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By Kelly Shafer, First published in Your Stepfamily magazine, July/August 2003. Used with permission.

My husband, David, and I have five children, ages six to 13; two from my prior marriage and three from his. During the two years of our marriage, we have both struggled to productively co-parent with our former spouses. Through various books and magazine articles, we’ve found excellent advice on this topic, but unfortunately, most of it is difficult to apply to our situations. Why? Because it presumes that both biological parents are emotionally healthy individuals.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case. My children’s father suffers from the active disease of alcoholism, while my stepchildren’s mother has significant issues with promiscuity.

Clearly, this isn’t the norm. But, some stepfamilies, like ours, have to deal with twists like this on the co-parenting task. As such, David and I have followed an alternative co-parenting path for our stepfamily. Here are 10 strategies that help us manage the challenges of co-parenting with unhealthy people.

  1. Accept that you have no control over your former spouse’s choices.

    This one is extremely difficult, but a must. It’s the only way you will find any peace. If you could have changed your former partner while you were married, you would have. No attempts worked then, and they certainly won’t now. What are your choices? Bang your head against an unyielding brick wall or accept what is.

  2. Set a good example when the children are with you by focusing on your own behavior.

    You may not be able to control your co-parent’s behavior, but you certainly can control your own. With your children having one unhealthy parent, it’s even more important that you are a good role model for your children.

    If you get upset because the co-parent breaks (yet another) promise to your children or makes (yet another) unhealthy and/or inappropriate parenting choice, you can examine yourself. Are you making good choices? Are you following through on the promises you make?

    Another part of setting a good example for children is taking good care of yourself and setting healthy boundaries. It is important that your children see you treating yourself well by making healthy choices in every area of your life. It’s also important to see that when you make a mistake, you are comfortable admitting and taking responsibility for that choice.

  3. Educate your family and get help from professionals.

    When my children’s father promises to come to his daughter’s dance recital or son’s baseball game and doesn’t, I hurt for my children. Soon after, my feelings turn to anger and resentment. Educating myself about alcoholism (and consistently reminding myself about what I’ve learned) helps me let go of the resentment. Only then can I function well.

    In these disappointing situations, it’s especially important to teach your children that the negative behavior they encounter is NOT their fault. There are many good programs and counselors who can help reinforce this important point and teach your children how to cope with difficult family situations.

    Not only do children need support and counseling, but since you were once married to an unhealthy person, the chances are good that you have some unresolved issues of your own. In my situation, I developed some less-than-healthy coping mechanisms while I was married to an alcoholic (denial, people pleasing, and workaholism were my favorites). Indeed, these behaviors served a purpose in the past, but can hold me back now if I choose to resort to them in my current, healthy relationship.

  4. Take a moment to vent. (But do it away from the children!)

    I know (and accept) that my ex-spouse suffers from a disease, and that David’s ex-wife is promiscuous because of serious unresolved issues from her past. Still, their behavior infuriates me. When I hear that my ex has bribed our son by offering karate lessons if he’ll stop seeing his therapist, or that my stepchildren’s mother let her young girls watch an R-rated movie with a graphic rape scene, or she took them on a trip with her latest boyfriend (while living with another), I want to scream!

    Venting (or talking with a good friend or counselor) is not only a good tool, it’s necessary. But it’s vital that you do it away from the children and then let go of the resentment once you’ve had a gripe session. Oftentimes, it’s helpful to spread the venting around. Don’t dump all of it on the same person. And consider healthy and neutral forms of venting like journaling ( a practice I’m sure your venting partners will appreciate).

  5. Treat the other co-parent with respect.

    You don’t have to pretend to like your co-parent’s behavior, but you do have to treat him/her with respect. Sometimes, you can do this based on principal alone: every person, no matter their age or circumstance, deserves respect. Other times, you may have to remind yourself that the fastest way to alienate any of your children is to be rude to their other parent.

    When our three girls had a dance recital last year, I considered leaving my two stepdaughters’ mom out of the backstage picture. After all, I told myself (putting on my martyr hat), she has them more often than we do but won’t take them to any extracurricular activities, while we jump through hoops to get them to dance lessons on the only weeknight they are with us. The girls, of course, wanted their mom to help with the backstage makeup and costume changes. Luckily, I took the high road and invited her to share the experience, treating her with respect and honoring my stepdaughters’ love for their mom. It ended up being a great experience for all of us.

  6. Don’t turn a blind eye; take action when necessary.

    Oftentimes, you may want to bury your head in the sand and pretend like you co-parent with a healthy person. But there are times when your co-parent’s behavior is so unhealthy or potentially damaging that you can’t afford this luxury, and you must take action.

    When David discovered that his then 6, 8 and 10-year old children were either being left alone after school or with their mom’s new live-in boyfriend (a man she met over the Internet and had only known for two weeks), David was forced to take steps to protect his children.

    In situations where there is physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect, it is imperative that you act. This is a tough road to follow, emotionally and often financially, but necessary for the protection of your children.

  7. Choose your battles carefully.

    When divorced parents are not healthy, they often tell their children to keep secrets from the other biological parent (“Don’t tell your mom you saw me drinking. Don’t tell your dad my new boyfriend is living with us”). But we hear things. We see things. We pick up on body language and one sibling shushing the other when they start to talk about a forbidden topic.

    It’s tricky to approach your ex regarding his/her behavior, especially when you’ve learned about it from the children. It may have more negative than positive consequences, so you must pick and choose your battles carefully.

    If you choose to discuss a sensitive subject with your former spouse, timing is important. You don’t want the children to be punished because they opened up to you. Broach sensitive subjects while the children are not in the care of the unhealthy parent, so your children don't suffer the brunt of that parent’s initial blow up.

  8. Tell the truth, but don’t badmouth the other parent.

    It’s important that our children get the truth from us, especially in unhealthy family situations already wrought with lies, secrets and broken promises. Of course, this can be abused too. We aren’t on a truth-telling mission. We simply must tell our children the ugly truth sometimes, but always at an age-appropriate level and only when necessary.

    For example, David never told his children that their mother left him for another man. However, when his son was 12, he put the pieces together and approached his dad for confirmation. Without badmouthing or name-calling his son’s mom, David answered his questions honestly, careful not to give him more information than he needed or wanted.

  9. Celebrate your stepfamily, regardless of the difficulties you face.

    An equally important part of this strategy is to celebrate the time you have together as a couple and as a stepfamily instead of dwelling on whatever difficulties you may be facing. We do this with family game nights, couple date nights, birthday celebrations, sharing everyday activities, reading bedtime books together, and enjoying our annual summer vacation.

  10. Tap into a spiritual source.

    Without tapping into a spiritual source, you may find it difficult to sincerely embrace the other nine strategies shared here. For us, connecting with our spiritual source takes the form of prayer, community worship and spiritually-based support groups. We pray for happiness and good health – for our children, ourselves, and even our ex-spouses.

Kelly Shafer is a mother of two/stepmother of three, freelance writer, speaker and the author of 29 Ways to Make Your Stepfamily Work. She is a regular contributor to Your Stepfamily magazine, the official publication of the Stepfamily Association of America, and she publishes the Stepfamilies Work! website and free monthly newsletter.