Co-Parenting Lifestyle Differences: How to Respond and Help Your Child Cope

Does your co-parent live, think, and parent very differently from you? It’s common—but often upsetting—for co-parents to face differences in culture, finances, values, parenting styles, and more.  

Minor differences are expected. But major differences make transitions difficult for the child. When your kid comes home, they might feel confused, frustrated, or stressed. They might be stuck with an attitude, routine, or ideas that aren’t a part of your lifestyle.  

Many parents feel helpless, or they worry about their kids even more than usual. 

We asked three parenting coordinators—with a combined 42 years of experience in parenting coordination—to offer specific advice and solutions for dealing with co-parenting differences. A parenting coordinator specializes in helping co-parents get past the differences in their lifestyles and opinions, so that they can do what’s best for their child.  

Different ways to think about co-parenting contrasts  

Mindset shifts are tough. But if you can reframe your perspective, you and your child might have an easier time dealing with the differences.  

Remember that many parenting differences are normal 

“Even when you were together, you had different parenting styles,” says Andrea Perlin, parenting coordinator and licensed mental health counselor. Even in intact families, parents often parent differently, and sometimes it causes strong disagreements. 

Some parenting differences can be healthy, because they expose children to different ways of living and making decisions. That can help them choose who they want to be. 

Reframe parenting time: It’s your child’s time with you (not the reverse)  

“While it is your time with your child,” Andrea says, “it really is your child’s time with you. They didn’t ask to be divided into 50/50. It’s a shift of perspective.” 

One practical way to acknowledge that is “to be respectful of their social calendar, their needs, their wants, their asks—so the transitions are easier, so the kids are not missing a beat.” 

Dad and daughter eating spaghetti.

Learn from (some of) the differences  

“When I work with families,” explains Andrea, “if the kids are old enough, I try to sit down with them and ask them, ‘What’s your routine at Mom’s house that you may not be doing at Dad’s house?’” Or vice versa? 

Andrea gives an example: Maybe Dad lets you change your clothes after dinner instead of before, so it’s no big deal if you get tomato sauce on your shirt. Maybe you even have a special, pre-stained “pasta shirt” you can wear at Dad’s house.  

Once Mom learns about this different routine for clothes, maybe she can adjust her system (or sacrifice a shirt) so the kid can have two safe places to eat spaghetti. 

So consider asking your child this question: “What do you like about being at Dad’s/Mom’s house?” The answers might be small tweaks, terrible ideas, or game-changers—but at least you’ll know. 

Understand the unique way your child adjusts to differences 

“It really depends on the child,” says Kathy Lucas, parenting coordinator and family law specialist. “Some children are far more flexible and able to adjust between extreme differences and parenting styles, while other children are just more sensitive.”  

For example, neurodivergent kids—like those who have ADHD or are on the spectrum—might struggle with transitions a bit more. 

Consider a switch in your custody schedule 

Sometimes, says Kathy, you just need a new parenting time pattern. “Mom's house is fine. They like Mom's house! Dad’s house is fine. They like Dad’s house! It's just that if they’re on a 2-2-3 schedule, [especially] for high schoolers, they always feel like they’re transitioning.”  

Kathy suggests switching to a week on / week off schedule—if the kids are old enough—to make transitions less frequent. 

Other times, she explains, the custody split needs to change. If the adjustments are just too hard on the kid (either because the homes are extremely different, or because the child is extremely sensitive), then a judge might grant one parent more time, like a 60/40 custody schedule or a 70/30 custody schedule. Then the child spends most of their time in one environment, which can feel more stable. 

What co-parenting lifestyle differences look like 

Differences in lifestyles or beliefs can definitely cause friction. But if you can shift your mindset, you can almost always find strategies for tolerating the problem, meeting in the middle, or pressing for necessary changes.  

Differences in rules 

If your co-parent has fewer rules (or no rules), you might feel like your kids are running wild when they get home. If your co-parent has more rules, you might feel like they come home stressed. 

“That's pretty much where I come in,” says Kathy. “If their rules are relatively reasonable, and the child can handle it, that's one thing. But it’s harder for the child to adjust if you're just creating conflict or overstepping boundaries. Most of those children end up going into therapy.” 

Instead of leaning into conflict, Kathy recommends asking yourself: What really affects the child? Which differences need to be made the same, and which can the child tolerate? A compromise could look like this: “We're not going to have the same bedtime, but for this child, screen time rules are really important.” 

Mom helping son with homework.

Differences in homework 

“Oftentimes one parent is more aware of what’s going on academically with the child,“ says Shana Duehring, parenting coordinator and guardian ad litem.“ To get on the same page, she recommends that both parents meet with teachers at the beginning of each school year and sign up to receive all school emails.   

Both parents should log in weekly to their child’s school portal to review any upcoming assignments, past due work, and their child’s grades. “Parents should do this at each of their homes—with the child, if possible. This creates a bridge between the two homes because the child knows both parents are invested in their academics. The key here is working with and not against your co-parent,” says Shana. 

Oftentimes routine and structure around completing homework come more naturally at one of the homes. Shana has seen this happen for many reasons, including the timesharing schedule itself, the parents’ work schedules, or family dynamics and siblings. “Talk it out as co-parents, but it might make sense for the homework to be completed primarily in one home.”  

If you’re the parent who is less involved in completing homework, Shana recommends first acknowledging your co-parent's efforts. A little appreciation goes a long way.  

Second, “As the parent that is not helping with homework, offer to pick up the slack in a different area,” suggests Shana. “Help your child with a few big projects or practice their extracurricular activity such as piano, baseball, etc. Even if it's an activity you're not great at, you can still ensure that the child practices.” 

If both parents struggle with homework, get regular afterschool help from the teacher or hire a tutor, Shana recommends. This could happen on both parents’ timesharing, and they could share the cost. 

But what if you’re the homework parent, and nothing changes, and you’re just left with a heavier load?  

“That's not cool,” Kathy says. “That's an extra burden placed on you. But it's your kid, so you're going to do it right. And you know what? When your child gets that A, you can be proud of that A, because you helped your kid get there. Keep it about your child or children. As they grow up, they’re going to know. They’re going to recognize this.” 

Differences in diet 

Many co-parents disagree about what their kids eat—especially when it comes to junk food. Maybe one parent allows free-range access to chips and candy, and the other parent follows a whole foods diet with strict mealtimes.  

It’s tough to worry about something as basic as eating when your kid is away from you. But there are more diet differences than there are diets. Maybe one parent won a local award for Best Brisket and the other is vegan. Or one is a skillful home chef, and one orders the best takeout.  

Kathy would approach the issue by thinking about its effect on the child. “He eats meat at my house. He doesn’t eat meat at his Dad’s house. But you know what? He’s good. He’s healthy. He likes both homes’ menus and is getting the nutritional value needed at both homes.” 

What matters is whether the difference is hurting your child, or your child can tolerate it.  

When your child is home with you, use that time to help them develop a healthy relationship with food. If that’s different from what they’re learning at their other home, then it’s all the more important to model and explain thoughtful eating patterns in your home. Either way, your child will thank you later.  

(If you believe your child is not getting enough nutritious food—and trying to compromise with your co-parent isn’t working—talk to your family law professional.) 

Differences in culture 

“You need to be respectful of everyone's culture,” Andrea explains. “Try to find that compromise so the child doesn't feel like, ‘I'm bad because I'm this or I'm that.’ You have to remember the kids are made up of 50% your DNA and 50% your co-parent’s DNA.” 

If your co-parent doesn’t respect your culture, it can be deeply hurtful as well as frustrating. But “try not to put the kids in the middle as much as possible,” recommends Andrea, “because it's not [about] them.” 

Differences in values 

This one is so tricky—it’s not concrete, but it is crucial.  

“Kids are sponges,” says Andrea. “Modeling behavior is probably one of the biggest and most important functions you have as a parent.” 

For example, if your co-parent doesn’t treat people with respect, then you might worry about your child learning values you feel are inappropriate.  

“If you want them to treat people with respect,” says Andrea, “try to treat everybody you know with respect.” 

If Mom and Dad fight about the other parent’s values, “The only thing that I can do is suggest that the child go to therapy,” says Kathy. “I work really closely with the therapist to see if there’s something more to that. Is the child being affected by either one of these households to his or her detriment?” 

Whenever possible, focus on values you and your co-parent share. That will help your child feel like they have a firmer moral foundation. 

Unknown differences that are stressing your kids out 

For some parents, their kids come home feeling stressed or anxious, and they won’t talk about it. If it takes a while for your child to start relaxing in your calm and comfortable home, then you can guess that something is different. 

“There could be a whole host of reasons why a child’s feeling that way,” says Kathy. “But the only way that you can help them cope is by getting therapy.”  

It’s tempting to ask your kids a lot of questions to figure out what’s wrong, but that can backfire—some children clam up even more. Other times, kids simply have a hard time articulating what bothers them, or they might want to protect their other parent from getting in trouble. 

Whether your child needs better coping skills or a major change, the best recourse is taking your child to a therapist. Turning to a professional third party removes the tension between parents from the equation, which might make it easier for the child to open up. 

Differences in finances 

If one parent has significantly more money than the other, it can confuse the children. Personal belongings, gifts, and vacations might be completely different between their two houses. Even the physical houses might show a stark contrast.  

So what do you say to your child, if you earn less? Here’s what Andrea suggests: “Every job gives us different opportunities, and both of us are giving you different perspectives on how to see the world.” 

Andrea adds, “It’s not about the quantity of money that you’re spending, it’s about the quality of time you’re spending with your child. Maybe one parent earns less, but they do that quality game night with the kids, and they remember it. Or they have a movie night, and they make popcorn. Or they sit around and make s’mores.” 

Things like expensive vacations don’t always have a lasting influence. Andrea explains, “You find other ways to spend time together that are just as meaningful in creating memories.” 

How to respond to co-parenting lifestyle differences  

You have three main options for responding to differences (or any disagreement, really): 

  • Tolerate: You can tolerate the difference, even though it’s uncomfortable. (Like knowing that your kid eats microwave pizza rolls.) 
  • Meet in the middle: You can adjust the difference so that it still exists, but it’s more tolerable. (Like the non-homework parent picking up slack somewhere else.) 
  • Get outside help: Or you can move towards change by working with a therapist, a parenting coordinator, and/or your attorney. (Like if your child is still anxious about the differences, despite everything you’ve tried.) 
Man and woman meeting with professional.

Don’t have a parenting coordinator? Talk to your attorney 

If you need extra help dealing with differences, you might benefit from working with a parenting coordinator. Parenting coordinators are generally ordered by the judge to take your case. But if you don’t have one, your attorney can request that the court appoint a parenting coordinator to your case.  

3 ways to help your child cope with co-parenting differences 

Here’s our three biggest takeaways for dealing with differences.  

1. Discuss the differences calmly  

Kids often want to talk about the differences between their homes. Your response can help make transitions easier.  

If you get upset, your child will feel that these differences are a problem—even if they wouldn’t feel that way on their own. So unless it’s an issue of safety, try to tolerate the difference.  

Try saying, “Your Mom and I have different opinions about this issue, and that’s ok.” Then explain your opinion. This way, you’re normalizing the fact that different people parent differently—and that realization relieves a lot of stress for the child. 

If your child remains stressed about the difference, then it might be a bigger problem that needs to be addressed. 

Kathy shares her mantra: “Always tell the children, ‘I love you. Your Dad loves you.’ You always start with that. Never talk negatively about the other parent.” 

Here’s an example Kathy provided, as a response to a child complaining about different bedtimes: 

“Thanks for letting me know. No matter what happens, you know we both love you, and we both care about you. If Daddy thinks that you need to go to bed at 6 p.m. to get a good night's rest, then that's what he's going to do, because he cares about you. But having heard what you said, I will talk to Daddy about this. However, you need to do what Daddy says.” 

2. Find a therapist for your child 

Shana’s number one piece of advice: “If your child is struggling or caught in the middle, get them someone to talk to. Therapy is a safe place where the child can talk about their feelings instead of bottling it all up or exploding. I see a lot of changes made as a result of the child speaking up. The child gains tools to deal not only with their parents’ separation but also school, friends, anxiety, etc.” 

Kathy feels the same way. “Therapists are really handy in that respect. The child doesn't need to go there for years. It just lets the therapist identify what, in these two vastly different households, has an impact or an effect on the child or children.” 

3. See the world through your child’s eyes 

“My biggest advice,” says Kathy, “is if you could just step back and look at the issues through your child's eyes—not your lens, not Daddy's lens, but the child's lens—and keep focused on what's best for your child, then you'll be okay. And your child will be okay.” 

Making it easier for your child to adjust between homes 

Whether you tolerate taco night, swap some duties with your co-parent, or contact your attorney, it’s all about doing what’s best for your child. When you deal with differences strategically, you’re making it easier for your child to transition between both homes, creating a stabler and more comfortable life for the one you care about most.