Co-Parenting 101: Raising Kids, Together and Apart
So, you have recently decided to separate. Perhaps you have been divorced for years or maybe you were never married. In any case, raising a child with someone you aren’t partnered with or living with anymore changes the situation. There is no single exhaustive list of how-to’s about co-parenting, and every parent, child, and family is different. However, by understanding some of the ways co-parenting is different than regular parenting, and common situations that put children in the middle of parental conflict, parents can better avoid the pitfalls of co-parenting.
First, it helps to understand how parenting changes after a couple separates. Often, when a relationship ends, powerful and painful feelings can arise: anger, resentment, betrayal, abandonment, jealousy, confusion, powerlessness, sadness, shame, and perhaps a host of others. Anxiety and depression can become exacerbated in the emotional, logistical, and financial upheaval. Since parenting together lingers long after the marriage dissolves, differences in parenting styles, expense sharing, communication, and scheduled parenting time (aka custody) can become points of contention. When disagreements arise around the children you share, often the one entity that still binds you together, tension can become conflict, and conflict can become amplified.
I have worked with many co-parents who are stuck in patterns of conflict. These are good parents who deeply love their children. However, in their own grief and adjustment, they are distracted from attending as closely to their child’s emotional needs. It is understandable. It has happened to the best of us at one time or another. Still, we want to support the children through this difficult time.
While children of divorce are at higher risk for mental health, substance use, and social adjustment problems, it is also demonstrated that these problems are not inevitable. Many children adjust well to the disruption caused by divorce, while others develop serious and lasting problems. There are things parents can do, both during and after divorce, to help their kids adjust in a healthy and positive way.
One of the most powerful factors protecting children from the negative effects of divorce is high quality parenting from both parents. Even just one parent maintaining a warm and empathetic relationship with a child offers some protection. By understanding children’s adjustment to divorce and reaction to parental conflict, parents can be more sensitive to keep kids out of the middle. Understanding their experience can help.
These are some of the most common stressors for kids as illustrated with example situations:
- Being asked to carry messages between parents
Example: “Tell your mother I need you to be dropped off early on Sunday, we have dinner plans with our friends.”
Stressor: When parents seek to avoid their own conflict by using the child to communicate with the other parent, kids become the conduit of negotiations, bearers of bad news, and absorb both sides of the tension toward the other. This puts the child in a bind; If one parent gets their way, the other one doesn’t, and the child feels the pressure to keep the peace between them.
Alternative response: Ask your co-parent ahead of time. If they don’t mind dropping off the child early, perhaps offer to flex hours for them at another time. If they don’t agree to your request, don’t include the child in the plans, or make plans for when the child is scheduled with you.
- Hearing put downs of the other parent
Example: “Your father never makes you do chores or homework. All he does is show you a good time when you’re over there. He lets you watch tv all day, takes you out to eat, buys you stuff. I’m the one who’s stuck having to raise you as a responsible person. It’s just not right.”
Stressor: It hurts to hear someone you love be criticized; even worse when it’s your own parent. Kids internalize those put downs, and it puts them in a loyalty bind—either they defend the parent being attacked, or be quiet and feel complicit. More often than not, it backfires on the parent putting the other one down. Worst is when both parents do it; then the kids don’t feel emotionally safe with either.
Alternative response: Talk positively about their other parent to the child, even if you harbor negative feelings. Rather than criticize, talk to your other parent about keeping rules consistent between houses.
If you find out your co-parent has been saying putdowns about you, or something incorrect or misleading, consider responding to your child by saying, “That must be confusing for you to hear,” or “It seems we’ve had a miscommunication. I’ll give her/him/them a call and we’ll sort it out. Don’t worry about it.”
When a parent says kind and affirming things about the other parent, it’s like an affirmation of the child. Remember, the child has parts of each parent inside them, and they want to love and feel loved by both.
- Being asked to confront a parent about money issues
Example: “It looks like you need new sneakers. Make sure you tell Dad to take you shopping.” or “What do you mean you need a check for the school activity? That’s what child support is for. Mom should be paying for that.”
Stressor: Sending kids to the other parent for money can make kids feel like they are a burden, and that they have to worry every time they need something. Some feel like neither parent is willing to pay for things they need.
Alternative response: Sort out who pays for what directly with the other parent. Don’t involve the kids in financial disputes between adults. Let them know their needs will be met and the grownups will figure it out. If you can’t come to a decision and therefore it won’t get paid for, share responsibility for the decision rather than assign blame to the other parent.
Disclaimer: I am a therapist, not a lawyer, and am not dispensing legal advice to violate support orders. Just offering a suggestion for how to keep kids out of the middle of parental conflict.
- Being quizzed about the other parent’s private life
Example: “So, did you go to that fancy new restaurant with your dad’s new girlfriend?” “I heard your mom got a new job. Good for her. I guess she’s making more money now, right?”
Stressor: It’s natural to be curious, but it puts kids in the middle when you start asking questions about their other parent. They feel guilty if they answer, like they are violating their parent’s privacy. Sometimes they worry something they say will be held against the parent in court. To avoid that discomfort, they may try to avoid answering by refusing (which can be taken as defiance), or they learn to deflect or to lie.
Alternative response: If you really want to know, get your information from sources other than your children. And consider doing your own emotional work toward moving on. In any case, refrain from asking the kids about specifics. “I hope you had a nice weekend with Dad/Mom,” can suffice.
- Being burdened with a parent’s emotional issues, being a confidante
Example: “You know, I didn’t want the divorce. I don’t know how I’m going to do this on my own. I feel so sad when you are at the other house. I can’t believe he/she/they did this to me.”
Stressor: Too often, kids assume a caretaking role with their parents; even very young children. This makes them grow up too fast. They don’t get to process their own feelings about the divorce, and miss out on precious time being a kid because their attention is on helping their parent feel better.
Alternative response: “I know all this change must be hard for you. I’m here if you ever want to talk.”
- Having to choose which parent attends a special event(s)
Example: “Where do you want to go for your birthday dinner? Oh, you already made plans with your Dad? I thought we’d be able to celebrate together. That’s too bad, Grandma was so excited. Are you sure you can’t come out with us? We can go to your favorite restaurant…”
Stressor: A child gets put in the middle of their parent’s conflict by having to choose which parent attends an event, or worrying they will get into a fight, which introduces guilt and anguish overshadowing the event itself in the eyes of a child.
Alternative response: Put your differences aside for a few hours and be kind to each other so your child can enjoy their occasion with both their parents. If you are unable to both do that, coordinate in advance with your co-parent so the child doesn’t have to choose sides or feel like one is going to be disappointed. And consider counseling to help you be able to sit through a dinner at the same table by your child’s next birthday or special event.
- Being threatened not to have access to the other parent
Example: “All you do is watch TV and play video games over there. If you don’t get your grades up, I’m not going to let you go next weekend.”
Alternative response: If you are angry with your child’s other parent, or disagree with their parenting style, find other ways to communicate or negotiate than threatening their time with their children. Spending time with their other parent is not a reward or a punishment. It’s an important relationship that they need to feel is secure.
By following these guidelines to protect your child from conflict, you can help your family find a new way of being; together and apart.
- Set aside marital issues
- Calmly discuss parenting issues
- Get help with anxiety, anger or depression
- Find someone to listen to your needs and frustrations
- When you need a break, send the kids to the other parent
- Maintain consistency between homes
- Avoid “putting down” the other parent
- Attend functions together when possible
Most couples with children struggle to sort through the re-organization of their family, and find things settle in to a new normal within a couple of years. If you and your co-parent are struggling to follow these practices, consider co-parent counseling, a co-parent education course (some are online), and co-parenting books can be helpful.
Adapted from What About the Children? By Donald A. Gordon, PhD and Jack Arbuthnot, PhD at The Center for Divorce Education in Ashland, Oregon.
*You and your children’s safety are a number one priority. All adults have a duty to keep children safe from abuse or witnessing ongoing violence. If you or your children are suffering physical, sexual, or emotional abuse from the other parent, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (or for hearing impaired, TTY service is available through 1-800-787-3224). The hotline will refer you to services near you that can help. In these cases, some of the skills and strategies discussed here may not be appropriate for your situation until things have calmed down.
Robin Greenberg, LSW, MFT is a staff therapist at our Center City, Paoli, and Wynnewood offices; she currently sees clients via online therapy. To set up an appointment, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-382-6680 ext. 7074.