Glorious summer: Beautiful weather, no school, vacations! For co-parents though, it can be a tricky time to navigate. Without the anchor of school, with summer activities that can be logistically challenging and, of course, vacations with separate parents, a seemingly relaxing season can turn stressful if you lose sight of the big picture: This is a special time when kids are unencumbered by the structure of school and get to have unique, fun experiences.
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To start off on the right foot, Karen Bonnell, author of The Co-Parenting Handbook: Raising Well-Adjusted and Resilient Kids from Little Ones to Young Adults through Divorce or Separation, suggests that parents sit down together during a calm time in February or March, without the pressure of summer right around the corner, and start penciling in big vacations and things like camps. Think about practicalities too. If work schedules are going to make it tough for either parent to shuttle kids around, consider finding a responsible high school or college student who can ease the driving burden at a reasonable rate.
Have a Generous Attitude
While your daily residential schedule may have specifics regarding summer plans, it’s important to remember that when opportunities arise — like an amazing vacation that’s longer than the allotted week, another three-day weekend at the beach with mom or dad, or a cool overnight camping trip that conflicts with one parent’s week, for instance — co-parents should be amenable to change.
“This is not a time to count marbles,” says Bonnell. Instead, she emphasizes an attitudinal shift that celebrates the child’s ten weeks of fun and exploration. If your co-parent has the time and financial means to take your kid for an additional weekend at the beach, try not to think of it as giving up your time or rights. Of course, that also means that the co-parent that’s getting the extra time should give credit where it’s due. This is easily done by letting your child know that you’ve discussed the new plan together as parents, and by acknowledging that “Dad is really supportive of you going to the beach again and is really excited for you.” This helps eliminate feelings of guilt children might harbor for leaving one parent behind and will allow them to fully enjoy their experience. Another great option: The parent who is getting the additional time should offer a couple of extra overnights to the other co-parent, prior to the vacation.
Communicate with Sensitivity
Once plans are in place, there are the inevitable emotions of sadness or loss when you say goodbye to your child for a week or two, and kids may feel it as well. But, as Bonnell points out, it’s all about strengthening “that little heart muscle,” which you and your child already do on a regular basis. The parent who’s left behind, and may be experiencing some separation pangs, should try not to let that feeling leak out to the kids. Instead, it’s important to tell them: “I’m fine, I’m happy for you, and I can’t wait to hear all about it when you get back.” This serves two purposes: It reassures your child that you’re ok, while also reminding them that they’ll see you soon.
While your child is away with your co-parent, you may feel the urge to check-in or call often. However, Bonnell says that it’s essential that you respect your co-parent’s time. This is the core of being a parenting team, and it means that your child can relax and enjoy themselves, while getting a welcomed occasional text message or phone call from mom or dad.
Trying to stick to a rigid schedule of phone calls or emails can quickly destroy a vacation for everyone, particularly if you’re dealing with plans on the go or travel destinations in different time zones. Instead, aim for 2-3 text messages during a vacation, and keep them short but positive (for instance, “I’m so happy to see you at the Grand Canyon!” in response to a photo your child sends you). If you play by those rules, your co-parent knows you’re respecting their time, which makes it more likely that they’ll encourage your child to keep in touch.
As for worrying about your children on vacation – yes, they may be at a lake or zip-lining without your supervision! – it’s really about practicing your “own personal yoga,” says Bonnell. If you’ve committed to each other as co-parents that you will use the guidelines of best practices (say, wearing life jackets while boating or helmets when bicycling), you really have to let go and trust that your co-parent is going to do the best they can. Trying to control or limit someone else’s vacation just doesn’t work.
With some early planning, a generous attitude, and a few easy-to-implement guidelines, summer can be the special time it’s meant to be for kids – and co-parents too.
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