Co-parenting can be stressful. You're juggling navigating a relationship with your ex-partner, while also ensuring that your child's needs are being met on many levels. Co-parenting may unearth a wide range of tangled emotions such as grief over the loss of your relationship, anger and resentment toward your ex-partner, and worry for your child. However, there are things you can do to minimize the stress involved in this partnership. Use these practical co-parenting tips to make your parenting journey a bit easier.
Make Your Child the Priority
It can be easy to get caught up in disagreements or fights with your co-parent, whether it's about who gets to spend Christmas with your child, or what extracurricular activities in which to enroll them. The key thing is to remind yourself that your goal is not to win an argument with your ex, your goal is to do what is best for your child. Ways to do this are:
- Stick to the topic at-hand. If you are arguing about where your child should spend Thanksgiving, focus on solving that problem without bringing up past fights you've had about holidays.
- Avoid making general statements such as "you always exaggerate problems" or "you always twist my words." Most likely such statements are not true and can lead the discussion off-track.
- Focus on what the impacts could be on your child. Even though you really want to be with your child over Thanksgiving because it's your favorite holiday, that might be the only chance they will get for the rest of the year to play with cousins on your ex's side of the family.
Use "I" Messages
When having an argument, it can be very easy to start by blaming the other person. This can lead them to be defensive and in turn, the discussion being counter-productive. Instead, use "I" messages when you share your point of view. First state the facts (because they cannot be disputed) and then state how the situation made you feel (only you can know what you are feeling). For instance, "I saw you bought her a very expensive birthday gift without consulting with me. That makes me feel disregarded, and I worry about what kind of message the gift sends our child."
Thus, the formula for "I" messages is simple: "I saw… and that makes me feel..." That can make it easier for your co-parent to hear you and empathize with you, and for you two to come up with a solution. Again, keeping the focus on the issue at hand, propose a solution rather than dwelling on the incident that has already occurred. For example, "How about moving forward we set a dollar limit for birthday gifts?"
Have a Strong Alliance
A strong alliance with your co-parent is not only important for your child, it is also critical for reducing your stress and maladjustment to change in family structure. To have a strong co-parenting alliance both of you should have:
- A strong investment in your child's well-being
- The desire to communicate with your co-parent about child-related information
- Regard for the other parent's involvement with the child
- Respect for each other's judgment
With a strong alliance, the two of you will be able to more easily work out problems. Moreover, you can do so in the presence of your child if done calmly and fairly. This also models for your child how to work collaboratively to solve conflict.
Again, your goal as co-parents is to raise your child to be happy and healthy. Put your differences aside so that you can be a united front in tackling the challenge of parenting.
Discussing plans, reaching an agreement and putting them in writing not only helps to avoid points of contention between you and your co-parent, but it keeps you from having to keep a lot of important information in your memory.
Depending on your jurisdiction, a parenting plan may be something you are required to do as part of the divorce process. Either way, it helps to organize parenting, and for you to be on the same page as your ex. Things to specify in the plan depend on your own unique situation and priorities, such as:
- Days and times designated for when your child is with you versus your co-parent, including holidays and vacations
- How other family members (grandparents, aunts/uncles, stepparents) are going to be involved in caregiving, and their specific responsibilities
- Financial responsibilities of both parents
- Plans for specific responsibilities, such as who stays home when your child is sick, who goes on field trips, who takes the child to medical/dental appointments
- A system of smooth communication
- A timeline for evaluating and changing the parenting plan if needed
As part of this, have a calendar that you and your co-parent share to more easily coordinate things such as soccer practices and dance recitals. This can also help eliminate "surprises" like forgetting your ex is taking your child on a weekend trip. Moreover, following a consistent caregiving schedule from week to week has been associated with fewer social problems and less anxious and depressed behavior for children.
For children ages six or younger, there has been some debate on whether they should spend the night with the parent who is not their primary caregiver. Research suggests that children ages four and older tend to have fewer emotional and behavioral problems when they spend overnights with the second parent. (No association between overnights and emotional or behavioral issues was found for children younger than four years of age). In other words, less is known about the impact that overnight stays have on children younger than age four, but overnight stays can benefit children ages four and up.
Agree on Discipline
Consistency with discipline is also important for healthy child adjustment. If your ex's home is very structured with chores and a bedtime, and yours is very laid-back, your child receives conflicting messages. By agreeing on the disciplinary structure and utilizing authoritative parenting, you are helping your child learn life skills and grow in their ability to be responsible, all while nurturing a close relationship with them.
Be on the Same Page With School
With regard to your child's schooling, again, consistency between you and your co-parent is important. If your ex-partner values academics and you don't, that sends conflicting messages to your child. If you and your ex agree that part of your child's routine should be to finish homework before play time, that is twice the opportunity to communicate to your child that schooling is important.
Communication between you and your co-parent is key to helping your child succeed in school. Based on your schedules, if you decide that only you will attend parent-teacher conferences, it is important to relay information from the conferences to your co-parent. Open communication between the two of you as well as between you and the teachers is how you will know what strengths to foster and what subjects your child needs help with.
Keep Your Child Out of Fights
There is naturally going to be conflict between you and your ex, but it can be handled in a mature manner. This involves communicating directly with your ex and not putting your child in the middle. Avoid asking your child to convey something to your ex because you are uncomfortable doing it, and avoid asking your child personal questions like, "Is your father dating anyone?" The purpose of your child visiting their parent is to foster the relationship between the two of them, not to gather information for you.
Furthermore, "praise in public, criticize in private" has the same spirit here. You can berate your partner to yourself or your friends, but avoid doing so in the presence of your child. On the other side of the coin, being honest with your child about your ex's strengths enriches your trustworthiness as a parent.
Respect Your Child's Other Parent
Even if you and your ex ended on bad terms, it is important to remember and respect that they are still your child's parent. Your child's relationship with them is separate from your relationship with your child. If in your presence your child does something to disrespect your ex, it is important to use that as a teaching opportunity and discipline your child on how they are to treat their parent and elders in general.
Respecting the other parent includes revering their religious and cultural upbringing if it is important to them. It is okay for your separate homes to have two different cultural practices because children are able to integrate their different cultural identities.
Forgive Your Ex
It can be helpful to think about how you can forgive your ex for wronging you. You can make your own timeline to do this, but if you make it your goal to forgive because it's in the best interest of your child, it can lessen the conflict with your ex and make you better co-parents.
Interestingly, your social network can have an impact on how much you are able to forgive your partner. That is, if your friends and family continue to berate your partner, you are less likely to forgive. Remember, their opinions about your ex are their own, and they don't really know the nature of your relationship the way you do. Therefore, be mindful to separate their opinions from yours. Continuing to harbor resentment can make it hard for you to move forward and to co-parent effectively. In addition, ask those in your social network to avoid speaking poorly of your ex in your child's presence.
Co-parenting can get much more complicated once stepparents come into the picture. Instead of just the two of you determining parenting strategy, there could be up to four of you. A general guideline to follow is that your new partner can have a role in co-parenting once they have an established place in the family structure. For instance, if you have been dating the person for just a few months, they would not have a say in co-parenting.
However, it is very different if you have been dating for a year, and the person will be moving in with you. At that point, they are part of your household and thus, their activities and behaviors impact you and your child, and vice versa.
Self-care is always important, no matter your relationship status. Utilize self-care strategies on a regular basis, as part of your routine, to foster your mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. Carving out time to take care of yourself can help you be the best parent possible. It's also a good example for your child to see a healthy role model who prioritizes their well-being.
Going to therapy is a great way to help you care for your mental and emotional needs, particularly if you are struggling with grief over the loss of your relationship or with negative feelings toward your ex. Therapy is the time and place devoted for you to work through concerns in a constructive way. Not only does this make you a better parent, but it also allows you to move past your relationship and toward your future.
Seek Counseling or Parenting Classes
Parenting is a difficult job that is not always instinctive. Therefore, it's not uncommon for folks to seek out joint counseling or parenting classes. Parents find such programs helpful to learn skills and gain insights. Find parenting classes in your area.
Be a Team
Many of these tips apply to married couples as well; and tag-teaming and sharing responsibilities can make parenting a bit easier. The ultimate goal with co-parenting is to tend to your child's needs, help them adjust to changes and stressors, and maintain a healthy level of communication with your ex-partner, for the greater good of the family.