Raising contented children is not as straightforward as it sounds - especially for divorced or separated parents. When faced with the complications of co-operating with an ex, even the best intentions and sanest reasoning can fall by the wayside. When it does, it's not easy to remember to give children's needs priority.
But it doesn't always have to be an uphill struggle, according to Christina McGhee, a divorce coach. In her new book, Parenting Apart, McGhee says that with the right guidance, parents and children can do more than just survive separation - they can even thrive in it.
McGhee sees plenty of former couples hitting bumps along the road, whether they've just separated or are years down the line. But she also sees the breakthroughs that help their family lives get better. Here, she picks 10 things parents do that make raising children apart easier.
1 Keep out of court
"Rearranging family relationships is not a matter of law," writes Sir Andrew McFarlane, a Family Division High Court judge who endorses McGhee's book with a foreword. "The courts will, if they have to, provide a resolution to any stated issue, but achieving a court order is highly likely to inflict further emotional damage on each of the family members involved."
McGhee says parents she works with who "make a plan that fits their children's lives, instead of trying to make their children fit into a plan that somebody else gave them" create a far more stable environment for their children. She cites the example of one dad, who had planned to take his adversarial ex to court over custody quarrels, but tried mediation first. "They were able to go through the legal process without being as contentious, and he actually ended up getting more time with his children than he had hoped," McGhee says.
2 Keep children informed
"What might seem like a small change to parents can be monumental for kids," says McGhee, who writes that almost 95 per cent of children are given little or no information about their parents' separation or divorce. "Kids will pick up on tension and if the reasons for it are not explained, they are likely to interpret it as being their fault."
McGhee says children should know how the changes involved in separation will affect them, to help avoid unnecessary hurt or disappointment. She cites an example of one couple who had been separated for a year, but didn't tell their children when their divorce came through. "Mum saw her son doing a project about what made him similar or dissimilar to the kids in his class," McGhee says. "One thing he put down was: 'my parents aren't divorced'. For him, there was no finality to the decision - there was still that hope there that they would get back together."
3 Create a predictable life
"Divorce creates lots of change in children's lives and they will adjust far better if they know what to expect," McGhee says. "If your child was attending a new school, you wouldn't just drop them off on the first day and say, 'guess what - you're going to a new school today'. You would prepare them - have a conversation about it, give them time to think."
On the simplest level, "a colour-coded calendar lets kids know what days are days with mum, what days are days with dad and it works well to help them stay grounded," McGhee says. She says parents who prepare their children will help them adjust to any changes, whether it's the day-to-day move between homes, meeting new partners or even getting ready for a new sibling.
4 Help children to feel at home
The legal language associated with separation and divorce ("visit", "residential home", "custodial parent", to name a few) can be alienating for children of any age. "No child wants to feel like a visitor in their parents' lives," McGhee says. "Children benefit most when they feel connected to both homes, so talking about one home as the 'real home' and the other home as a place that they visit doesn't help."
On a physical level, McGhee says parents who provide a special, permanent space for their children increase their children's sense of stability. "It doesn't have to be a bedroom - maybe it's just an area of a room - but a place that's theirs is important to help them feel comfortable when moving between homes," she says.
5 Re-establish a sense of family
"When parents split up, children often worry that they won't have a family any more," McGhee says. She has two "bonus children" from her husband's first marriage and says establishing rituals, routines and goals were an important and successful way of building new family bonds, as well as reinstating a sense of stability.
"This doesn't just apply to the day after divorce, either - it applies to new partners, new marriages, new babies. We started every weekend with a family meal and established things like Christmas and New Year traditions that the children still remember years later.
"Now we have four children and when you see us all in the same room it's clear that the kids feel connected to one another. They all call each other brother and sister. My 13-year-old jokes that my oldest son is her 'brother from another mother'."
6 Look at changes from your child's perspective
One of the biggest bones of contention between separated parents is money and McGhee pointedly avoids the subject in her book. "Based on my experience, [maintenance is] an issue that not only stirs up lots of strong emotions but also never really gets resolved. Usually those who are paying it feel they are paying too much and those who are receiving it typically feel like they're not getting enough," she says.
McGhee constantly encourages parents to look at their challenges through their children's eyes, and this particularly applies to financial issues. McGhee says "kids actually value their parents' time far more than their money" and by remembering that, parents can avoid getting drawn into competitive and antagonistic financial situations.
7 Communicate with your ex
"Sharing information can be challenging after a split," McGhee says. "But can you imagine the latitude a teen could have if their parents don't talk to each other?"
McGhee says "handovers" are the worst times to air issues because they are one of the most difficult times for children. She says some parents she works with, who find verbal communication emotionally charged, have more success communicating on matters involving their children through a written diary which can be exchanged at handovers. "In terms of parenting, the relationship changes from that of a couple to business partners and the business at hand is raising happy and successful kids. I encourage parents to take their emotions out of the equation."
8 Speak positively about your ex
Children literally view themselves as "half mum and half dad", McGhee says. "A significant part of a child's self- esteem comes from their parents, so when parents criticise each other, in essence, they are criticising their child." McGhee says this is not easy, but it is a question of changing perspective. "One dad I've worked with says he's never had trouble speaking positively about his ex because he constantly reminds himself that he's not talking about his ex, he's talking about his children's mother."
9 Stick to the high road
Parents are bound to disagree on some matters involving their children, but the stresses of this are often exacerbated when parenting apart. McGhee says former couples who don't have a workable relationship have a much easier time when they stop struggling to control what the other parent says or does and take charge of what they can control. "Even if only one parent chooses to take the higher road to minimise the pain of the separation for their children, kids will still fare much better than if nobody takes that road," she says. "I try to remind parents that the love they have for their kids is greater than their need to be angry, right or justified. That love should always come first."
10 Eat well, sleep well, parent better
"Whether married, separated or divorced, everyone parents better when they're taking good care of themselves," says McGhee, who believes parental wellbeing forms a "main building block" to raising happier children. "Children take their cues from their parents. If mum and dad are stressed out and allowing their separation to consume them, their kids aren't going to stand a chance." McGhee acknowledges that finding time is always a challenge. But by starting small, she says parents can carve out time for themselves by re-establishing routines that might have been lost during their separation. "One mum I worked with was going through a horrific divorce and felt she was always moving from one crisis to another," McGhee says.
"Getting her young boys ready for school was a particular struggle, so we drew up a chart listing what they needed to do to get ready. When they asked 'can I watch telly?' she could simply respond with 'have you finished your chart?' That 20 minutes she saved for herself may not have fixed everything, but it made life a lot easier," McGhee says.
Parenting Apart by Christina McGhee (Vermilion) £12.99
Independent News Service