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10 Commandments of Co-Parenting

Finding a way to peacefully co-exist and collaborate with your ex after a divorce or split is worth it for you, your former spouse – and especially for your kids.

Although it says in their divorce judgment that the kids stay with dad Wednesday nights and alternate weekends, Nate and Wendy Stone have never enforced that detail.

"They're always at Wendy's," says Nate, who lives in Bloomfield Hills. His ex-spouse lives in Farmington Hills in the home they shared when married. Their children are Joshua, 18, Zachary, 16 and Rachel, 13.

"Even on my time, they always sleep there because I didn't want to pull them out of their house," says Nate. "My main concern was them going from different environments all the time. The kids seeing Wendy and I getting along helps a lot, and the communication between two divorced spouses plays a major role in how the kids work their way out of a divorce and back into life again."

Indeed, research shows that when ex-spouses can co-parent successfully – without conflict, smoothly and easily – children feel stable, have healthy relationships with both parents, are less likely to be pulled between one parent or another, are less likely to feel abandoned and are less likely to try to meet their parents' emotional needs – and sideswipe their own.

There are three primary post-divorce parenting styles, according to Philip Stahl, Ph.D., an Arizona-based psychotherapist who has been a child-custody evaluator in Michigan and other states. These styles are cooperative, conflicted and disengaged.

Clearly, cooperative co-parenting is the ideal to shoot for. When this co-parenting style can occur, children fare best.

Unfortunately, lots of parents fall into the conflicted category – and it's usually due to their own maladjustment or hurt feelings post-divorce, Stahl says. In that case, while you're trying to heal yourself (go to therapy, get over the anger and hostility and aim for a goal of taking care of your kids' needs first and foremost!), it's best to disengage and create distance while still communicating, Stahl says.

Here are the "10 Commandments" of divorce co-parenting, according to research and in-the-trenches parents.

1. Listen.

To yourself, to your children, to your ex. "The most successful parents are the most mature," says Steven Spector, Ph.D., a therapist in West Bloomfield and adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Wayne State University School of Medicine. Sometimes put the ex-spouse first, Spector suggests. "If it's more important to the ex-spouse and it's realistic – the best co-parenting is when sometimes, one spouse will defer to the other if it's more important to them."

2. Start slow.

If things are bumpy, begin communicating post-divorce via text and email rather than phone or face-to-face, says Karen Buscemi, author of I Do Part Two: How to Survive Divorce, Co-Parent your Kids and Blend your Families without Losing your Mind. "Limit what you say and how often you contact. Keep the other person in the loop of your kid's life and keep it specific to that," Buscemi says.

3. Accept your differences.

Even in happily married families, spouses discipline, play and relate to their kids differently. It's no surprise, then, when divorced parents have different approaches, though it can make navigating those differences harder. You cannot control what occurs at your ex's house, but you can do your best to try to be on the same page regarding the big-ticket items like bedtime, homework, education and medical needs.

4. Respect each other as parents.

Divorce does not end a family, says Melinda Blau, author of Parenting by Heart. "Families can successfully cope with divorce and create a new environment in which children can develop 'normally.'" Never bad-mouth your ex, never send kids as messengers, never burden your children with details of your breakup. It's not their responsibility. YOUR responsibility to them is to create a peaceful, loving environment (or two!) in which they can thrive and stave off the depression and relationship difficulties that can arise from an acrimonious divorce.

5. Anticipate and accept change.

When either or both of you remarry, and stepparents enter the picture, anticipate a barrage of feelings from the kids – and make them your focus. Don't let stepparents dole out punishments or lecture, says Buscemi. Rather, instill respect for the new adult in your child's life and establish that they will never replace the other parent, but instead be an additional person to care for and love your child and share their life.

6. Be consistent.

Whenever possible, establish similar rules, disciplinary techniques and schedules with your ex-spouse. Kids crave routine and, while you cannot mandate certain details in your ex's house, you can at least initiate communication with him or her and work toward creating two harmonious homes for the kids' sake.

7. Seek smooth transitions.

Going back and forth can be hard for kids – make it as easy as possible. If your ex is late, don't berate him – save it for a private conversation if you need to discuss it. Talk through the coming changes in your child's schedule well in advance, so they can prepare themselves emotionally for change. When they return, especially if your child has a hard time with transitions, create a demilitarized zone of sorts – let her relax with a book or TV or just play in the yard until she feels ready to return to your routine.

8. Seek therapy – yes, together.

Even after you divorce, ex-spouses should seek out collaborative counseling if they can't get along enough to parent their children without strife. Don't burden the kids, says Nate Stone. Get your own help so you can be good for them.

9. Create a parenting plan.

Here on MetroParent.com, there are resources for ex-spouses to rely on to create effective co-parenting techniques. One involves creating a plan together during the divorce proceedings and writing things down so that you are, literally, on the same page. It's not a bad idea!

10. Parenting is a lifelong role.

So you didn't stay together "until death do us part." You will with your kids! Everything you do and every behavior you model makes a lasting impression on your children and pre-determines how they will form their own relationships and succeed in life. Take this role more seriously than any you'll ever hold. It is the most important. Your children should know, without a doubt, that they are more important than the conflicts in your failed marriage.

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