The first time Claire Riley spent the weekend away from her kids, it was difficult.
“It was a weird feeling knowing they were going to be in the same city, and I was kissing them goodbye, but wouldn’t see them until a few days later,” the 37-year-old from the Sunshine Coast says.
That’s because Claire and her husband of 15 years had just separated, and were beginning to split the time with their two children.
“The first few weekends were really tough and I made a conscious effort to keep myself busy with friends.”
Getting used to the feeling of an empty household is just one of the hurdles of co-parenting in the early stages of a break-up.
We spoke to Claire and the experts for their advice on coping during this time.
If you or your children are at risk of family violence, this advice will likely not apply to you. Reach out to 1800RESPECT for help.
Why co-parenting well is important
Even when separation and divorce is the best thing to do, it can be traumatic for everyone involved, says Kristin Natalier, associate professor in sociology at Flinders University.
Along with Dr Priscilla Dunk-West, Dr Natalier conducted research on people who defined themselves as having good post-separation relationships.
“It can be bumpy at first, even when both people are happy to separate.
“What you are essentially doing is setting up two households and dealing with the emotional and logistical challenges of that.
Rachael Sharman, senior lecturer in psychology at University of the Sunshine Coast, says it’s important to prioritise a healthy co-parenting relationship for the wellbeing of you and your children.
“Children actually see their family unit as the basis of their whole reality … people tend to minimise the impact that falling apart has.”
If you find your ex is making it difficult to co-parent amicably, there are several strategies you can try, explains Dr Natalier. These include:
- Be child-centred in your thinking. This focus can help people put aside interpersonal difficulties to prioritise their kids’ needs and desires.
- Bite your tongue. Not everything is worth raising or fighting over; sometimes it is easier to let things slide for the sake of an easier relationship.
- Think about how best to communicate. For some people, talking is the best way forward. For others, texting or emailing is an important way of avoiding frustrating or emotive encounters.
- Be flexible (more on this soon).
Talking to your kids
Claire says the biggest challenge for her and her ex-husband was explaining the split to their children.
“Right before we broke up and just after, I had some sessions with a parenting coach.
“She gave me some good tips to support the kids and myself.”
Claire says when they first told the kids they were separating, they were a bit “blasé”.
But in the following weeks they had a lot of questions.
“The one thing [the coach said] that stuck with me was not to give false hope, not guessing or making stuff up.”
If Claire and her husband didn’t know the answer to something the kids asked, they would be honest about that.
Claire says she also made sure to reiterate the break-up wasn’t their fault.
Dr Natalier says while kids don’t want to have to make decisions — especially ones that make them feel like they are choosing one parent over another — her research shows kids are happiest when parents listen to them.
“There should be an agreement about how they can give feedback about what’s going on.
“Make it clear if this isn’t working, this is how you can tell us, or ask — how would you like to tell us?
“You’re not giving them responsibility, but a voice.”
Mirroring routines and shared calendars
Separation anxiety can be reduced by creating similar routines with each parent, says Dr Sharman.
“You don’t have to be too neurotic — for example, dinner time doesn’t have to be exactly the same — but there does need to be some level of agreement around things like bedtime [rules], homework, visiting family and friends.
A shared calendar between you and your ex can help keep on top of this, as well as organising family events, school commitments and extracurricular activities.
Because Claire’s ex worked FIFO while they were together, they were used to communicating well about schedules.
“We would both get our laptops and work out logistics; we continued to do that between the two of us: who is having who and where.
“We did a lot of that electronically and also sitting at the table and comparing calendars.”
The importance of flexibility
While there can be resentment and anger during a separation, it’s best not to let that make sharing time with the children harder, says Dr Sharman.
“When people say ‘Well, grandma is having a family reunion, or I’d like to take the kids on an off-weekend because my brother is visiting’, that can create issues.
“But you just have to look at this from the point of view of the kids.”
She says being fanatic about schedules may mean kids will miss out on important events.
COVID-19 may also have made it harder for some parents to split their time.
Dr Natalier says being flexible can help manage some of those challenges.
“Sometimes you might not be able to see the kids — but there’s phone, video chat, letters, gifts.
“If we can start to think about these post-separation parental arrangements more broadly, not just about when you see someone, we can at least maintain those relationships and even strengthen them while not being under the same roof.”
Looking after yourself and the kids
When Claire felt like she was struggling, she would send a group message to her friends.
“I allowed myself to be helped by those people and call on them to support me.”
Having professional and personal support during this time is vital, says Dr Sharman.
“Relationships Australia have great mediation programs for separating couples.”
Dr Natalier also recommends seeing a family therapist, alone or with the kids if necessary, and leaning on loved ones.
It’s also wise to speak to a financial advisor and a lawyer, even if you and your partner don’t intent on taking your separation or custody arrangement to court.
Your child’s school should also know what’s going on and what the arrangements are.
Dr Natalier says signs a child might be struggling include retreating to their room, disengaging from family activities or school, and expressing distress through what seems like anger.
For younger children there might crying and regressive behaviours, like going back to old patterns or clinginess, says Dr Sharman.
For Claire and her ex-husband, the most helpful thing for their co-parenting arrangement has been transparency.
“Just to be really transparent about what you want out of it, and to not go in thinking ‘What’s in it for me?’”
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