How Positive Coparenting Produces Mentally Healthy Kids

Research draws four conclusions about how coparenting impacts child development.

Posted Jun 08, 2020

This article uses established and recent research evidence to explain how coparenting is conceptually different from parenting as a standalone construct, and how positive coparenting processes lead to desirable child development outcomes.

While the word "coparenting" (alternatively spelled "co-parenting") is terminology frequently used to refer to parents who have ended their romantic relationship but remain in contact with the goal of collaboratively raising a child, the term is appropriate to refer to the relationship between any two adults who work together to raise one or more children. Whereas "parenting" refers to a vertical relationship between adult and child, and "marriage" or "partnership/collaboration" or "romantic relationship" refers to the horizontal relationship between two adults, coparenting is the realm of horizontal processes that adults have concerning parenting behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs.

What Is Coparenting?

Coparenting, as a broad range of processes, consists of different modes of communication within the parent-to-parent relationship, the difference in levels of coparenting support, and behaviors while interacting with the child. Conceptualizing coparenting requires synthesizing overlapping processes that occur within both the partner-partner and parent-child relationships. Coparenting researchers have demonstrated that within families headed by married heterosexual parents, child development and emotional maturation are influenced by a function of the quality of the interactions within the coparents themselves (spousal/horizontal) as well as between each of the coparents and the child (parental/vertical) [3,9].

Coparenting Is Conceptually Unique

Savvy readers may be quick to wonder how much information, if any, coparenting as a construct adds above and beyond the traditional understanding of parenting processes. Like many constructs in the psychology of family life, significant overlap exists. Unsurprisingly, higher levels of marital conflict are correlated with undesirable coparenting processes [2]—suggesting that there is some overlap between partner-partner relationship processes and coparenting processes. However, a 2010 meta-analysis [10] examined the data reported by 59 different publications examining the link between coparenting quality and child adjustment outcomes: specifically, internalizing problem behavior, externalizing problem behavior, social functioning, and attachment to parents. Even after controlling for parenting skills and marital quality (usually represented by marital satisfaction), the effect sizes of coparenting quality on child adjustment outcomes were still significant.

One explanation for this can be found in Mahoney, Jouriles, & Scavone's [6] argument that coparenting processes may predict child well-being better than other aspects of a partner-partner relationship, because parents may be able to more easily compartmentalize their disagreements about topics like finances or politics such that their child is not exposed to parental conflict. Without getting into the weeds about how much each variable overlaps with the others, the conceptual overlap of the three family processes is visually represented as a simple Venn diagram:

Coparenting-Venn-Diagram

Why Is Coparenting Important?

With so much cultural emphasis placed on the importance of parenting, is there value to be found in focusing on the unique effects of coparenting processes? Yes, because the coparenting relationship has the potential to create a positive dynamic relational environment in the family that facilitates a child’s psychological growth. Here are four empirical findings highlighting the importance of functional coparenting processes:

  1. Research finds that desirable coparenting processes predict the development of children's sense of conscience and their ability to make moral decisions [4].
  2. Furthermore, the presence of desirable coparenting processes has been connected to a higher likelihood of children developing an easygoing temperament [1].
  3. The presence of conflictual coparenting processes is linked to higher levels of child misbehavior in normative samples [5,7] and in a sample of children with developmental disabilities [8].
  4. Perhaps most surprisingly, Yan and colleagues [11] provided evidence that perceived coparenting processes present in an individual's childhood are likely to repeat themselves if that person becomes a parent themselves!

In light of these findings, it seems that children benefit significantly when raised by parents who are able to engage in positive coparenting processes. This benefit is perhaps best understood as one of many environmental factors in which parents have some degree of control. Just as parents should seek to provide their child with a nurturing home environment, so also should they strive to attain and maintain coparenting processes characterized by supportiveness, solidarity, empathy, and warmth. 

References

Belsky, J., Putnam, S., & Crnic, K. (1996). Coparenting, parenting, and early emotional development. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 1996(74), 45-55. doi:10.1002/cd.23219967405

Christopher, C., Umemura, T., Mann, T., Jacobvitz, D., & Hazen, N. (2015). Marital quality over the transition to parenthood as a predictor of coparenting. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(12), 3636-3651. doi:10.1007/s10826-015-0172-0

Cowan, P. A., & McHale, J. P. (1996). Coparenting in a family context: Emerging achievements, current dilemmas, and future directions. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 1996(74), 93-106. doi:10.1002/cd.23219967408

Groenendyk, A. E., & Volling, B. L. (2007). Coparenting and early conscience development in the family. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 168(2), 201-224. doi:10.3200/GNTP.168.2.201-224

Karreman, A., van Tuijl, C., van Aken, M., & Dekovic, M. (2008). Parenting, coparenting, and effortful control in preschooler. Journal of Family Psychology, 22(1), 30-40. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.22.1.30

Mahoney, A., Jouriles, E. N., & Scavone, J. (1997). Marital adjustment, marital discord over childrearing, and child behavior problems: Moderating effects of child age. MAHWAH: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. doi:10.1207/s15374424jccp2604_10

McHale, J. P., Rao, N., & Krasnow, A. D. (2000). Constructing family climates: Chinese mothers’ reports of their co-parenting behaviour and preschoolers’ adaptation. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 24(1), 111-118. doi:10.1080/016502500383548

Rosencrans, M., & McIntyre, L. L. (2020). Coparenting and Child Outcomes in Families of Children Previously Identified With Developmental Delay. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 125(2), 109–124. doi:10.1352/1944-7558-125.2.109 

Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J., Mangelsdorf, S. C., Frosch, C. A., & McHale, J. L. (2004). Associations between coparenting and marital behavior from infancy to the preschool years. Journal of Family Psychology, 18(1), 194-207. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.18.1.194

Teubert, D., & Pinquart, M. (2010). The association between coparenting and child adjustment: A meta-analysis. ABINGDON: Taylor & Francis Group. doi:10.1080/15295192.2010.492040

Yan, J., Olsavsky, A., Schoppe-Sullivan, S., & Dush, C. (2018). Coparenting in the family of origin and new parents' couple relationship functioning. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(2), 206-216. doi:10.1037/fam0000353