Co-parents: Are you keeping the kids out of the middle?

Since none of us would be here if it weren’t for the kids, I started thinking about how some parents can’t help but put their children in the middle of their mess with their ex.

And every time I think of it, I’m reminded of an extraordinary book my husband and I read, called “Keeping Kids out of the Middle” by Ben Garber, a child psychologist.

I wish it was mandatory reading for parents who are divorcing.

The book’s purpose is to show parents the various ways they’re putting their kids in the middle by not co-parenting effectively, the damage it’s doing to the children, and how they can STOP doing it.

An interesting point is that when Dr. Garber describes co-parenting, he’s not only referring to the mother and father. He’s referring to every adult who “shares a critical interest in the child’s well-being.”

This addresses one of the core problems between moms and stepmoms; many times, mom doesn’t even want to acknowledge that the stepmom exists, much less is taking an active role in co-parenting her child.

But the fact remains, regardless of how the ex-spouse feels about this new person, the best thing for the child is to accept them as a co-parent. And do what you can to work WITH them, instead of against them.

We all know this isn’t easy, but it is what’s best for the child. And don’t we too often see parents saying they want what’s best for their child, but when it comes down to their actions, they’re unable to put their child’s interest ahead of their own?

And whether co-parents get to choose each other (nuclear family), despise each other (bitterly divorced) or don’t even know each other (ex-spouses new partner), if one can open their minds and hearts to the idea of co-parenting, their children will be better for it.

The book describes a parent’s responsibility as weaving a safety net for their children. In order to weave this safety net, parents need communication, compromise and cooperation.

The more there is of these, the tighter the safety net. The less there is of these, the more holes that appear in the safety net, and the more insecure the children will feel.

Funny thing about kids, even though it’s best for the child to have this tightly woven safety net, so he feels completely secure, if given the opportunity, the child will see how many holes he’s able to make in the net.

He will see what he can get away with. He will test limits.

If the parents react firmly and directly, he’ll learn where the limit is and even though he won’t be happy about it, he won’t cross it. He’ll feel reassured and secure.

But if parents act inconsistently and selfishly, the child will attempt to get away with as much as possible, all the while feeling “insecure and uncontained.”

Do you see this with your own children or your stepchildren?

So what does it take to co-parenting effectively?

At the very least, you need a healthy, adult relationship, which is a two way street. It’s defined by reciprocity, give and take. Are you currently experiencing that?

This is extremely important, because the way the child experiences the co-parenting relationship sets him up for all of his future relationships.

Without effective co-parenting, the child cannot learn:

  • collaboration
  • mutual respect
  • shared intimacy
  • reciprocity
  • respectful communication
  • shared feelings
  • compromise
  • negotiation

All of the above are required to sustain a healthy, adult relationship. If the child doesn’t witness this, he may be in for a future of troubled or failed relationships, continually reproducing the conflict-ridden, emotionally-unhealthy situation he experienced as a child.

What parent can bear the thought of that?  Knowing their behavior is partially responsible for the challenges their child will face as an adult? I would guess not many, and yet…

One of the most important essential key elements to effective co-parenting, and probably one of the most challenging, is to always promote the child’s relationship with the other parent. (excluding situations that include abuse or violence)

This means speaking respectfully to and about the other parent.

This is extremely difficult when one parent has unresolved feelings towards the other. Or when one parent feels the other parent is trying to sabotage them and their relationship with the child.

But it’s all about taking the high road here, because if we’re looking at what’s in the child’s best interest, the adult’s feelings should never hinder the child’s relationship with the other parent.

The parent must also make his/her own well-being a priority. When parents take care of their own emotional and physical health, they are teaching the child, by example, to take good care of themselves.

And isn’t that a lesson we all wish we had learned long ago?

What’s your co-parenting experience like? What’s one small step you can take towards improving it?

© 2011 Jenna Korf     All Rights Reserved

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  1. This is such a relevant piece!! I only wish the BM could read this!! A few years ago, my husband emailed BM asking to meet so that they could discuss a few things re: their child, support, and boundaries. Things had become so out of control that he and I both decided it would be good for them to sit and possibly work out and resolve a few things as it pertained to the issues stated above. I knew it would not be easy, because some of the issues regarding boundaries would be very sensitive.

    See, BM would enter my home without my husband and I knowing and she’d also go as far as walking upstairs to the second floor and going to SC’s room, again wtih out anyone’s knowledge. I came home early one day to pick my husband up for lunch and there she wss exiting my home. She didn’t think I saw her, but I did. When I called my husband to come down, I told him what I saw and he was appauled. He said he didn’t know she was even there. (He was in the bathroom at the time). She had apparently entered for a brief moment up to SC’s room to look at SC’s homework. SC confirmed it, which she tried to ommit when I spoke to her about it.

    She also was doing things like calling my husband 6 times DAILY for a myriad of things, many having to do with personal issues that had nothing to do with their child. She’d invite my husband over for dinner (while I was vacationing) and she also would show up at my husband’s job randomly. He and I knew he had to address it as it just became more frequent and almost normal behavior on her part. He tried really hard to maintain the peace by not speaking to her about it becasue he knew it would cause problems and he didn’t want to have any issues with his visitations with his child.

    So finally the stuff hit the fan and she emails both my husband and I with profanity and a barrage of insults. She soon after drops SC off at our home and SC storms in with such anger and fury, we knew she had spoken to him about the issues my husband pointed out to her.

    My husband then calls SC into his room to talk to him about it because at this point there was soooooo much tension in the house, you could literally cut it with a knife. SS is a teenager and so enough said.

    SS proceeds to tell my husband her version of what happened which totally put me as the culprit of it all and made me SC’s target. What was really interesting was the opposing views and I had a hard time wrapping my head around it all, but I never ever said anything to SS about his mother about it.

    Later on that evening SC came downstairs and walked passed me then came back to me and hugged and kissed me and apologized for his behavior. (Of course my husbands talk helped out alot). He said he didn’t want to be angry with me and I hugged him back. I apologized for him having to go through all of this and that was the end of the discussion. We never spoke of it again.

    Since then I don’t speak to her at all. My husband of course does, but moderately and only when it pertains to their son.

    We were fortunate to walk away from that unscathed, and our relationship with SC is really good as far as I’m concerned, and I am so grateful for SS and his maturity level. I couldn’t imagine living in a house with all that tension on a regular basis. I honestly was a little scared that it would be our reality afterwards.

    I have to say that while things are much better now, before the “address” things were pretty tense occasionally and it could get really uncomfortable at times. I felt like I’d be walking on eggshells in my own home because of the tension,a nd I realized it was because if the involvement and infulence BM had on SC.

    I’m not sure how this will affect him in the future, but things as they are seem much better. I know he gets love from her and he gets love while he’s with us too,so hopefully we are doing something right eventhough we cant’ seem to get along.

  2. This is perhaps the most challenging experience any step parent faces. I, for one, have struggled with my feelings of helplessness when I don’t think I have any control over or influence over my stepkids. I thought I would. I was really naive. I have a very postive working relationship with my ex-husband so I thought that I could have the same with my husband’s ex, which was unrealistic considering that they barely speak to each other. I’m caught in the middlee a lot. I have to retreat when she starts bashing my husband to me. I realize now that the best way for me to deal with my husband’s ex is to let her know that I am not working against her, and for the most part, I think we have made our peace to a certain extent. I don’t try so hard anymore and fortunately, simply by positive example, I think my stepkids are starting to wise up to their mother’s drama. So I guess I did have some effect on them after all.

  3. Wow, great article. I wonder if I can pass it on to my DH and his former wife without appearing meddling….

  4. Well, we all know we can’t control what the other household is doing, but I do suggest you, (and your partner,if you’re a stepmom) read the book and get as much as you can from it :). It can only help you and the kids!

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