents get divorced, the child debates and debates in their mind which parent they should ask to sign those field trip forms or to help them buy the essentials. For me, I would go back and forth each week with what parent I would ask stuff of. Sometimes I would ask one parent something and she/he would say, “go ask your mom/dad” and then the other parent would say, “why won’t your mom/dad help?” This resulted in me feeling guilty and again, stressed out. I would try to do quite a bit on my own because I did not want to trouble my parents or become their middleman. Instead of responding with snarky comments, bite your tongue and say, “sure let’s go get you new runners!” Then deal with the financials (which once again are not a kid problem), behind the scenes. Making your child into your personal messenger is also something parents do unconsciously. Saying that you will not attend your daughter’s graduation celebration if her mother is going is putting your daughter in the middle. She is then bending over backwards trying to accommodate both parents rather than enjoying her graduation. In conclusion, consciously and unconsciously putting your child in the middle is not putting them first and it is adding unnecessary stress onto them in a situation they did not choose to be a part of. 

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