Strengthening Families Through Counseling, Education and Mediation

Parenting Apart: The Best Interest Custody and Parenting Practice

Continuing to be a parent after a divorce can be a bit difficult for some people.  It can be easy for divorced parents to put their children in the middle of their relationship with their former spouse.  Former spouses may be tempted to withhold their children from each other as a form of retribution or only communicate with each other through their children.  But, as an old African proverb says, “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”¹ It is important to remember that children fare much better when they are not put in the middle and thus “trampled” by their parents.  Though you may not be a spouse anymore, you are still a parent and must protect and help your children.  Research has shown that children adjust much better to the divorce if: 1) the parents end their marriage without excessive conflict; 2) children are not put into the middle of whatever conflicts exist; and 3) there is a commitment from parents to cooperate on issues regarding their children.2

You’ve already heard about co-parenting and what that means as a divorced parent (in week 2).  However, this week and information continues that idea as we talk about some of the best custody and parenting practices that will help your children as you co-parent with your ex-spouse.


First, while joint custody and care is ideal, sometimes it is not a good idea for all families and may actually increase poor outcomes for both children and parents.  These situations include domestic violence, mental illness and high of inter-parental conflict.  These situations must be navigated carefully.  But there are some principles that should help the majority of families.

Changing the Relationship

In order to make the new co-parenting relationship work, your relationship with your ex-spouse will need to change.  If it hasn’t already, it will likely have already changed.  However, you need to move from an intimate spousal relationship to a more businesslike partnership.  This will entail explicit agreements, structured interactions, and personal privacy.3

It is also important to note that the relationship will likely continue to change and evolve based on current circumstances.3  Sometimes, a more parallel parenting style, where parents communicate as little as possible, is the reality. Other times, a more cooperative parenting style is more appropriate.  However, no matter the level and style of parenting, the following suggestions are helpful.

Shield children from adult conflict

It is often natural for spouses who are in the process of divorce or who are divorced to fight with each other.  These sorts of fights are often what lead to the divorce in the first place.  However, children should not be involved in these fights.  You need to be especially careful about talking badly about your ex-spouse or criticizing him or her in front of your child, as research has shown that children internalize these comments.  In other words, “a child who hears a parent attacked thinks, in some way, he is also being attacked.” 4 For example, a comment like “Your father is lazy.  He never does the work he’s supposed to,” hurts both the child and parent.  If the child ever doesn’t do his or her homework, then they are lazy and must be not loved by their parent, since their other parent is apparently lazy and not loved.

Also, it is important to not let anyone criticize your ex-spouse in front of your child—including yourself.  To you, your ex-spouse might be the worse person on the planet.  However, he or she is also the other parent of your child and has half of his or her DNA.  Though it may be tempting to say bad things about them or to go along when others talk badly about them, do not give in to these urges.  Even if you think your children aren’t listening, they very well may be.  Or they may just pick up on the feelings and emotions behind these statements.

In addition, try your best to get along with your ex-spouse’s family.5 These people are still (or at least should be) part of your child’s life.  It is very difficult for children to feel like they must choose between relatives to invite to important events in their lives.5  If they know that there will be fighting between their relatives, it can cause a lot of stress.  Your (possibly unsteady) relationships should be set aside for the best interest of the child.  You all care about your child.  That should show in the way you interact with each other.

Use child-centric decision making

That leads into the next subject… using child-centric decision making.  There are many questions that should be asked as a decision is made in the child’s best interest.6  Some of these questions can be hard to answer because you may not know the answer to begin with or because it can be hard to let go of what you want.  Sometimes what you want and what is in the child’s best interest are actually different.  This is especially important when it comes to parenting time.

Parenting time

Parenting time can be a difficult thing to negotiate during a divorce.  Who takes the children?  When?  For how long?  And when each parent is advocating for himself or herself, it can quickly get messy.  That’s when it’s important to go back to make sure that your decisions are in the best interest of your children.  Another rule of thumb is to make sure that parenting time arrangement reflects child’s developmental requirements.
As difficult as it may be, it is also important that parents enter into joint arrangements willingly.  This is important because research has found that joint arrangements entered into willingly by parents were two and a half times more stable than their counterparts over time.7 There is no need for any more upheaval in these children’s lives.  However, don’t be afraid to make adjustments to parenting schedule as necessary, especially with vacations and things.

Also, as you likely will have to share custody of your children, remember that you can only control what happens in your house.  Ideally, the rules would be the same in both houses, which provides safety and consistency for the children.  However, in many cases this is not feasible.  In that case, just remember what you can and can’t control.  You can control your attitude.  You can control what happens in your house.  You cannot control your spouse or get him or her to change.  You cannot control the rules of your spouse’s house.  You can control how you react to what happens with your children at your spouse’s house.  And except in cases where you suspect abuse, don’t be nosy about what happens in the other parent’s house.

Some parents find it helpful to offer their ex-spouse to have time with their children instead of getting a babysitter.  This allows more parent time for the children and less time and money spent on babysitters.  Some parents also find it useful to split responsibilities such as parent conferences.  However, others find it more beneficial to attend their children’s activities together.  This is up to you and your spouse.  But always make those decisions based on what is best for the child.


You may feel guilty for the dissolution of your marriage.  If that is the case, it is easy to let your children “get away” with more behaviors.  However, this is detrimental in the long run.  Like any other children, they still need structure, boundaries, and consequences.  When these aren’t in place, children will act out, withdraw, or feel unloved. 8  The structure provided by boundaries and consequences help children to feel safe and secure.  In a time of upheaval, this is even more important than normal.  Be sure to be consistent, “make the consequences stick,” and do not feel guilty.9


Also, keep communication lines open between you and your ex-spouse.  Ideally, you should be able to talk to your spouse civilly, face-to-face.  However, sometimes conversations may get intense.  If that is the case, do not be afraid to step back and calm down so that things do not worsen.  If the communication is continually difficult, you may want to consider alternative ways of communication.  These ideas may include e-mail or text.  Do not make your children be messengers and do not communicate with your ex-spouse’s new partner instead of your ex-spouse directly.3

Going along with communication, do not make promises that you can’t keep…whether that is to your ex-spouse or your children.  This can lead to many different disappointments, hurts, and resentments.

Finally, remember that families cannot be divorced.  It will take effort to work with your ex-spouse to make sure that your children’s needs come first.  However, it is best for your children and more than worth it.

References and Other Resources

¹ Parenting after divorce: How to work together with your ex-spouse for happier, healthier children.  By Ron L. Deal.  Part of the CommonSteps series. Retrieved from

2 Carol R. Lowery, “Psychotherapy With Children of Divorced Families.” In M. Textor, ed., The Divorce and Divorce Therapy Handbook (Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1989), 225-41.

3 The Utah Marriage Handbook: Keys to a Healthy Marriage.  By and Utah State University Cooperative Extension.

4 James Bray, Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade, 83

5 Divorce Parenting Tips.  Retrieved from

6 Best Practices for Custody, Parenting Time, and Change of Domicile Evaluations.  Retrieved from

7 Jennifer McIntosh, et. al., “Post-Separation Parenting Arrangements: Patterns and

Developmental Outcomes for Infants and Children,” Australian Government Attorney General’s

Department Special Report, (2010) 1-169.  This article can be downloaded by typing the name of

it into the search box of or by using an internet search engine, such as Google.

8 Jim Cunningham.  Children Want Boundaries.  Retrieved from

9 Wayne Parker.  Child Behavior 101—Setting Limits for Your Children.

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