Family Focus – Tips to having a successful co-parenting experience
Every family is unique. In fact, traditional households are becoming more and more uncommon. Navigating a blended family comes with challenges.
Polly and John Wierzbicki have two boys, Elliot and Phineas, ages 3 and 2, respectively. John also has two daughters from a previous marriage, who live in South Carolina. They say the distance is their biggest challenge. Polly says, “I think seeing them once a month really helps. We do a lot of email communication. We have scheduled phone calls.” John adds, “Especially with technology, being able to Facetime.”
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Polly says becoming a stepmom was an adjustment for everyone. “I’m an adult in their life. I’m not their mom and navigating them as they become a little bit older and sassier as teenagers. It’s been interesting. We’ve learn a lot about each other,” she says.
The couple says for them, sticking to their schedule and explaining the plan ahead of time, is crucial.
“My ex-wife and daughters know I’ll be calling. It’s anticipated. It’s not a surprise. They look forward to it,” says John. They make adjustments as needed and when all else fails, they have a lawyer to help them work it out. Polly and John say communicating with each other and being respectful adults, so their kids can truly be kids, is the priority.
Erin Wiley, a licensed professional clinical counselor with The Willow Center, says parents need to remember to always put the kids first in the equation, especially considering conflict with a former spouse is bound to happen.
“Divorces aren’t always pretty and most people don’t get divorced because they’re happy in their marriage. So if you have people who are unhappy with each other and there’s any animosity, the kids know that affects them,” says Wiley.
Wiley says probably the biggest challenge her clients face in co-parenting, is disciplining the children. She says, “If you have a stepparent who is quick to anger and is punishing, when kids need discipline and not punishment, sometimes it’s best to step back and say, ‘let the biological parent be in charge of discipline until you can work something else out.’”
She says for new stepparents, sometimes the best thing they can do is accept the children don’t have to like them. Be upfront with them.
Wiley says, “You can be mad and you can even hate me if you want to. You can’t be disrespectful. You can’t be unkind, but I’m going to give you a lot of grace because you’re a child who doesn’t know how to make rational decisions.”
Wiley says a few ways to have a successful co-parenting experience are to make sure not to play favorites to any of the kids, don’t make kids feel bad about who they are and have a set day of the week to plan.
She explains, “Not only can you cover who’s taking who where, and when and what’s going on for the week, what nights who’s going to be home for dinner, but also you can do some really great family-building activities like, ‘What’s one thing you’re really grateful for this week?’”
Wiley says one thing not to do is yell. Instead, extend grace. Traumatic experiences in childhood could result in damage in their adult lives.
“You have a choice, whether to severely and cruelly punish a child or find a way to gently tell them that what they did is unacceptable and then have a natural consequence for the behavior that doesn’t make them feel like a horrible person,” says Wiley.
The Wierzbickis say their household may not be traditional, but that’s OK.
“We try to make sure that what they need is taken care of,” says Polly.
By Amanda Fay