Co-Parenting Guide: Tips & Fundamentals for Healthy Communication After Divorce
Parenting is hard, but when you add the emotions and challenges associated with parenting after a divorce or separation, it can sometimes feel almost impossible to do well.
At OurFamilyWizard, we understand the many challenges of co-parenting and built this guide to provide useful tips that can help you be more successful in your co-parenting.
We know this guide alone won't make co-parenting easy, but we hope that some of these insights will help make co-parenting less stressful and more rewarding for your whole family.
Here, we have compiled information that we have gathered throughout our years working with co-parents as well as other valuable resources from experts around the country to educate and support your efforts in maintaining healthy co-parenting in your family.
What exactly is co-parenting?
For parents who are considering separation, the first question that comes to mind for many is how will you share the responsibility of raising children when living apart from their other parent? This is where co-parenting comes in.
Co-parenting is the process of sharing the responsibilities of raising children with a former spouse or partner. It's sometimes referred to as shared parenting or joint parenting, and it frequently occurs after parents go through a divorce or separation.
While it's not uncommon for friction to exist at times between co-parents, at its best, co-parenting is a cooperative arrangement in which parents work together as partners in raising their children and always upholding their best interests. As covered in the OurFamilyWizard blog, co-parenting should give children a sense of stability even if life isn't always perfect.
"Co-parenting is chasing the desire to raise children who can look back with a fondness and appreciation for the effort their parents expended for their benefit."
What does it mean to be a co-parent?
To be a co-parent means that you are sharing the responsibility of raising your children with a former spouse or partner. There's no precise technique to follow in order to be a co-parent, but it's undeniable that consistent, thoughtful effort on the part of both parents to put their children's needs first is critical to healthy and effective co-parenting partnerships.
Is co-parenting a good idea?
Many divorced or separated parents maintain the responsibility of raising their children together even after separation or divorce, making co-parenting not only a good idea but a necessary one for many families. In fact, there is research that supports that regular time spent with each parent from an early age, including overnight visits, has a positive impact on a child's relationships with both parents individually.
Co-parenting as we describe here is not the only way that parents can work together to raise their children from separate homes. Sometimes, other arrangements like parallel parenting might be a more realistic option depending on the situation. We'll get into greater detail about parallel parenting later on in this guide.
However, there are other situations in which parents may find it impossible to work together or even interact, especially if safety is an issue. If you are unable to maintain a safe relationship with your co-parent or feel your child's safety is at risk while in their sole care, you should speak to a legal professional who can evaluate your situation and offer expert guidance on how to proceed while protecting yourself and your child.
What is normal co-parenting?
Because there are no “normal” families, there really is no “normal” version of co-parenting. Most co-parents work to find an arrangement that functions well for their family's specific situation. Hiccups and pitfalls might interfere with co-parenting efforts from time to time, so it's always important to keep your mindset focused on the long-term health of the arrangement so that it continuously promotes the wellbeing of your children.
Co-parenting will look different for different families. Yet a foundation of respect and cooperation between co-parents is such a crucial aspect of healthy, successful co-parenting.
"Working sincerely and thoughtfully with your co-parent for the good of your children will be an ongoing endeavor. More marathon than sprint, your co-parenting will most likely require periodic reassessment."
As we detail in our blog, it's absolutely normal to assess and re-assess your family's situation over time instead of forcing one arrangement to work forever. Let yourself consider where you might need to adjust aspects of your co-parenting arrangement to fit the needs of your children at different points in their life.
Basic Guidelines for Effective Co-Parenting
What should a co-parent not do?
When you are new to co-parenting, you may be concerned about handling every situation perfectly for the sake of your kids. The truth is that it will take time for your whole family to get used to this new arrangement.
It may be difficult and challenging at times, so don't get too bogged down on ensuring everything is perfect. Start with loving your kids and treating your co-parent with respect. Maintaining a cordial relationship with your co-parent can help to influence your co-parenting to be more positive overall.
Another behavior to avoid in co-parenting is to burden your children with conflict or stress stemming from your co-parenting. If you’re feeling anxiety or frustration, do your best to shield your kids from feeling those emotions coming from you.
Additionally, your child should never be made to be the messenger between yourself and your co-parent. Co-parents should never use their children as messengers, no matter what. In this article from our blog, we describe how this can have negative consequences for your child's emotional and mental health. Always keep that in mind and work towards finding a communication solution that doesn't put your children in the middle.
- Don’t talk negatively about your co-parent to your children.
- Don’t ask your child to take sides.
- Don’t keep your child from their co-parent out of anger or spite. The only legitimate reason to withhold a child is for their safety.
- Don’t as your child to “spy” on the co-parent.
- Don’t be inconsistent with the mutually agreed-upon parenting plan.
- Don’t let promises fall through.
What is the best way to co-parent?
While there is no simple answer to this question and every co-parenting situation is different, there are a number of positive co-parenting strategies that can help you keep your situation healthy and manageable. In our blog, we lay out ten basic tips for co-parenting. Here are the top two tips from our article:
Co-Parenting Tip #1: Your Children's Needs Come First
Whatever your issues are with your co-parent, put your children’s well-being on the front burner, always.
Divorcing parents often say this is the hardest concept to remember, especially if the divorce is messy. But making your children’s security and sense of stability a priority is key to a “successful” divorce. So do whatever it takes to place them first, even if this means working with a family therapist to help you and your co-parent bring the conversation back to what is best for the children when your past marital issues start to heat up the discussion.
Co-Parenting Tip #2: Prioritize Communication for Effective Co-Parenting
One of the most basic co-parenting rules is finding an effective communication strategy that works for your family. That means being realistic about your own strengths and limitations.
If face-to-face discussions with your co-parent are not possible at this time (one or both of you are too angry or upset to talk in person reasonably), agree that speaking “live” just isn’t working for you right now. You may have to use other, less emotional means for sharing information about the children such as by way of an online co-parenting communication tool.
Whatever you decide to do, make sure your communication about your children’s welfare remains open. Do not shut these conversations down in a move to punish your co-parent. Not sharing information regarding the children only hurts the children, and it does not set a good example when they see adults using the “silent treatment” as a weapon against each other.
Once you've gotten into the groove of co-parenting, make sure to reevaluate your communication strategies periodically. See if you and your co-parent have reached the point where you can communicate in person without upsetting each other. The ultimate goal is to get back to speaking terms, as it sends a positive message to the children that you can communicate civilly as co-parents.
It is well worth reading the rest of the article for the other eight tips. In addition, the OurFamilyWizard blog offers an extensive library of content related to successful co-parenting that will help you through your co-parenting journey. You can always find our latest blogs here and subscribe to our newsletter to ensure you're kept up-to-date on our most recent articles.
What are some common co-parenting rules?
Clear rules are important to agree upon and establish upfront in order to co-parent effectively. By establishing rules right away, both you and your co-parent are able to operate within defined boundaries which could help to lower the risk of conflict in the future.
- Follow your parenting plan: Start by working to draft a parenting plan that serves your children’s needs as well as leaves you and your co-parent feeling satisfied. The happier you are with the outcome of your parenting plan, the easier it will be to stick to it.
- Have a plan for handling changes: One-off adjustments are inevitable from time to time, as is the need for long-term revisions to your parenting plan as your children age. Have a plan for handling these kinds of changes before you’re faced with them.
- Work towards ending conflict: Ongoing conflict can prevent effective co-parenting. Always work to find a positive way to defuse and end any conflict that may arise.
- No badmouthing: Never speak negatively about your co-parent in front of your kids. Save any difficult feelings to share with a trusted friend or professional.
- Keep in mind what matters most: Maintaining your children’s wellbeing should guide any decisions you make that could impact your family, always.
What guidelines should co-parents follow for communication?
Effective communication is a key aspect of effective co-parenting. Here are some tips from the OurFamilyWizard blog that can help you communicate effectively with your co-parent:
- Share important details: This includes everything from your children’s schedules to their important medical details. Keeping up-to-date information in a place that’s easily accessible to both households will reduce the need for you or your co-parent to keep asking each other for information all the time
- Have discussions at the right time: Save important conversations for moments in which you can both be fully present and focused. And don’t forget to keep your children out of earshot of these conversations.
- Let go of assumptions: Give your co-parent the chance to share their ideas with you without jumping to conclusions immediately. If something they’re saying isn’t clear, ask questions to help you understand the details.
- Listen attentively: Whether you’re speaking face-to-face, talking over the phone, or sending messages back and forth, take in any information you’re receiving with care. Pay attention so you don’t miss any key points.
- Don’t respond in haste: Give yourself time to process whatever it is you’re learning or being asked, even if it means waiting a while to give your response.
What do you do if your co-parent is being uncooperative?
Lack of cooperation can be one of the most frustrating behaviors to encounter in co-parenting, but it also has the potential to put kids into unhealthy situations if not addressed carefully. If you are concerned that cooperation is lacking in your co-parenting, the first thing to do is to assess the situation. The OurFamilyWizard blog offers a few suggestions for how to address situations in which your co-parent is not engaging:
- The first item you'll need to determine is the extent to which your co-parent refuses to engage. That's because there are many different levels of “uncooperative ex” that require different approaches. When determining the breadth of your co-parent’s refusal, it’s helpful to begin by asking yourself a couple of questions:
- Number one, is your ex actually refusing to co-parent? Or are you simply experiencing disagreements that normally occurred during your parenting pre-separation? Especially in the beginning, your co-parenting relationship will encounter occasional bumps in the road, so learn to differentiate between growing pains and a truly uncooperative partner.
- Number two, ask yourself if the lack of engagement is consistent across the co-parenting board or if it is isolated to specific topics. Does your co-parent refuse to engage with parenting time modification requests, for example, but communicates openly about expense reimbursements? Are they actively involved in scheduling holidays but avoid medical care discussions at all costs? Determining where exactly the lack of cooperation resides is vital to planning your next steps.
If your ex is refusing to co-parent across the board and refusing to follow the details outlined in your parenting agreement, it may be time to consult a legal professional.
Handling Co-Parenting Issues
What is the difference between co-parenting and parallel parenting?
Co-parenting isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. When parents constantly find themselves in high-conflict situations, it simply may not be possible to co-parent in the more "traditional" sense. If conflict constantly gets in the way of your co-parenting attempts, consider adopting a different arrangement for your shared parenting. Parallel parenting is one such option.
So what is parallel parenting? As defined in the OurFamilyWizard blog, parallel parenting allows for parents facing high levels of conflict to maintain their collective parenting responsibilities while disconnecting from each other on a personal level.
"Parallel parenting helps parents attain a level of independence that they may not have felt previously while helping to build a framework for healthy boundaries in shared parenting moving forward."
In a co-parenting arrangement, parents may work together more closely when it comes to making everyday decisions for their children. They may also be less strict about how they manage communication.
In a parallel parenting arrangement, parents might not work as closely together and make everyday decisions for their children independently. While major decisions might still require both parents, daily decisions like what the kids eat for lunch or what activities they do on the weekends will be made by whichever parent they are with at a given time.
Also, the way co-parents communicate might be more strict in a parallel parenting arrangement, often limiting their discussions to writing to reduce direct contact. By limiting direct contact, parallel parenting allows parents to disengage from each other while still raising children in a healthy environment.
Parallel parenting might seem like a daunting arrangement, as it does require a little more advanced planning. But constant conflict is untenable, making a solution like parallel parenting a worthwhile avenue to explore.
What does it mean to set boundaries in co-parenting?
Setting healthy boundaries is a key aspect of effective co-parenting. You are building a new kind of relationship now as co-parents, so you might not always know where to draw the line with what you should say or how you should act around each other. Boundaries help you navigate how to behave around your co-parent and vice versa.
To build initial boundaries in your co-parenting, follow the guidelines set out in your parenting plan. Your plan lays out the responsibilities that you must meet for your children, giving you something to fall back on with the decisions you make. From there, observe how things are going to consider what other boundaries might be helpful such as limiting how you communicate or share information to a specific method.
You might also consider emotional boundaries in relation to positive strategies to maintain your mental health in relation to co-parenting. For instance, making it a boundary to not ask questions about your co-parent's personal life can be a healthy way to maintain your mental health.
With clear boundaries in place, you're less likely to run into conflict. If your co-parent cannot follow the parenting plan and stick to boundaries, continue to hold to it yourself. If you find that you're feeling concerned about your co-parent's disregard for boundaries and are not sure what to do about it, talk to a legal or mental health professional. They will be able to offer expert guidance to help you navigate whatever situation you're facing.
Improving Your Co-Parenting
How can I improve my co-parenting?
Co-parenting is often a new arrangement for many parents after divorce or separation, and the dynamics of it can be very complex. In the OurFamilyWizard blog, we detail four best practices that can be very helpful to keep in mind when seeking to improve your co-parenting. These four best practices of co-parenting are:
- Above all, keep your kids first: As basic as this rule may seem, it's one worth repeating. No matter how you may be feeling, it's crucial that you always keep your children and their needs first and foremost in your priorities and actions relating to your family. Show your love and support for your kids every day in your words and your actions.
- Commit to respect: Recognizing your co-parent's role in your child's life is a critical best practice in co-parenting. You may still have your differences, yet when it comes to your child, maintaining a degree of respect is vital.
- Commit to cooperation: Show your children that you and your co-parent are a team working together to do what's best for them. Even though your differences as individuals, you and your co-parent should work hard to demonstrate to your kids that you're both in it for them.
- Commit to communication: Whether you're actively co-parenting or in more of a parallel parenting arrangement, some level of communication must be sustained for the sake of your children. This means sharing crucial medical information, school and extracurricular schedules, details about significant incidents in your child's daily life, and other critical facts relating to each of your children.
The way that different families implement these best practices will look different depending on the situation, but they are all important measures to keep in mind as your family moves forward in your co-parenting arrangement.
Are there co-parenting worksheets available for download?
Yes! We've created a worksheet to help parents take stock of the state of their co-parenting communication. Organized by topics that can frequently incite conflict, we’ve provided simple questions parents can ask themselves to begin to assess their communication strategies. Here you can download our worksheet for brainstorming goals and areas of improvement for shared parenting.
Special Co-Parenting Cases
How do I co-parent when I find my former spouse or partner to be difficult?
Sometimes, certain behaviors you dealt with when you were in a relationship with someone become more painful to deal with once you've separated. This can include everything from handling a co-parent's inclinations towards being disorganized to expressing narcissistic behaviors.
Forging a new partnership as co-parents won't always be easy, and it may be particularly challenging to mitigate behaviors coming from your co-parent that you see as obnoxious, negative, or even unhealthy. Take your new situation one day at a time, handling new situations as they come. It may be helpful to keep a co-parenting journal for yourself to track behaviors and how you handled different situations, whether your tactics were successful or not.
If you encounter a situation that you're having a hard time overcoming or just can't seem to figure out what to do about, talk to a professional who can better guide you in how to navigate it. Co-parenting when the other parent is being difficult isn't easy, and you want to make the best decisions for your children every time, even when faced with a great challenge. Depending on the behavior you're questioning, speaking to a legal or mental health professional who specializes in divorce or separation can clarify your questions and leave you with a clearer idea of how to move forward.
How do you co-parent while in a relationship?
No matter how long you have been separated or divorced, it can be challenging to face a reality in which your former spouse or partner has a new partner. In contrast, it can also be tough to have a new partner but continue seeing and communicating with your former partner. Many co-parents not only face these realities, but they find a way to make them work.
A new partner entering the lives of your children is a big deal, as this person could play a prominent role in their lives now and into the future. If you feel that your new partner could become a significant part of your child's day-to-day, it's healthy to find a positive way to approach co-parenting with this person in the mix.
Start by finding the right time and way to introduce your new partner to your children. Inform your co-parent of this plan before your introduction as to be transparent about the fact that your kids are meeting someone who you feel could be a figure in their lives moving forward. As painful as it could be to have this conversation with your co-parent, keeping them in the loop is a positive way to build and maintain accountability in your co-parenting.
"Respect is key on the part of everyone involved—you, your co-parent, and your new partner."
As described in the OurFamilyWizard blog, co-parenting should be seen as a partnership, not an ongoing battle. Keep your child's needs at heart, and be sure that your new partner always does the same.
As your new relationship begins to progress and your new partner deepens their connection with your children, you may want to look deeper into the topic of blended families for more on healthy ways of incorporating a new partner into your family and even blending your family with theirs if they have children, too.
Resources to Support Co-Parenting
Where can I find some of the best co-parenting resources?
While co-parenting can be hard, luckily there are many great resources available to help you navigate and manage your journey. Here are some of the best co-parenting resources that we've found.
Blogs can offer you quick tips and insights about co-parenting that you might not have considered. The OurFamilyWizard blog is an excellent place to start when seeking basic guidance or overviews on all kinds of co-parenting-related topics.
There are plenty of videos online with parents offering tips and perspectives based on their own co-parenting experiences. TED Talk recently featured a great talk titled, The beautiful, hard work of co-parenting, in which one co-parent shares his views on why he sees co-parenting as a way of "showing up for your family, consistently and lovingly."
More than solely focused on co-parenting, there are also great videos offering important insights that can apply to any relationship, like this video featuring Dr. Brené Brown speaking on the toxic behavior of blame.
Parenting education can be a very effective tool to help new co-parents find a stride in their new arrangement. They offer a structured environment for you to learn from experts on the best ways to make co-parenting work and to reduce excessive stress on your children.
Parent education may be required as part of your divorce or separation process, but you can often elect to take courses on your own. Also, many parenting education resources offer their courses online. Examples of parenting education courses available online include the Center for Divorce Education's Children in Between Online and the Between Two Homes Online Course.
Family Law and Mental Health Practitioners
Sometimes, working with a professional is the best possible route to take, especially if you're faced with a question or situation that you just can't decide how to handle on your own. Attorneys, mediators, coordinators, counselors, therapists, and other family law and mental health practitioners are an expert source of guidance for handling all kinds of co-parenting-related matters. They can offer assistance specific to your situation, which you won't find by simply reading tips online. If you are looking to work with a practitioner, check out our Regional Resources Directory to find family law or mental health practitioners in your area.
Note: This information is meant to provide a general overview of common concepts related to co-parenting after divorce or separation. Please refer to your attorney or other family law practitioners in your area to provide guidance specific to your situation.