How Divorced Parents Can Successfully Co-Parent

Divorcing with kids is a complicated, emotionally fraught experience with weighty implications. Setting up an effective co-parenting system is time and energy intensive, but critical to the long-term well-being of your child. Co-parenting after separation and divorce amplifies the already stressful task of raising healthy, well-adjusted kids in our harried and hurried modern world. With commitment and intention, it can be done well.

If I could offer one guiding principle to divorced co-parents to aid them in collaboration, it would be this: the best thing you can do for your child after a divorce is to have the healthiest, kindest possible relationship with their other parent. This matters for relatively minor everyday reasons, and for big and deeply meaningful reasons.

On the everyday front, kids do better when they observe their divorced parents communicating effectively, treating each other with respect, and supporting each other in their parenting. When parents don’t get along, kids often observe not only conflict, but the stress that each parent experiences as a result of it. When parents get along well, kids feel more secure, learn healthy problem-solving by following your example, adjust to their new reality more quickly and fully, and have lower incidence of issues like depression, anxiety, and academic struggles.

On a deeper level, it is critical to treat your ex-partner with kindness and respect because your child, no matter their age, will internalize what you say about their other parent. Kids are savvy and pay attention to what they hear, and from an early age they identify with their parents and understand that they are like us in important ways. When you complain about your ex, your child hears two things: a criticism of someone they love, and a criticism of a part of themselves.

The primary focus must remain what is best for your child. Putting your child’s needs ahead of your own will allow you to maintain calm, communicate effectively, and give your coparent the benefit of the doubt in sticky situations. Within this framework, here are some specific do’s and don’ts for successful co-parenting:

DO’s
Separate the marriage from the co-parenting relationship. All of the hurt and resentment you feel as a result of the failed relationship must be kept separate from the collaborative, child-focused process of co-parenting. This is difficult, but not impossible. When you feel yourself getting upset at your coparent, pause to take a deep breath and ask yourself whether your personal feelings might be getting in the way. If the answer is yes, take the time you need to process that and set those feelings aside, then re-focus on the co-parenting task at hand.

Have a schedule, but be flexible. Children of divorced parents do best when they know where they’re going to be, and when. No matter how you split custody, try to make the schedule consistent, rather than trying to do things on the fly. There should also be room for flexibility, and this benefits everyone. If your co-parent asks to switch nights to accommodate a work trip, special occasion, or other schedule change on their end, it will feel good to everyone to be able to say yes to those requests. This is a great opportunity to model cooperation to your child.

Provide consistency between households. We each have our own unique parenting styles, but when a child is splitting time between two households it is critical that basic rules and expectations (e.g., curfews, disciplinary systems, daily schedules) are the same. If your child breaks a rule and receives a consequence in one household, the consequence should be followed through in the other house (and the same goes for rewarding good behavior). This is only possible if co-parents agree on the rules and how to enforce them.

Meet or speak regularly to discuss co-parenting. This can happen in a variety of different ways – face-to-face meetings, weekly phone calls, or even via email. This communication should be proactive rather than reactive, anticipating upcoming challenges and deciding in advance how to address them. It should also happen privately, not with your child present.

DON’Ts
Don’t speak negatively about your ex in front of your child. Find another place to vent –a friend, a therapist, a journal, whatever you need. Your child’s relationship with the other parent should be free of any negative influence from you. This especially applies to sharing the ugly details of your divorce with your child.

Don’t use your child as a messenger. All co-parenting communication should occur directly between you and the other parent. Don’t ask your child to deliver messages for you, and don’t ask your child for information about the other parent or the other household. This puts your child in the middle of your conflict, and that is definitely not your child’s role.

Don’t make unilateral decisions. When it comes to making important parenting decisions after divorce, collaboration is critical. Create a system for deciding what to do when there is an impasse. For example, you could agree that one parent will have the “tiebreaker” vote about medical issues, while the other will have it for issues related to education. Another option is to ask a third party for help when you can’t agree. A parenting coordinator, family therapist, or trusted mutual friend can be good options for this role.

In the end, the message you should be creating for your child is that your relationship with and love for them is more important than whatever it is that ended your marriage. When they see you putting your negative feelings about the other parent aside and working hard to co-parent effectively, they feel secure, loved, and cared for.