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‘The children always come first’

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When it comes to raising children, experts agree that successful parenting stems from mums and dads being aligned on their approach and communicating often and openly.

Co-parenting is no different. In fact, when parents are no longer together, it becomes more important than ever to share responsibilities and decisions, and keep lines of communication open, especially factoring in the challenges a divorce or separation can bring.

“I know some break-ups are complicated, but try to be the better person and encourage the same from the other parent,” says Dubai resident Christian Malholm, chief executive of CM Holding, who co-parents his son, nine. “Take the ‘how do we get the best out of this situation’ approach, and seek help if you have problems.”

Dr Charlotte Cousins, a clinical psychologist at Sage Clinic, says there is no right or wrong way to co-parent. Rather, “it is all about finding ways that work for you as parents and, most importantly, for your children.”

Putting the children first

“For us, the guiding light was that our actions should not make the children feel the absence of the parent,” says Saurabh Arora, a vice president in business development, who has been co-parenting his son, 14, and daughter, 12, since 2017. “The welfare of the children always came first and we were committed to giving them an environment they could flourish in.”

Arora and his ex-wife created what he calls a “soft landing” for their children, whereby they lived so close to one another that the children could “go in and out between our homes”.

They also shared custodial responsibility, with Arora named as guardian and his ex-wife as custodian.

“For co-parenting to work, it is mandatory that parents consider their child’s needs and developmental stages, as well as their own lifestyles and availability,” says Rita Figueiredo, a clinical and health psychologist at Thrive Wellbeing Centre. “This will allow them to make a plan that satisfies the best interest of their child.

“It is well documented that shared custody with alternating residences is a successful method for both parents and children, especially if the parents have a good co-parenting relationship,” she adds. “Children will quickly adjust to having two different homes and to the new arrangement.”

What to do when parents cannot get along

“My ex-husband and I co-parent to the very best of our own abilities, but when it comes to the two of us, I can honestly say we’re not at a place where we can be in each other’s company,” says Abu Dhabi resident Ellie (name changed upon request), mum of two sons aged six and eight.

Divorced for 18 months, Ellie says the acrimonious split still casts a shadow over their co-parenting. “While we would never say anything negative about the other parent in front of the children, I’m sure they can’t help but pick up the fact that mummy and daddy don’t get along,” she says. “For example, we don’t sit together when we go to school assemblies or extra-curricular activities, and we do separate birthdays and holidays for the kids.”

Co-parenting apps can provide a structured way to exchange information without direct interaction

Maham Rasheed, clinical psychologist, Nabta Healthcare

Working to maintain a cordial relationship with a former partner is vital when it comes to allaying children’s fears and avoiding putting them in difficult or vulnerable positions.

“One of the most important things is to not talk negatively about your ex-partner or make your children adopt the role of mediator or messenger,” says Cousins.

“When someone speaks negatively about an ex-partner in front of their children, it can affect how the child views that parent and the relationship they have with them. They may feel as though they have to distance themselves from that parent and show anger and blame towards them in support of you and because of the hurt they caused you.”

For parents who are struggling to maintain civil relations, options such as therapy, support groups and apps can help make co-parenting smoother.

“Utilising communication platforms such as messaging apps can provide a structured way to exchange information without direct interaction,” says Maham Rasheed, a clinical psychologist at Nabta Healthcare. “Co-parenting apps that are designed to facilitate communication, share calendars and manage shared expenses can be beneficial.”

How broken families can affect children

“When the parenting team breaks down, the children are the ones who suffer most”, says Figueiredo, reiterating the importance of successful co-parenting. “Ensuring that the final goal of the parenting team is the same – healthy, happy children – will help with determining priorities and solving common problems.”

I often hear children say they worry they made their parents lives too stressful and wonder if this is what led to the separation

Dr Charlotte Cousins, clinical psychologist, Sage Clinic

Years of research and studies into childhood development all point to the fact that children thrive on consistency. Divorce can be a major disruption to a child’s routine, especially when it comes to housing, school and even country of residence, which can negatively affect their mental health, well-being and future relationships.

“Children often feel responsibility; they may question whether the separation was their fault,” says Cousins. “I often hear children say they worry they made their parents lives too stressful and wonder if this is what led to the separation.

“In addition, children often feel responsible for their parents’ feelings, wanting them to be happy again and not to feel the understandable sadness they feel,” she adds. “This can lead to children hiding or masking their own feelings, for fear of how their feelings will affect the parent.”

Children can also experience a sense of loss for the family life they had, as well as feelings of guilt about time spent with each parent.

“From confusion about the new family structure and anxiety over the unknown future to feelings of guilt, sadness and anger, the emotional landscape can be complex,” says Rasheed. “Adapting to different rules and routines in each household poses challenges, and a fear of abandonment or loyalty conflicts may arise.”

Co-parenting as a step-parent

Introducing new partners when co-parenting can create situations that need to be navigated with sensitivity.

Decisions about how much input a step-parent has in making decisions concerning the child, as well as considering their different approaches to parenting should be discussed early on to avoid conflict.

Houri Elmayan, a public relations strategist, is mother to a daughter, two, and stepmother to a boy, nine, from her husband Malholm’s previous marriage.

The majority of the decision-making is up to them – which I prefer – but I’m part of the conversation

Houri Elmayan, PR strategist

“Early into the relationship, my husband was clear that he wanted to find a partner who would support him as a co-parent and co-parent with him,” says Elmayan. “That was very helpful as it prepared me for our future together.

“Both mum and dad have a great approach when splitting responsibilities and can count on one another when the need arises. The majority of the decision-making is up to them – which I prefer – but I’m also part of the conversation and we agree to things harmoniously.”

Elmayan says their parenting discussions revolve around the child’s “logistical and practical stuff, but also his health, emotional well-being and collectively working on any challenges a kid his age may be facing.

“I’ve been extremely lucky to enter into a relationship where the ex-partner is warm, understanding and a great mum, and the split was amicable. We have built a strong relationship and regularly spend time together.”

Malholm adds: “We have a flexible and floating approach to dividing time, so there are periods when he is more with us or his mum.”

Above all, he says, be practical and be there for your children, “whether it’s helping out your ex-partner in terms of practicality or just keeping in mind that the child did not have a say in this situation”.

Updated: February 06, 2024, 12:03 PM