By: Sara Gill, PhD
Raising a child with an ex-partner after a separation or divorce can present many unique challenges to an already complicated task. This can become particularly difficult when there has been a high level of conflict between the parents. Parents often express concern regarding issues like their ex-partner’s parenting style, increased financial stress, and resentment related to past events in the relationship. These are just a few of examples of the types of issues that can directly impact how ex-partners engage with one another and the care of their child(ren).
Co-parenting is often defined as having both parents engage actively in their child’s daily life. It has been found to be an effective strategy for meeting the needs of the children as they maintain a relationship with both parents. Additionally, there is support for the idea that when parents can engage in a functional style of co-parenting, it has a positive impact on children’s mental health outcomes, with children less likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety.
However, it is important to consider that it is not appropriate for all families or in all situations. In many families that have experienced or are currently experiencing domestic violence, abuse or neglect, and/or substance abuse, co-parenting may not be a safe option. At a less extreme level, there is also evidence that the development of a productive co-parenting relationship requires that both parents have a basic level of respect for the other parent’s role in their child’s life. If a family is not safe or if there is an essential level of respect, a form of parallel parenting (discussed below) may be a better fit for the family.
Tips for Co-Parenting:
1. Separate your feelings about your spouse from your relationship with your children.
a. After a separation or divorce, you and/or your partner may be understandably experiencing negative emotions towards each other, such as hurt and anger. However, it is important to remember that those feelings are not appropriate to direct at your child. He or she is not responsible for what their other parent has said or done, nor is it their job to help manage your reactions.
b. Instead, put effort into ensuring that you have a strong support system of other adults who can provide you with a safe and appropriate space in which you can process any thoughts and feelings about your ex-partner. This support can take any number of forms such as a close friendship, a therapist, a support group, and/or a religious community. The more sources of support, the better!
2. Be thoughtful about how you speak about your child’s other parent to your child.
a. It is important to recognize that just because you and your ex are no longer in a relationship, they remain your child’s other parent and serves an important role in your child’s life. When you speak negatively about your child’s other parent (either explicitly or implicitly), you risk placing them in an inappropriate role. For example, they may feel as if they are being asked to choose between you and their other parent. They may also feel as if they have to keep secrets in order to avoid conflict or hurting your feelings.
3. Keep the focus of communication with your ex on the children.
a. Maintaining clear communication with your ex-partner is important. It can be helpful to remember that at this point your children’s interests are the priority. Therefore, by keeping the focus on them, it can help keep your interactions with your ex-spouse from deteriorating.
b. When it comes to communication, it can be helpful to maintain a business-like tone. This translate to communications being direct and polite. You don’t have to be overly friendly but should strive to maintain at least a neutral tone.
c. Keep in mind that communicating with your ex may require you to develop strategies to keep your stress level manageable, which in turn will help you maintain appropriate boundaries and communications. Thisis another time where having a support system or working with a professional to develop specific techniques can be very important for navigating these difficult processes.
4. Don’t put your children in the middle.
a. Related to the above point, it is essential that you and your child’s other parent have can communicate to some degree directly with each other. You never want to place your child in the middle of the two of you, such as having them carry messages to the other parent. Resolve any conflict between you and your child’s other parent, without the child’s participation.
5. Try to develop some degree of consistency between the two households.
a. Ideally, it can be helpful for children if there is a similar structure in place across households. This structure means both parents are creating similar expectations of behavior, similar rules, similar ways of disciplining, and even similar routines. For children, this type of consistency creates a sense of stability even as they have to transition between parents.
b. However, it is essential to remember that no two people are going to parent in exactly the same manner, and therefore you have to allow a certain amount of latitude for minor differences in parenting style. You each have your own strengths, and it is important to allow for them, even if that means your ex doesn’t do things exactly as you would do them.
6. Develop a strategy for resolving conflicts.
a. Being a parent is hard! Even in the best of relationships, raising a child with another person is going to create conflict. Given that you are now raising a child with an ex-partner, it is likely that there will come a time when you disagree with each other. It can be beneficial to plan ahead (when you are both calm) and strategize for how you would like to resolve conflicts
i. These strategies should focus on maintaining respect for each other.
ii. It may be helpful to discuss what you both consider to be minor issues that can be let go, versus what types of issues require more extensive efforts to resolve.
iii. It may be helpful to discuss what forms of communication might work best.
iv. REMEMBER THAT IT ISN’T ABOUT YOUR OR YOUR CHILD’S OTHER PARENT WINNING! It is about figuring out what is truly in your child’s best interest. This may require compromise on all ends.
7. Regarding visitation:
a. Each parent should work with the child on strategies to help them anticipate their transition between households. This process can involve developing ways of reassuring them or even just helping them to remember their schedule. It can include having special rituals to help ease them through the change.
b. Allow the children to keep familiar items with them for comfort.
c. When your child first arrives, keep things low-key. It is important to allow them time to transition/adjust. Give your child time to themselves or engage in an activity such as reading together.
d. Keep essentials such as basic toiletries at both houses, so children don’t have to pack them each time. Related to this, also ensure that each child has a way of making both homes feel as if they are “theirs.” Allow your child to put up decorations or create a specific space for them.
e. Recognize that visitation schedules may have to be adjusted as children get older. The schedule that works best for a 5-year-old may not work well for a 15-year-old as their needs and demands on their time changes. If at all possible, it is helpful to maintain a certain level of adaptability to adjust to the needs of your child.
Parallel parenting is a strategy that allows the parents to both be involved with their child but minimizes their interactions with one another. In situations where one or both parents has not been able to communicate respectfully, parallel parenting allows for the adults to disengage from each other and limits direct contact, thus limiting the conflict that may occur.
Five tips have been recommended to help create an effective parallel parenting relationship.
1. Communication between the parents should focus on information related to the child or children,
2. Communication between the parents should be non-personal (contains no personal information) and maintain a business-like tone.
3. Children should not be used as messengers between their parents.
4. Any changes to the set schedule require a written agreement (e.g., informal changes made through verbal exchanges should not be considered).
5. Schedules should be managed through a shared calendar and in writing to limit contact and conflict.
In some situations, parents who can engage in parallel parenting may be able to move towards co-parenting as hostilities decrease and they develop improved communication skills. In other families, parallel parenting may continue to be the best option to limit conflict.