What is Co-Parenting?

Co-parenting is where two parents share responsibilities for their children and raise them while not in a romantic relationship. 

When co-parenting effectively, the emotional and physical needs of the children are prioritized, despite how the parents may feel about each other. 

Effective co-parenting involves cooperation, teamwork, focus and intention. You have found the holy grail if you have a cooperative co-parenting relationship. Children reap benefits when their parents can collaborate, communicate, make decisions together, show flexibility, and coordinate routines between homes. 

Children can suffer when co-parenting is marked by delayed and ineffective decision-making, ongoing conflict, poor communication and coordination between the parents, inappropriate parenting schedules and loyalty conflicts. young boy in hammock smiling

While cooperative co-parenting is the gold standard, there are times when cooperative co-parenting is not possible and is not recommended. Examples include where one parent is unable or unwilling to focus on the child’s needs, if there is active substance abuse, or in family violence and post-separation abuse situations. 

Unsafe Co-Parenting.

While this article focuses on cooperative co-parenting and provides real-life tips to make it work, it is essential to note that if you or your children are experiencing domestic violence, including non-physical violence or post-separation abuse, the following tips may not be suitable for you and could increase your risk of further abuse. In these situations, educate yourself about domestic violence and post-separation abuse. At the end of this article, you will find more information and links to family violence resources.

Tips for successful co-parenting.

There are many ways to be a successful co-parent. Here are 7 of the smartest tips.  

Heal the loss of your romantic partnership.

Do the work. Separation and divorce are significant life changes. Unfortunately, feelings of anger can bring out the worst in people at a time when cooperation is most needed. The breakdown of a romantic relationship fills us with difficult emotions, including loss, grief, betrayal, worry, hurt, and anger. If you have not done the work to heal and find peace or hope for the future, you risk bringing raw and leftover negative feelings into the co-parenting relationship. 

And while there will naturally be some dynamics from the romantic relationship that continue into the co-parenting relationship, the goal is to minimize these. Unresolved feelings are not your friend when negotiating and making decisions with your co-parent. Even the most minor decision, such as whose turn it is to take the child for a haircut, can catch fire in the face of unmanaged undercurrents from the past. 

Develop a parenting plan. man sitting on floor comfortably and working on laptop

Developing a parenting plan is one of the most important things you can do. A parenting plan is a document that you and your co-parent co-construct to establish a clear and consistent schedule for the care and well-being of your children. Parenting plans provide structure and predictability for everyone, you, your kids and your co-parent. Parenting plans help alleviate some of the stress and uncertainty that often comes with co-parenting. Parenting plans outline how you will make decisions and share responsibilities. Parenting plans can also help establish clear guidelines for communication and decision-making between the parents, which can help to prevent misunderstandings and conflicts.

Additionally, a parenting plan can help to ensure that the children’s needs are being met by detailing specific arrangements for things like school, extra-curricular activities, and medical care. It can also provide a framework for addressing issues that may arise in the future.

When developing a parenting plan, take the opportunity to discuss ways to create consistency in both households. Examples include bedtimes (especially for young children) and screen time rules. It’s okay not to agree on every little thing, but creating general consistency in basic practices and daily routines is ideal. 

Keep your grumbling to yourself.

If you are upset with your co-parent, your frustration belongs to you. Find another adult and vent in private. Telling your child about your frustration may meet your needs, but it will not meet your child’s needs. Venting to your child about your frustration with their other parent adds zero value. In fact, it is harmful. Children love both their parents, warts and all. 

When parents badmouth one another, kids feel caught in the middle. They are under pressure to take sides or show support for one parent over the other, disrupting their relationships and creating feelings of betrayal or uncertainty. 

What happens between you and your ex is not for your children to know. Co-Parenting College Blog: The Worst Type of Co-Parenting Conflict  

There is a time, a place, and a healthy way to work through disagreements with your co-parent, but that time and place are not near your kids. When it is time to focus on your kids, focus on your kids. Do not discuss disagreements at the soccer game or during transitions. Make a mutual commitment to this. 

Learn, learn, learn. 

Co-parenting and dealing with your children’s adjustment to a separated family is not always intuitive. And depending on the age of your kids, you could have an entire career of co-parenting ahead of you. stack of colorful books with a coffee cup on top

Start with a proper foundation by learning about best co-parenting practices and navigating the many co-parenting traps that will inevitably arise. 

Knowing the traps will help you prevent them, provided you are committed to avoiding them. 

Your kids are counting on you to work as a cohesive team. Effective co-parenting does not require you to like each other, but you should do everything possible to work together to meet your children’s needs consistently. 

The irony of co-parenting is that often the skills you need to navigate and work together in your couple relationship are the same skills you need to co-parent effectively. These include effective communication, emotional regulation, mutual respect, listening, problem-solving skills, etc. One thing that makes co-parenting hard is that the goodwill  that once sustained your romantic relationship is often damaged, if not destroyed. That does not mean effective co-parenting is not possible, but you will need to do your darndest to meet best practices and, if things are rocky, to make it better or at least not make it worse! To do this requires learning, deep desire, and commitment to do right by your kids. 

Seeking professional support. Doing so does not mean you are a bad parent; it means you are a smart one! 

There are mental health professionals who specialize in co-parenting. Read co-parenting books. Consider taking a great co-parenting course, such as Difficult Co-parenting: Advice You Won’t Forget.  Difficult Co-Parenting: Advice You Will Not Forget. Take Me To The Course!  

Communicate! Without it, everything falls apart. a line of dice with letters that spell "communication"

When co-parenting, you must find a way to communicate that works. If in-person meetings result in arguments or miscommunication, then it is not suitable for your situation. Shifting to written communication has advantages, including a record of agreements and the often-under-rated opportunity to take a step back, breathe and ground yourself before responding to your co-parent’s message; especially if it has ruffled you. Responding to your ex when you feel annoyed, angry, or defensive is a bad idea. An impulsive rant to your co-parent about forgetting to send in the consent forms for your child’s field trip does not solve the problem. Instead, it creates another. 

Keep communications centered on the children’s needs. For example, there is no need to discuss past relationship grievances or ask your ex personal questions. 

Set up regular, time-limited check-ins. Think of your co-parenting relationship like a business relationship where you and your co-parent are stakeholders in your children’s well-being. Talk to each other with respect. Do not talk over each other. Listen to understand. Clarify what you have heard. Do not make accusations. Do not blame. Do not use sarcasm. Monitor your defensive reactions. 

If you need professional help to help with communication, seek it. Children should not be used to facilitate communication between the parents ever, so  please do not use them as the go-between. Reach out and speak directly with your co-parent.

Consider an online shared calendar where parents commit to putting kids’ activities and events on the calendar. A shared calendar can strengthen a sense of teamwork for the whole family. There are plenty of online co-parenting apps, both free and paid, that can help co-parents communicate and track activities, deadlines, expenses, etc.  Consider using one.

Bend like a willow, even when it’s hard.bending willow tree

Yes, predictability and routine are important for kids, and you should strive to maintain the schedule overall; however, keep this from becoming a front for inflexibility. Life happens, work schedules change, the music teacher needs to adjust teaching days, your kids want to do something unplanned with their friends etc., and these are only sometimes predictable or convenient. Roll with it where you can and dig deep before you say it’s not rollable.

It is unreasonable to expect that your co-parent can meet every request you make and vice versa; however, if you don’t have to say no, then don’t. Let your kids enjoy special moments and take advantage of opportunities where you can. For example, if your co-parent has an opportunity to take your child to a special one-time event during your parenting time and you have nothing special planned, let them go. Why would you not? One good turn begets another. In healthy co-parenting relationships, both parents understand that sometimes the schedule needs to be adjusted.

If it seems you are the only parent bending, know you are doing it for the right reason. Your children will notice your flexibility and appreciate it, so be careful not to say no out of spite.

Accept that some conflict is a given.

Whether co-parenting in an intact relationship or after separation, conflict is natural. Accept that disagreement is going to happen while at the same time pick and choose your battles wisely. Not everything is worth the debate or conflict. Agreement on all things is not the goal. Kids do not need their parents to be on the same page about everything. While it isn’t always possible, compromise where you can. If your goal is to “win,” you are off course.

Minimizing conflict does not mean you must always change your opinions or give in to what your co-parent’s wants to keep the peace. It also does not mean you must accept disrespect and tolerate criticism and rudeness. However, in person or written, respectful communication is non-negotiable. It may be time to see professional co-parenting support and assistance if disrespect from your co-parent is an ongoing problem.

Your kids need you and your co-parent to make timely, child-centered decisions that consider their needs and views. And they need this to happen without overt conflict or putting your them in the middle. When working through impasses, create, evaluate, discuss, and brainstorm as many reasonable ideas, solutions, and alternatives as possible. Manage your expectations and keep your children’s best interests forefront. “Best interests” and “fair” do not always mean equal. Do not fall into this co-parenting trap.

Sometimes you have differing views on a matter, and your solution will fail to prevail. Do your best to maintain perspective and make peace with it. It is unlikely that whatever decision was made will mean that things for your kids will turn out horribly. In situations where you are not happy about the decision that has been made, agree to revisit the decision down the road to see how things are going and to troubleshoot if things are not working out.

Stay in your lane.

You and your co-parent are going to parent and manage situations differently. Having different approaches with your kids was very likely the case when you parented in the same home. It is only natural, and most of the time it is okay. To expect otherwise is to invite much co-parenting difficulty. Strive to maintain similarities in your basic routines and rules for the kids, but do not micromanage. Not every worry needs to be expressed to your co-parent.

Be respectful of your co-parent’s time with the children. For example, if your co-parent indicates that it is disruptive to the children’s routines and their family time when you call to speak with them at 7:00 pm, don’t call them at 7:00 pm. Instead, ask your co-parent when it works best for you to call.

Only schedule extra-curricular activities on your co-parent’s parenting time after discussing and agreeing. Here is where effective communication is essential. Discuss the pros and cons of activities and their value for the child. Give your co-parent the benefit of the doubt that they are acting in your children’s best interest and not trying to micromanage or control your time with the children when they suggest extra-curricular activities that may impact your parenting time. Do what is best for your child, not for you.

Co-parenting can be a challenge. It requires patience, communication, cooperation and the right mindset to work. Nevertheless, healthy co-parenting has considerable benefits and helps provide a consistent, stable environment for your children to thrive. However, it is important to remember that your kids do not need perfect co-parenting. But they do need good enough co-parenting.  

What if your co-parent is not on board?

The “co” in “co-parenting” implies a partnership and shared vision. It is reasonable to expect a mutual investment in things that affect your kids. These include your children’s health and safety, education, and emotional well-being. When your co-parent is not mutually invested in the best interest of your kids, it is a painful experience, and you may need professional co-parenting help and/or legal remedies. 

Be the best parent you can be in all co-parenting situations, but in particular in situations where your children’s other parent is difficult or disengaged. Focus your attention on the important things you can control rather than the things you can’t. These include, how you manage your frustrations with your co-parent, how you respond to your children, what happens during your parenting time, the atmosphere in your home, etc. Seek guidance from a co-parenting expert.

Remember that children need at least one parent who gets it, a parent who understands what is important, maintains perspective, and who can manage emotions responsibly. Be that parent. Remain open to the possibility that your ex may change and in time, come to the table with a better attitude and approach. 

What if co-parenting is unsafe? 

There are important considerations for co-parenting if you and/or your children have experienced domestic violence. It does not matter if the violence is physical or non-physical, seek guidance from professionals with expertise in this area. Domestic violence does not always end just because the intimate relationship has ended. Educate yourself about post-separation abuse, including coercive control.

If you are the recipient of threatening communications, are in fear, or feel unsafe in general, seek help immediately. 

Below are several resources to help you.

Stop Family Violence – Canada.ca

Domestic Violence and IPV Resource List — Canadian Centre of Integrative Psychology & Healthcare (CCIPH)

Domestic Violence Resources | Canadian Association of Social Workers (casw-acts.ca)

Home – Luke’s Place (lukesplace.ca)

Written by: Glenda Lux M.A., R. Psych.