- Successful co-parenting can benefit children’s academic performance, relationships, and emotional health.
- Co-parents should be open to listening and compromising, and they should aim for as much consistency as possible between the two homes.
- Co-parents should avoid speaking negatively of the other parent or letting their child become a spy or messenger for the other parent.
Once you and your partner have decided to divorce, the question of how you will continue to parent your children is extremely important. Mia (not her real name) tells me that she doesn’t trust that her soon-to-be-ex will co-parent with her. It’s often true that trust needs to be rebuilt after divorce. "But," I tell Mia, “Your children still need two parents. You and Ryan may no longer love each other, and may not agree about most things, but you both love your children and want them to thrive.”
You may have given a lot of thought to how your divorce will unfold. You’ll need to sort out many financial questions (support, assets distribution, debts, etc). You’ll also need to discuss a parenting plan, which will detail many of the parenting decisions you and your soon-to-be co-parent will need to make. The parenting plan spells out your parenting time and includes holidays, travel, medical and educational decisions, and often much more. A good parenting plan will also include a clause that details what to do when you have trouble resolving a disagreement. If you keep the agreements you’ve made in your parenting plan, trust will be rebuilt. A divorce coach or family therapist can help you craft a realistic, documented parenting agreement. The effort (and cost) you invest in this will pay dividends for years.
Your children will benefit from successful co-parenting. The benefits will be seen in their success at school and in their secure relationships, good coping strategies, stable mental health, and positive relationships with each of their parents. This is what all parents hope for, and what children need to thrive in life. When you divorce, it’s essential to focus on ways to put your kids’ needs ahead of your own emotions so that they will thrive. Research has shown that their parents’ continuing conflict after divorce is the most damaging thing for kids.
In a previous post, I wrote about various parenting styles ranging from very cooperative to quite separate. The goal is to land on the style that best reduces or eliminates stress and conflict between you and your co-parent. Here are some tips to build and maintain a successful co-parenting partnership.
- Acknowledge and accept that your children need and love their two parents. Most (maybe all!) parents are imperfect, but your kids need and love you anyway. The exception is when there has been physical, sexual or serious emotional abuse.
- Respect the important roles that you each have in your children’s lives. You are modeling and teaching them how to deal with difficult situations. You are sharing your beliefs and values (even when some may differ from your co-parent’s) about how to treat people, how to build honest and safe relationships, how to solve problems, how to communicate effectively, and how to repair hurt emotions. Model respectful communication, since your children will overhear your phone conversations. Avoid difficult conversations with your ex when you exchange the children, but model friendliness by saying hello, or “have a nice day.”
- Aim for as much consistency as possible between the two homes. You don’t have to have identical rules; if the rules at each home are similar, that will help your kids adjust. Consider the most important things, such as discipline, and behavior. If you don’t agree about some things (bedtimes, chores, screen time) it’s okay. Keep a consistent parenting schedule as well, although it is also important to be flexible when necessary.
- Never let your kids become spies, messengers, confidantes, or allies. This can happen easily and unconsciously, so stay alert to signs that your child feels pulled to one of these harmful roles. One way this can happen is when you talk about the divorce with your child. Your children never need to know the details of your divorce, your financial settlement, or the causes of the divorce. This causes them anxiety and pulls them into harmful alliances.
- Don’t speak negatively of the other parent. If you can, say positive things about them, like “You get your math aptitude from your mom!” A client once told me, “I have to remind myself to love my children more than I hate my ex.”
- Think of your parenting as a business arrangement. You and your co-parent are partners in the business of raising your children. You should have regular check-ins with each other to discuss upcoming events, how your children are doing, and requests for changes in the schedule. Stay focused on your kids.
- Be open to listening and compromising when issues arise. If you reach an impasse, check in with a mediator or therapist to help break the impasse before the disagreement rises to the level of conflict. Remember, it’s the conflict between parents that damages children. Even if they don’t witness it directly, they feel it in your hugs and see it in your facial expressions.
- Check in periodically with your co-parent to see how the kids are doing. Let each other know in advance before making changes, such as moving to a new home or introducing a new partner. Do this before talking to your children. It helps kids to know that their parents are working together, speaking with each other, and doing everything possible to support the children’s well-being.
- Share special parenting moments without tension. It reassures your children when you both go to parent-teacher conferences or share their birthday parties. Some parents send each other photos and text messages to share happy moments with their children. Claire texted her co-parent a video of their son when he learned to ride a bicycle. Despite your divorce, you can celebrate your children’s successes together.
- Use a shared online calendar to keep track of everything related to the children: their schedule, after-school activities, playdates, medical appointments, homework projects, etc. You and your co-parent should commit to using the calendar religiously; it is one of the best communication tools you can have. Schedule those regular check-ins in advance and put those dates on the calendar. For older children, it can be helpful for them to be able to see the calendar too as it will help them stay organized and grounded.
Co-parenting is a skill that you and your co-parent can learn and cultivate. It does take time to get up to speed as you adjust to the changes of becoming a single parent during your parenting time. Mia tells me, “I guess I’m going to have to cut him some slack and try to be open to rebuilding our parenting partnership. I'm doing it for our kids.” Yes. That’s it, in a nutshell.
© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2022