What is a co-parenting relationship? It’s when two parents are raising their child or children while living in separate households. Whether this happens after a divorce, or if the parents were never married, kids benefit when their parents are committed to a strong co-parenting relationship.
Unless abuse or neglect is a factor, children need to spend time with both of their parents. Each parent brings something different to the table, and kids with two involved parents generally fare better than when all the parenting is shouldered by one person.
It can take a lot of work and a great deal of commitment to create the best co-parenting plan for your children. Keep reading to learn more about co-parenting, potential areas of conflict and when to seek help.
Also called joint parenting, co-parenting is an increasingly common family arrangement. Around 50 percent of children in the United States live with their married biological parents. The rest live in different family situations, many involving some form of joint parenting.
If you’re recently divorced, or otherwise separated from your partner, you may wonder what’s the best way to continue sharing parental responsibilities. While there’s not one way that fits all families, certain ingredients are part of creating a successful joint parenting relationship.
Co-parents should make a parenting plan that establishes ground rules and outlines expectations in detail. Ideally, a joint parenting plan will be one that works well at the present time, but is flexible enough to grow along with your children. If something isn’t working for you, or your circumstances change, be sure to work with your co-parent to make necessary adjustments to the plan. Many parents agree to review and update their parenting plan annually.
Tips for Successful Co-Parenting
Following these tips will help you and your co-parent create a plan that works best for every member of the family. While it’s expected that you’ll each need certain accommodations, remain open when discussing what day-to-day life as joint parents will look like. Consider these tips:
- Determine when the children will switch homes. If you have a legal custody arrangement, this may already be detailed for you. Be sure to establish where and when the kids will be picked up and returned.
- Outline your individual child care roles and what they will look like each day. For example, you might wish to split daily responsibilities (one parent takes the children to school and the other parent picks them up). Or you may decide that each parent will take on all daily responsibilities when the children are with them.
- Talk about discipline and what kind of behavior is expected at each home. It’s best if the rules are basically the same at each parent’s house. Agree to show unity when enforcing rules and be consistent when applying consequences for breaking them.
- Because children thrive on routine, try to follow the same daily schedule at each house. Try to be consistent with wake up times, bedtimes, and rules regarding TV or Internet use.
- Decide whether the children will text or call you when they’re with their other parent. Some families keep communication completely open, while others prefer to limit the children’s interactions with the other parent. You might agree that the kids can call or text first thing in the morning, after school and at bedtime.
Potential Areas of Joint Parenting Conflicts
It’s impossible to raise children together from different households without experiencing conflict. In fact, you may find that unhealthy communication habits carry over from your former relationship. You can potentially cut down on the arguments if you know what to expect ahead of time.
Certain conflicts are common to co-parenting relationships. Consider the following eight issues and find out how to help quell these conflicts before they turn into outright arguments.
- Equal division of parenting time. Ideally, each parent should spend an equal amount of time with the kids. Keep in mind that full equity may not be possible due to careers or other demands. If so, it’s reasonable to expect each parent to continue spending roughly the same amount of time with the children as they did before the separation or divorce.
- Discipline disagreements. It’s common for co-parents to feel that the other parent is too strict or too lenient. Be sure to address this in your co-parenting plan, but realize that those guidelines might be forgotten in the heat of the moment. Try to keep in mind that you each have different personalities and parenting styles, and kids can adapt to each style. Finding common ground doesn’t mean that your co-parent will do things your way, or vice-versa. Use tact when discussing discipline disagreements, and avoid labeling the other parent as “too mean” or a “pushover.”
- Child support. The amount of child support awarded at your divorce isn’t a one-time decision. Your incomes may vary over time, and your kids may encounter additional expenses that weren’t factored into the original sum. Each state has guidelines for how often you can request a review of your court-issued child support order. If you find yourselves arguing often over money, it may be time to schedule a review.
- Micromanagement or overly-controlling behavior. Many joint parents fall into a pattern where one parent wants to control everything that the other parent does for and with their children. Micromanagement often stems from feelings of insecurity, which may be running high while adjusting to a new normal. Some parents even take it to another level, issuing threats if their co-parent refuses to comply. If you truly feel threatened, talk to your lawyer. Otherwise, it’s important for each of you to clearly set and respect one another’s boundaries.
- Spoiling the children. Some co-parents try to make up for lost time by lavishing the children with anything they want. If there is a big income gap between co-parents, the wealthier one may try to show off by taking the kids on expensive vacations or buying designer clothes and the newest gadgets. This can cause real problems for the parent on a budget, as the kids get used to a lifestyle they cannot afford. Spoiling can also happen on a smaller scale, such as when one parent takes the kids out to all their favorite restaurants while the other parent cooks at home. If you notice such discrepancies, let your co-parent know how this behavior affects you and the children, and ask them to be more intentional with their spending.
- Extended family issues. Sometimes, there is real animosity between exes and their former in-laws. This can cause kids to be separated from grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and other family members they deserve to know. Even if your former in-laws despise you, refrain from speaking badly about them in front of your children. Depending on how this conflict appears, you may need to include it in your parenting plan. Define your expectations and goals for your children’s relationships with extended family on both sides.
- Homework problems. Co-parents are often surprised by how often homework becomes an issue between them. One parent may prefer the children to hit the books as soon as they get home, while the other lets them play and have a snack first. Sometimes parents disagree over the importance of homework, with one parent letting the children slack off at their house and the other getting stuck with making sure everything is completed by Sunday night. If you have strongly opposing ideas about homework, attend a parent-teacher conference together to make sure you both understand the teacher’s expectations.
- Neglectful co-parenting. If your children complain that their other parent often leaves them in the care of their girlfriend or boyfriend, they may be feeling neglected. Sometimes, kids will say that the other parent mostly ignores them. If so, it’s time to talk to your ex about how this is making the kids feel. It may be that the perceived neglect isn’t intentional; perhaps your ex’s schedule has changed and it’s hard for them to carve out quality time with the children. If you fear that your children are in danger from neglect at the co-parent’s house, speak to your attorney. Otherwise, take another look at your co-parenting plan and see if you can work out an alternative schedule that allows for more quality time.
Things Co-Parents Should Avoid
There are things you should avoid if you wish to make the most of your co-parenting relationship. Keep these recommendations in mind:
- Don’t speak negatively about your co-parent to your children or ask your kids to take sides when you have a parenting disagreement.
- Don’t ask your child to spy on the other parent, or drill them with questions when they return from the co-parent’s house. If you’re concerned about something, talk to your co-parent directly.
- Don’t get lax on keeping up with your commitment to the co-parenting plan.
- Don’t avoid telling the other parent if something isn’t working for your or the kids.
- Never keep your child away from their other parent out of anger or vindictiveness.
- Don’t make promises that you and your co-parent can’t keep.
One thing you shouldn’t avoid: talking with your ex. That may be difficult, especially if you weren’t great communicators to begin with. Try to leave any past hurts or arguments behind and start each parenting conversation with a positive attitude. After all, your children’s well-being is what matters most.
When to Seek Help
Co-parenting can be complicated for every person in the equation. If you notice any of the following feelings and behaviors in your children or yourself, it’s probably a good idea to seek help from a mental health care professional.
Signs of stress in your child may include:
- Increased moodiness
- Difficulty sleeping, which may include nightmares or waking up in the middle of the night
- Marked loss or increase in appetite
- A drop in grades
- Fear of being away from you or their other parent
- Compulsive behaviors
- A return to behaviors already outgrown (for example, asking for a pacifier or wetting the bed)
Signs that you may be struggling with your current joint parenting arrangement include:
- Feeling anxious or short-tempered more often than not
- Feeling depressed or abnormally tired
- Difficulty working through the grief process over the loss of your relationship
- Relying on your child to be a messenger between you and your co-parent
- Depending on your children for emotional support
- Repeatedly complaining about your co-parent to your child
- Making excuses to break your co-parenting agreement
Ask your friends, your doctor, your child’s pediatrician or your insurance company for family therapist or psychiatrist recommendations. If you are religious, your clergyperson may be able to recommend a faith-based counselor. If you and your co-parent can’t seem to speak without it turning into an argument, consider hiring a mediator.
Be kind to yourself as you work to adjust to your co-parenting routines and responsibilities. Forgive yourself when you make mistakes, and let go of any residual guilt. Joint parenting can be challenging to every person involved, but focusing on what’s best for your children should be everyone’s goal.