Co-parenting refers to sharing the responsibilities and expectations of taking care of a family. Successful co-parenting entails separated or divorced parents coming together to raise their child. This type of parenting comes in many shapes and forms, but the overarching goal is to prioritize the child’s well-being.
Parents who co-parent both play active roles in their child’s life. They generally collaborate on major decisions that affect their child’s physical health, mental health, academics, extracurricular involvement, and other relationships. Although it’s not a perfect process, they seek to set aside their own relationship difficulties to prioritize the family. Some co-parents are friends, others are cordial with one another, and others only talk about their children.
Potential Benefits of Co-Parenting
Even if you’re no longer with your child’s other parent, co-parenting has many benefits for families. Some of the main highlights include:
Consistency: When parents are on the same page, children feel the semblance of this united front. They know what to expect at each parent’s home, and the rules are predictable. Because children thrive when they know what to expect, this kind of familiarity can be important for their emotional well-being and distress tolerance (1).
Healthy role modeling: Children can and do recognize that relationships are imperfect. With that, they also benefit from observing conflict resolution and watching their parents work together to solve problems. By role modeling kindness and respect after a separation, you are conveying the importance of these values to your child.
Shared responsibilities: Because co-parents share the division of parenting labor, this can mitigate the risk of burnout and maintain a sense of support as you navigate decisions for your child’s well-being.
Financial collaboration: Co-parenting may save families money, particularly if both partners come together to make a reasonable budget for raising their child.
Increased parental involvement: When both parents play an active role in the child’s life, the child may be more likely to develop a secure attachment, which can boost their self-esteem and help them cultivate healthy relationships with others.
Potential Downsides of Co-Parenting
Co-parenting won’t work for every couple or family. Sometimes, it works better during one phase of life than another. Some of the main risks of co-parenting include:
Potential for power differentials: In co-parenting dynamics, one person may find themselves giving into the other person’s demands or defaulting to a more passive stance. This can cause an imbalance in the overall collaboration, which can erode the benefits of co-parenting.
Strained communication due to unresolved tension: Some couples can’t work out their differences or remain civil with one another. If that’s the case, such hostility may bleed into discussions about the child.
Geographical challenges: It may be logistically difficult to coordinate effective co-parenting if you live in different locations. Geography can also play a role in shaping values and parenting styles, and this should be considered before assessing the merits of co-parenting.
Challenges with blending new families together: In cases of blending stepparents or stepsiblings, co-parenting can add a layer of complexity to raising children. While co-parenting can still occur, it’s equally important to consider potential impacts.
Tips for Successful Co-Parenting
Co-parenting can be tumultuous, and the early stages of navigating this adjustment often feel difficult for couples. Know that you’re not alone, and it can get easier with time. There’s no “perfect” way to co-parent, but here are some takeaways to consider:
Discuss Your Shared Values
You and your co-parent may not agree on everything. At times, when things are tense, it may even feel like you agree on nothing. But there’s a good chance that you both have some shared core values that you want to impart to your child. Maybe it’s education or kindness. Perhaps it’s leadership or volunteer work. The more you both can focus on these “big picture” priorities, the less the smaller details will matter.
Avoid Criticizing or Shaming Your Co-Parent
You may feel angry or resentful toward your ex. This is a normal reaction, and it’s not a moral failing. However, it’s unfair to triangulate your child into your relationship problems or personal feelings. It’s not their responsibility to comfort you or play therapist. You also don’t want to pit your child against their other parent, as that can cultivate confusing feelings.
If you need to vent, talk to a trusted friend, therapist, or close loved one. Make sure that your child is not present during these conversations.
Don’t Default Your Child to a Messenger Role
Co-parenting requires clear communication, and it’s unfair to place your child in the middle of your relationship distress. If you need to say something to your ex, that’s your obligation.
Some children are eager to step into this role. But this can backfire. For one, you can’t control what they actually share (and they may unintentionally disclose inaccurate information). In addition, your child may only oblige because they want to please you or because they feel obligated to “help out.” These motives aren’t ideal.
Document Safety or Legal Issues
You may be concerned about your child’s well-being or your ex’s parenting approaches. If you need to revisit custody, thorough documentation is important.
You may feel tempted to write everything down. But it’s more important to focus on the facts and familiarize yourself with state laws. For instance, if you’re worried about potential child abuse, you will want to notify your county’s child services department immediately- instead of just documenting the issue.
Organize your documentation by maintaining separate documents for separate categories. For instance, you should delineate financial concerns from custody visit concerns. Keep notes concise and attach any relevant proof, including print-outs of text conversations or emails.
Focus On What You Can Control
You may feel frustrated by your co-parent’s behavior or parenting decisions. This frustration can lead to obsessive or even controlling behavior. Even if you feel protective over your children, it’s equally important to remember that you can’t account for every adult’s influence in their life.
Regardless of whether you disagree with some of your co-parent’s choices, you can focus on being the best parent you can be for your child. Hone in on your values and strive to build an open, nurturing relationship with your kids.
The goal isn’t to make anyone pick sides. Instead, the goal is to focus on being a consistent and loving presence for your child.
Consider Parallel Parenting Instead
The reality is that co-parenting is not suitable for all parents. If that’s the case, you may need to consider parallel parenting, which refers to parenting in a way that eliminates directly communicating with one another.
Parallel parenting entails adhering to a structured parenting plan with little to no room for negotiation. While you might parent “next” to each other, you run your households separately and are entirely responsible for the children when they’re in their care (2).
Similarly, you might communicate through a third-party person. In parallel parenting, it’s common to alternate attending events to avoid run-ins. If meet-ups do happen, they typically occur in a neutral location.
How to Communicate Effectively With Your Co-Parent
In an ideal world, you both would be on the same page with every parenting issue. But real life is far messier, and some compromises will likely need to be made.
If you and your ex have a contentious relationship, communication may be strained. One or both of you may harbor resentment. It may even feel impossible to maintain a peaceful conversation. With time and intention, you can improve how you resolve conflict.
Here are some gentle reminders to keep in mind:
Focus your conversations on your children: Remember that your goal when communicating should be to collaborate on your child’s needs and well-being. Unless it’s appropriate to do so, avoid discussing any personal needs or emotional grievances.
Try to stay calm and neutral: As much as possible, maintain your composure when interacting with the other parent. If you start getting angry, pause and regroup. Avoid criticizing their behavior or acting passive-aggressively.
Commit to engaging in active listening: Active listening refers to intentionally and deliberately listening to another person. When you actively listen, you are dedicated to understanding their feelings and needs. This conveys respect and can help facilitate deeper conversation (3).
Be explicit about your expectations and needs: Clearly state your boundaries and try to avoid being vague when communicating. If you have a hard time with this, use an I-statement to assert your feelings without projecting blame onto the other parent.
Stick to a communication schedule: It may be helpful to agree to communicate at a designated time each week. This gives you both time to plan ahead and organize your meeting accordingly. Remember that communication doesn’t need to occur in person. You might decide to plan weekly phone calls or Zoom meetings to check-in.
How to Make Co-Parenting Easier On Your Children
It’s no secret that separation and divorce can have adverse effects on children. Even if your child acts unfazed, they may still feel upset, resentful, scared, angry, or lonely. Some children will be more outspoken about these emotions than others.
Young children, in particular, may act out their emotions through aggression toward others, school refusal, somatic complaints, or bullying. Older children may engage in compulsive behavior or become hostile toward one or both parents. All of these reactions are normal, and it’s important to be respectful of your child’s emotions.
Prepare them in advance: Be transparent about your intentions to co-parent. Use age-appropriate language, but ensure that you will both be playing an active role in your child’s life. Let them know exactly how the custody arrangements will work.
Maintain a consistent routine: Children thrive with predictability, and it may be helpful to establish a ritual that you can default to before and after visits with their other parent. For example, you might have their favorite dinner prepared for them when they arrive back home on the weekend. This familiarity can help lessen the discomfort of tougher transitions.
Don’t bombard them with questions: After reuniting, you may feel tempted to ask many questions about how their day or weekend went. However, this can be overwhelming to children. Instead, it’s often better to let them come to you. If you do ask questions, keep them friendly and vague like, “What was your favorite part of the weekend?”
Allow them to have their emotions: Although it can be painful, you need to make space for your child’s fluctuating emotions about separation or divorce. Let them know you’re there to support them and that you understand how hard it is. Remind them that they are loved and that this is not their fault (4).
Consider family therapy: Family therapy can help children and their parents feel more connected amid difficult transitions. A family therapist can give you and the other co-parent strategies to strengthen communication. They will also provide space for your child to express their needs to you.
Raising children is unquestionably challenging, and co-parenting adds even more complexity to this experience. That said, it’s possible to make this a positive experience for your family. Although it may require more planning, effort, and patience, prioritizing your child’s well-being is the best gift you can offer them.