How to Keep Your Cool When You’re Upset With Your Co-Parent
Ever been upset with your co-parent? Some parents feel that it’s built into the co-parenting experience. But keeping your cool—even when you feel defensive, hurt, or goaded—is a crucial co-parenting skill. It helps you protect your kids, look better in court, avoid embarrassment, and ultimately achieve your co-parenting goals.
These simple strategies can help you regulate your emotions even in the most frustrating co-parenting situations. Whether you tend towards anxiety or anger, these little techniques can help you communicate calmly and make clear-headed decisions.
(Practice them when you’re feeling neutral and in moderately frustrating situations first, so that they feel natural and doable.)
When do co-parents need to keep their cool?
Situation #1: Keep your cool in court
"It will always work in your favor to have a judge or mediator view you as a parent who keeps their child's interests top of mind by staying calm, even when emotions run high,” says Danielle Kestnbaum, J.D., M.S.W.
The judge is specifically considering whether you can promote a healthy relationship between your child and their other parent. This is a crucial factor in decisions about parenting time and decision-making responsibilities for your child (aka physical and legal custody). A mediator is also considering how you will come across to a judge, as they work to help you and your co-parent understand the strength of your positions.
“If you deliver your information with a level head,” says Danielle, “the court will have an easier time believing you can support your child’s relationship with their other parent. If you’re ranting and raving about your co-parent, the judge will have a harder time believing you can handle it.”
But being in court, even more than mediation, is an intense experience, and emotions often run high. It’s one of the most difficult times to stay unruffled. Read on for strategies that you can use before and during a court appearance to help you calm your nervous system, so you don’t lose your head.
Situation #2: Protect your kids from sadness and stress
If you have pending litigation or a court date that will establish or modify custody, don’t talk to your children about it. If you struggle to regulate your emotions toward your co-parent, those emotions might pop out when you’re talking to your kid.
The courts don’t want you to involve the kids in this process at all. At this point, everything is speculative—so it’s best to regulate your emotions and avoid sharing them with your kids. Talk with your children about any parenting time changes, calmly, after those changes are official.
Sharing these emotions with your children can transfer your anxiety to them, and children of divorce already experience significant stress. They have strong emotions of their own to process and manage, especially at moments of transition like parenting time exchanges. That’s a consistent time when you interact with your co-parent—i.e., a recurring opportunity to lose your cool.
Co-parenting emotions run deep. It’s not an easy task or a simple ask to just “keep your emotions in check.” If it was that easy, everyone would do it (and we wouldn’t be writing this article).
Part of providing a stable home environment for your kids is to shield them from those painful emotions. Scroll down for a list of specific, concrete things you can do to make that shielding easier and more manageable.
Situation #3: Avoid embarrassing your kids in front of their friends
“If you and your co-parent attend the same events,” says Rebecca Perra, J.D. and mediator, “it can be difficult to stay cordial, especially if there’s conflict behind the scenes. But if you lash out in public, it will only embarrass your child.
“If tensions get too heated, you may even end up going back to court and then be prohibited from attending baseball games or karate classes.”
If you can stay calm and polite—even when you interact with your former partner—then you can save your child from shame and even guilt. (If you and your co-parent get into a fight, your child might feel like it’s their fault, since they’re the reason you’re in the same room.
Instead, keep your cool by focusing on the graduation or birthday party. It’s not about the other parent—it’s about your kid. Even if your co-parent does something you don’t like at the party, ask yourself, “What would my child want me to do?”
“It’s so much easier on the children if their friends don’t witness the tension or conflict between you and your co-parent,” says Danielle “If they do glimpse it, their friends might ask your kids questions, and your kids shouldn’t have to field the fallout of your birthday party behavior.”
Situation #4: Communicate effectively with your co-parent
No matter how tumultuous your emotions are, staying calm can make you a more effective communicator. Keeping your cool is a strategic decision when trying to coordinate with your co-parent (whether you’re talking in person or sending a message).
Co-parenting conflict can be a vicious cycle. When your co-parent says something that upsets you, you’re more likely to respond with something that upsets your co-parent, which makes them more likely to...
Someone needs to pause the sequence and respond differently.
If you pause and shift the tone, you’ll reap many benefits, including this one: You’re more likely to get the result you want from the conversation. If you ask for a parenting time swap in an angry tone, your co-parent may get defensive and refuse the request. If you keep your cool and ask in a neutral tone, your co-parent might shrug and say “sure.”
Worst-case scenario, let’s say they refuse you rudely. If you keep good documentation—by using a co-parenting app, for example—then you can feel calm and comfortable knowing their rude reply is on the record.
If you use OurFamilyWizard, the built-in ToneMeter™ will light up when you write a message that could cause conflict, giving you a beat to reassess and rewrite. If you’re communicating in person, you might need some of the tactics below.
Strategies, tactics, and quick tips for keeping your cool in frustrating co-parenting situations
It’s easy to get upset in complicated, sensitive, emotionally charged situations. But practicing these strategies and techniques makes it a lot easier to stay calm when it counts.
Be kind to yourself
Validate your emotions
It’s important to control your emotions—but that does not mean your feelings aren’t valid. In fact, it’s easier to tolerate emotions after we acknowledge, understand, and accept them.
1. Label your emotion. Pause and notice your emotion so you can figure out what it is. If your co-parent is late to an exchange again, what do you feel? Anger? Annoyance? Frustration? Exhaustion? A hearty combination of angry annoyance and frustrated exhaustion? Get as specific as you can—identifying the feeling makes it feel a bit less nebulous and overwhelming.
2. Experience your emotion. I know, we just said to keep it in check—but stuffing it down instantly doesn’t work well. Take a beat and just feel it.
3. Validate your emotion. Tell yourself that it makes sense to feel that way, because _______. Often, when we feel strong negative feelings, we get frustrated with ourselves because we think we shouldn’t feel so emotional or overwhelmed. But feelings are a basic fact of human existence, and most of them make sense in context. Be kind to yourself.
4. Consciously focus on something else. If we started this section with this advice, you’d probably scoff. But it’s a lot easier to shift focus after you’ve dealt with the emotion, rather than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist or just leaning into it.
Give yourself compassion
Self-compassion might sound cheesy, but it’s incredibly powerful. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to a friend.
If your friend was deeply hurt, you wouldn’t tell her to snap out of it or stop crying. You wouldn’t tell him that he deserved it or that his reaction is stupid. You’d validate their emotions, comfort them, and then help distract them. You deserve that, too.
Calm your body
With visualization, you can imagine an image—like a tranquil beach or a peaceful meadow—that feels comforting and relaxing. You can use guided imagery, think of your own, visualize a goal, or practice compassion.
Visualization calms your fight-or-flight reflex—in other words, it makes you less likely to feel like fighting with your co-parent.
This one works in almost any situation, even court (since you have to breath anyway). Box breathing calms your body physically, again taking you out of fight-or-flight mode, and it calms your mind as well.
It’s very simple:
Breathe in for a count of 4.
Hold your breath for a count of 4.
Breathe out for a count of 4.
Hold your breath for a count of 4.
Exercise creates a chemical change in your brain that slows the production of stress hormones and stimulates the production of endorphins, which lift your mood and help you feel relaxed. Exercising regularly has a long-term effect and can even treat anxiety and depression.
Ground your body with the 54321 exercise
This technique is helpful when you feel so overwhelmed with emotion—or even panic—that you feel disconnected from yourself and the world around you. It’s a quick way to reconnect with your body, experience your surroundings, and shift your focus away from the emotion so you feel stable and grounded.
5 – Notice five things you can see
4 – Notice four things you can touch
3 – Notice three things you can hear
2 – Notice two things you can smell
1 – Find one thing you can taste
Progressive muscle relaxation
With this exercise, you’ll notice and relax different areas of your body, one at a time. Progressive muscle relaxation can relieve stress and anxiety so effectively that it helps ward off the serious medical problems they can cause, like depression and heart disease. Follow these steps or listen to this guided relaxation.
Drop your shoulders and loosen your jaw
The simplest technique of all. We tend to hold a lot of tension in our shoulders and jaw, and when you deliberately release that tension, it sends a message to your body that it’s ok to let go.
Other ways to change your focus
Pop outside for a few breaths of fresh air to encourage deep breathing and give yourself a change of environment.
Dunk your face in cold water or even just run cold water over your wrists. These techniques provide distracting physical sensations and help calm your billowing emotions.
Chewing gum can help relieve the tension in your muscles and help you feel more relaxed when you’re stressed out.
Added bonus: It also helps you concentrate, so if you’re trying to work but you’re too distracted by thinking about your former partner, gum can do double duty.
Stay calm and co-parent on
Co-parenting isn’t easy, but with practice, you can co-parent calmly—especially when it matters most.