How To Have A Healthy Co-Parenting Relationship, From Family Therapists
Most people understand co-parenting to be when parents have divorced or separated but continue to work together to raise their children. This sounds good in theory, but what do you do when you don't have a good relationship with your former partner, or you can't figure out how to make it work? How do you manage when issues or conflicts arise? What are the rules to effectively and successfully co-parent?
We spoke with two parenting experts to answer these questions and share advice to offer a path toward effective and child-focused co-parenting.
What is co-parenting?
According to family therapist Chautè Thompson, LMHC, co-parenting is collaborating in raising a child with another parent in a way that focuses on what is best for the child. The most common example of co-parenting happens in the wake of a breakup, separation, or divorce of a romantic partnership, but the term can also be used to describe any two individuals jointly raising a child, even if they are not necessarily the biological parents or have not been romantically involved, such as a single parent raising a child with a grandparent or other relative. Co-parenting can be informal or legally formalized through a co-parenting custody agreement or parenting plan.
Co-parenting requires flexibility, patience, open and consistent communication, and a willingness on the part of both parents to negotiate, compromise, and be resilient because you won't always get your way. This can be especially difficult to manage when a romantic relationship with the other parent ends, especially when the relationship ends badly. However, if you and your co-parent are on sufficiently decent terms, then co-parenting can yield many benefits.
"Healthy co-parenting looks different for different families. However, the picture of a healthy co-parenting relationship is having both parents present for the big things, i.e., sporting events, school events, birthday parties, etc.," licensed family therapist Jodie Commiato, LMFT, tells mbg. "Finding ways to continue to participate despite the past is key" to establishing healthy and collaborative co-parenting partnerships.
How to co-parent effectively:
1. Make your co-parenting approach child-focused and child-centered.
According to Commiato, the first thing you need to remember when co-parenting is that your child's best interests come first.
"Despite how much you like/dislike your ex, you must be on the same page regarding the children. This includes the good things (celebrations, parties, holidays, etc.) and the more challenging things like behavior, consequences, and accountability," she adds.
Thompson reiterates that this is the No. 1 tip for effective co-parenting: "It is imperative that the focus always remain on the children."
2. Prioritize direct communication.
Conflict-free, regular, and consistent communication with your co-parent are key components of successful co-parenting. Reminding yourself that your children's well-being always comes first will help you stay focused and intentional in your communications with your co-parent.
Thompson and Commiato recommend the following tips to maintain productive communication:
- Don't send messages through your children. Communicate with the other parent directly instead of having children communicate for you.
- Allow yourself to move beyond the past so you're able to have communication that serves the children.
- The children do not need to be involved in adult conversations.
- When communicating, stick to the facts and necessities.
3. Control your emotions.
A hallmark of any successful co-parenting partnership is one wherein the parents have managed to set their feelings and emotions about each other aside to focus on the development, well-being, and care of their child. To achieve this, co-parents must commit to being on their best behavior with each other and especially in the presence of the children. Children won't understand if you treat their other parent, who they also love and care about, in negative or disrespectful ways.
Thompson and Commiato suggest taking these steps to ensure you can control your emotions:
- Take the feelings out of it. When communicating with the other parent, treat the communication as professional.
- Be mindful that children can feel energy. If co-parents are conflictual, tense, argumentative, or negative, those emotions are felt by and negatively affect children.
- Establish a united front. Although you live in separate homes, you can still successfully function as a unit. Do your best to parent as a team.
- Never speak negatively about the co-parent in the presence of children.
4. Manage expectations.
Managing expectations is part of our daily lives, but it is even more crucial in co-parenting as it helps remove the possibility of unnecessary conflict or the potential for misunderstanding to arise.
Thompson and Commiato offer these practical tips to help manage expectations in a co-parenting partnership:
- Encourage children to have a healthy relationship with the other parent. It matters to them that they are not emotionally betraying you by being close to the other parent.
- Ensure the expectations are clear and upfront regarding co-parenting.
- Work with what is in your control. Understand what is out of your control.
- Remember that your child will learn resilience by watching the way you and your co-parent regulate your emotions and minimize conflict.
5. Set rules and honor them.
Smooth and successful co-parenting requires organization and planning, including establishing a set schedule and alignment on rules, consequences, and discipline. While it is normal for children to navigate different living environments and norms, which fosters adaptability and resilience, it is also ideal to establish a fundamental set of shared expectations in both homes to maintain stability and avoid confusion in your children.
It is unrealistic to expect that rules will be identical across two households, but if you and your co-parent establish unified rules and guidelines, children will more easily navigate living and thriving in two households as well as transitioning between them.
Thompson recommends allowing children to decompress when they return from the other co-parent's home, giving them time to get acclimated to the rules and expectations of your home. Likewise, she emphasizes the importance of respecting the rules of the co-parent's home, so as not to undermine each other.
6. Have a consistent schedule.
Setting similar chores, bedtimes, mealtime routines, and screen time limitations (among other activities) helps children feel a sense of comfort in both homes and can reduce stress because there is a familiarity in the pattern of life in both households.
Creating a custody calendar that lays out when the child is with each parent can help remove ambiguity and unpleasant surprises around holidays or school breaks with respect to where the child will spend time. Thompson adds that it is healthy for children to know the schedule of when they will be with each parent to reduce stress.
If you are struggling to establish a custody calendar with your co-parent, both experts note that it is useful in some cases to seek professional support in the form of a mediator, trusted third party, family counselor, or lawyer to help create an appropriate and equitable custody schedule.
Co-parenting vs. parallel parenting.
"Co-parenting means you and your ex [are] working together for the children. Decisions, events, consequences, expectations, etc., are made together. In co-parenting, there is a level of respect and understanding for the other co-parent," Commiato explains. "However, parallel parenting is the opposite. With parallel parenting, there is a barrier between the two of you."
Parallel parenting is a parenting method where each parent has their own independent parenting style, and strict and clear boundaries are established. Each parent sets their own rules and utilizes their own unique parenting style when the children are with them. In general, everything is separate, including school events, appointments, and other gatherings.
Commiato notes that parallel parenting usually emerges when negative emotions are getting in the way of parenting. To reduce the potential for conflict, most communication is done in writing, and there is minimal direct interaction between the parents.
Thompson suggests the following actions when dealing with an ex from a difficult relationship:
- Have and follow a legal parenting plan.
- Establish and hold co-parent accountable to clear boundaries.
- Avoid emotional arguments. Protect your peace.
- Include professionals as needed, such as a therapist, guardian ad litem (GAL), and/or parenting coordinators in interactions with the co-parent.
- Document, document, document. Keep a log of things you deem important as evidence if ever needed.
- Have an agreed-upon way to communicate (email, text, phone), and stick to it.
"Taking care of yourself is first and foremost. Make sure you have support. Go to therapy if needed," Thompson says.
Commiato adds, "This no longer has anything to do with the narcissist; it has everything to do with recognizing that they no longer have power and control over you. Focus on the children, and do what is best for the children."
Co-parenting works for some, and parallel parenting for others. There are positives and negatives to both parenting models, and neither option is better than the other. The key is choosing the method that best facilitates putting the child's needs first.
How to address conflicts with your co-parent.
Among many others, the most typical issues that arise when co-parenting include:
- Communication breakdowns
- Unwillingness to be flexible and compromise
- Inability to detach the emotions of the romantic relationship from the parental relationship
- Financial disputes
- Differing beliefs and parenting approaches
- Dealing with issues around when an ex starts dating and introducing new people into the family equation
It is inevitable that you and your ex will disagree at times along your co-parenting journey, but if you can maintain a level of respect for each other and prioritize communication with each other, you will find a way forward. However, if you've exhausted other options, then seeking a counselor, therapist, mediator, or avenues via the legal system are also useful ways to help resolve conflict.
Co-parenting is often involved with the legal system, through the creation of custody agreements and court-mandated visitation schedules, among other things, which can be useful when things really aren't working out at the informal level. For instance, if you need to file for sole custody or establish a more legal framework for your custody arrangement, you will need to seek advice from a lawyer who practices child and family law.
Understandably, the dissolution of a family and battling over custody can have damaging and negative effects on parents and children alike. Seeking a therapist, psychologist, social worker, or counselor is an excellent way to help manage the emotional burden of the circumstances and can provide solutions for healing and learning to adapt to the new family dynamic.
Most parents want the best for their kids, and there is no cookie-cutter approach to parenting when a relationship ends. It is possible to set differences aside to create a co-parenting plan that works for everyone involved, and when that is not possible, taking advantage of legal resources and tools is a good option as well.
The pain of a breakup doesn't have to carry forward into your child's life or into your parenting relationship with your ex, especially when the focus remains on providing a loving, stable, supportive, and consistent environment together as parents where your children can thrive.