Co-Parenting Tips for Divorced Parents

Co-parenting, also called joint parenting or shared parenting, is rarely easy, especially if you have a contentious relationship with your ex-partner. Feeling concerned about your ex’s parenting abilities, stressed out about child support or other financial issues, worn down by conflict, or that you’ll never be able to overcome all the resentments in your relationship are just some of the concerns you may face, reports Help Guide. (See Help Guide: “Co-Parenting Tips for Divorced Parents: Making Joint Custody Work after a Divorce or Separation.” (last visited December 27, 2018).

But co-parenting amicably with your ex can give your children the stability, security, and close relationships with both parents that they need. Says psychiatrist Mary Cole, Ph.D., “even if the marriage was not a forever fit, each person has the power to choose a co-parenting partnership that reflects and expresses their best self.” See Cole, Mary for “Conscious Co-Parenting after Divorce.” (last visited December 27, 2018).

Below are tips for co-parenting success and some pitfalls to avoid at all costs.

Co-parenting tip 1: Set hurt and anger aside

Successful co-parenting means that your own emotions—any anger, resentment, or hurt—must take a back seat to the needs of your children. Admittedly, setting aside such strong feelings may be the hardest part of learning to work cooperatively with your ex, but it’s also the most vital.

Separating feelings from behavior

It’s okay to be hurt and angry, but your feelings don’t have to dictate your behavior. Instead, let what’s best for your kids motivate your actions.

Get your feelings out somewhere else. Never vent to your child. Friends, family members, therapists, or even a loving pet can all make good listeners when you need to get negative feelings off your chest. Exercise or working in the garden or on a home project can also provide a healthy outlet for letting off steam.

Stay kid-focused. If you feel angry or resentful, try to remember why you need to act with purpose and grace: your child’s best interests are at stake. If your anger feels overwhelming, looking at a photograph of your child or asking your child how their day at school was may help you calm down.

Don’t put your children in the middle

You may never completely lose all of your resentment or bitterness about your break up, but what you can do is compartmentalize those feelings and remind yourself that they are your issues and not your child’s. Resolve to keep your issues with your ex away from your children.

Never use kids as messengers. When you use your children to convey messages to your co-parent, it puts them in the center of your conflict. The goal is to keep your child out of your relationship issues, so call or e-mail your ex directly.

Keep your issues to yourself. Never say negative things about your ex to your children, or make them feel like they have to choose. Your child has a right to a relationship with their other parent that is free of your influence.

Avoid Ex-bashing. Advises psychologist Deborah Serani: “Commit to positive talk around the house. Make it a rule to frown upon your children talking disrespectfully about your [e]x even though it may be music to your ears.” See Serani, Deborah, Psy.D. for Psychology Today: “The Do’s and Don’ts of Co-Parenting Well.” (last visited December 27, 2018). Dr. Cole agrees. “When your harshly criticize your [] ex-spouse in front of your children, you’re attacking their DNA. You, as their Mom or Dad, will always be a part of your child. If your child hears you blame, shame or demonize each other, they can internalize those messages.”

Tip 2: Improve communication with your co-parent

Peaceful, consistent, and purposeful communication with your ex is essential to the success of co-parenting—even though it may seem absolutely impossible. It all begins with your mindset. Think about communication with your ex as having the highest purpose: your child’s well-beingBefore having contact with your ex, ask yourself how your actions will affect your child, and resolve to conduct yourself with dignity. Make your child the focal point of every discussion you have with your ex-partner.

Co-parenting communication methods

However you choose to have contact, the following methods can help you initiate and maintain effective communication: 

Set a business-like tone. Approach the relationship with your ex as a business partnership where your “business” is your children’s well-being. Speak or write to your ex as you would a colleague—with cordiality, respect, and neutrality. Relax and talk slowly.

Make requests. Instead of making statements, which can be misinterpreted as demands, try framing as much as you can as a request. Requests can begin with, “Would you be willing to…?” or “Can we try…?”

Listen. Communicating starts with listening. Even if you end up disagreeing with the other parent, you should at least be able to convey to your ex that you’ve understood their point of view. Use affirmative language and repeat portions of what the ex is saying so that they understand you are hearing them.

Show restraint. Keep in mind that communicating with one another is going to be necessary for the length of your children’s entire childhood—if not longer. As Dr. Cole observes, “the parents who are coming to work with me – before, after or during a divorce – they are in each other’s lives forever. It can be hard or easy, discourteous or respectful, rigid or compromising.” Knowing that there is a long road ahead, you can train yourself to not overreact to your ex, and over time you can become numb to the buttons they try to push.

Commit to meeting/talking consistently. Though it may be extremely difficult in the early stages, frequent communication with your ex will convey the message to your children that you and your co-parent are a united front.

Quickly relieve stress in the moment. It may seem impossible to stay calm when dealing with a difficult ex-spouse who’s hurt you in the past or has a real knack for pushing your buttons. But by practicing quick stress relief  techniques, you can learn to stay in control when the pressure builds.

Tip 3: Co-parent as a team

Parenting is full of decisions you’ll have to make with your ex, whether you like each other or not. Cooperating and communicating without blow-ups or bickering makes decision-making far easier on everybody. If you shoot for consistency, geniality, and teamwork with your co-parent, the details of child-rearing decisions tend to fall into place.

Aim for co-parenting consistency

It’s healthy for children to be exposed to different perspectives and learn to be flexible, but they also need to know they’re living under the same basic set of expectations at each home.

Rules. Rules should be consistent and agreed upon at both households, writes Dr. Serani. “Running a tight ship creates a sense of security and predictability for children. So no matter where your child is, he or she knows that that certain rules will be enforced.” Watch for slippery slopes. Especially in the stressful times, children will attempt to test rules and the parents who create and enforce them. This is the importance of what Serani calls a “united front” – one set of rules – in co-parenting.

Discipline. Try to follow similar systems of consequences for broken rules, even if the infraction didn’t happen under your roof. So, if your kids have lost TV privileges while at your ex’s house, follow through with the restriction. On the bright side, the same can be done for rewarding good behavior.

Schedule. Where you can, aim for some consistency in your children’s schedules. Making meals, homework, and bedtimes similar can go a long way toward your child’s adjustment to having two homes.

Making important decisions as co-parents

Major decisions need to be made by both you and your ex. Being open, honest, and straightforward about important issues is crucial to both your relationship with your ex and your children’s well-being.

Medical needs. Whether you decide to designate one parent to communicate primarily with health care professionals or attend medical appointments together, keep one another in the loop.

Education. Be sure to let the school know about changes in your child’s living situation. Speak with your ex ahead of time about class schedules, extra-curricular activities, and parent-teacher conferences, and be polite to each other at school or sports events.

Financial issues. The cost of maintaining two separate households can strain your attempts to be effective co-parents. Set a realistic budget and keep accurate records for shared expenses. Be gracious if your ex provides opportunities for your children that you cannot provide.

Tip 4: Make transitions and visitation easier

The actual move from one household to another, whether it happens every few days, certain weekends, or on holidays can be a very hard time for children. Every reunion with one parent is also a separation with the other. While transitions are unavoidable, there are many things you can do to help make them easier on your children.

When your child leaves

As kids prepare to leave your house for your ex’s, try to stay positive and deliver them on time.

Help children anticipate change. Remind kids they’ll be leaving for the other parent’s house a day or two before the visit.

Pack in advance. Depending on their age, help children pack their bags well before they leave so that they don’t forget anything they’ll miss. Encourage packing familiar reminders like a special stuffed toy or photograph.

Always drop off—never pick up the child. It’s a good idea to avoid “taking” your child from the other parent so that you don’t risk interrupting or curtailing a special moment. Let the co-parent bring the child to you instead.

When your child returns

The beginning of your child’s return to your home can be awkward or even rocky. To help your child adjust:

Keep things low-key. When children first enter your home, try to have some down time together—read a book or do some other quiet activity.

Double up. To make packing simpler and make kids feel more comfortable when they are at the other parent’s house, have kids keep certain basics—toothbrush, hairbrush, pajamas—at both houses. This also shows you are respecting the co-parent’s home as a legitimate second place for the child to feel comfortable.

Establish a special routine. Play a game or serve the same special meal each time your child returns. Kids thrive on routine—if they know exactly what to expect when they return to you it can help the transition.