Parenting is inherently challenging, and the event of a divorce or separation can lead to intense emotions, new living arrangements, and altered routines, adding layers of complexity that make working with your co-parenting partner (CPP) seem even harder than before. While co-parenting amidst or after a divorce or separation can sometimes feel like climbing a never-ending mountain, there are tools and coping strategies that help lighten your load, and can even make the journey enjoyable—albeit tiring! —for you and your CPP. These tips are designed to give you concrete steps and fresh perspectives to bolster your efforts to raise healthy, happy, and well-adjusted kids.
Raising children in the 21st century sometimes feels like you’re a secretary more than a parent. Between after-school activities, sports, music lessons, tutoring, religious school, fundraisers, and other commitments, kids lead very busy lives and rely on you and your CPP to make it all run smoothly. Given how complicated—and demanding—your child’s schedule can be, it’s understandable that information gets lost in translation. One week your child might miss basketball practice because your CPP wasn’t included on the coach’s email; another, you show up to the school bake sale without brownies because your child mistakenly told you, “Dad’s bringing them.”
Digital calendars can be an effective tool in minimizing these kinds of mix-ups, which in turn decreases conflict and stress for you, your CPP, and your child. While you should ultimately aim to discuss upcoming commitments and events with your child’s other parent in your weekly phone call (sign up for the First Step webinar for more details!), maintaining a digital calendar is a good back-up for when signals get crossed. Any dates that might affect your CPP’s schedule, or that they would want to know about, should be added to the calendar as soon as possible. A color-coding system makes it easy to quickly determine who is responsible for what on any given day, and the “reminders” or “alerts” function is a gentle way to keep an absent-minded co-parent up to speed without overstepping your boundaries.
Even as you add and make changes to your shared calendar and rely on it for information, it is important to keep in mind that it is a supplementary tool, and not a replacement for direct communication. Major additions or changes, such as vacation plans, new activities, or schedule variations should be discussed with your CPP prior to adjusting the calendar. Surprise adjustments not only inconvenience the other parent but can also spark conflict if one party feels blindsided by the unexpected change.
Divorce and separation can be messy, and sometimes it’s tempting to vent in front of your children or reveal the “truth” about what’s really going on. While this urge is understandable, it’s never okay to expose your kids to what’s happening “behind the scenes” in your efforts to co-parent. As far as your child is concerned, you and their other parent tried to make the relationship work, but ultimately decided it was better to be apart, and this decision in no way affects how much either of you love them. Going forward, the goal is to maintain a united front with your CPP whenever communicating with or in front of your child, even if you take issue with their parenting approach, or total lack thereof. Avoid questioning your co-parent’s decisions in front of your kids, even if your children seem upset with your co-parent. On the flip side, check in with your CPP before instituting any rules or making any decisions that you anticipate being a major issue with them. It is much easier to process and accept someone else’s decision, even if one disagrees with it, when hearing it ahead of time rather than from their child after the fact.
You might wonder whether maintaining a united front means being “dishonest” with your children, or if it will make you seem weak. In fact, the decision to shield your child from the decision-making processes of co-parenting is a powerful way to maintain the solid structure kids need to regulate behavior and adjust to the changes of divorce or separation. If they are given negative or conflicting messages about your CPP, while at the same time being told to rely on them as a parent, you are handing them a roadmap that will only lead to confusion. When you keep the adult conversations between you and your co-parent, whether dramatic or just deliberative, you free your child from having to make sense of a situation that is out of their control and none of their business. Whether it’s what you say to your CPP in front of your child, or how you say it, keep the content and tone neutral and save any “messy” stuff for the adults.
We all have our own beliefs, practices, and ways of operating, and this is especially true when it comes to raising children! It’s no surprise, then, that sharing this responsibility with someone else—someone you might dislike—can be frustrating. It is tempting to try and control all aspects of the parenting process because of how much you care about your kids and want them to thrive. However, the next time you consider challenging your CPP on their parenting rules and routines, take a “pause” and ask yourself the following questions:
Indeed, there will be times when you take issue with the other parent’s way of doing things and are so concerned about the safety of your children that you feel it’s important to speak up. And yet, the range of parenting decisions that you dislike but can live with is much wider than you might think. Besides the potential for damaging the relationship with your CPP, challenging their choices risks undermining your child’s sense of confidence in each parent as someone whose judgment they can trust, and can backfire and turn you into the “bad guy.” Rather than focusing on the differences between you and your CPP’s parenting styles, keep in mind that you ultimately share a common goal, even if your paths to get there look a little—or a lot—different.
As we discussed in tip number three, every parent’s household is different, and it is their right to establish expectations and routines that work for them and their parenting style. If you go looking for “problems” with the way your CPP parents in their own home, you will inevitably find them. It is completely normal to identify things that you would do differently, or even view as flat-out wrong. We are all human beings, and prone to judgment. That said, it is not okay to police how your CPP runs their household, insofar as their choices aren’t putting your kids’ lives in real danger.
Mealtimes, cleanliness, chores, playdates, curfews, friend groups, homework time, cell phone use, physical activity, R-rated movies; the list of areas where you might differ in what’s expected of your child or allowed in your home is infinite. If you were to contest every single issue you have with your CPP’s choices, they would be left with little or no autonomy when it comes to raising your kids. It’s tempting to tell yourself that you will mention “just this one thing, just this one time,” but criticism is a slippery slope. Avoid falling into the trap of nit-picking (or tarantula picking, depending on how you see it!) by never getting started in the first place. Again, it’s one thing to intercede when you believe your child is in imminent danger. But do your best to remember that kids are resilient, and there is lot of room between what you consider to be “dangerous” and what objectively poses a threat to your kids’ wellbeing. Make time to take that “pause” and ask yourself if stepping in where you’re not invited is likely to result in more harm than if you had kept your opinions to yourself.
With all there is to be said about how you and your CPP might differ in your approaches to parenting, you are still united in the love you have for your children and your shared desire for them to thrive. It’s easy to underestimate the power of this unity when tensions are high and times are tough, especially if your child is facing something difficult. Concerns about mental and physical health, struggles at school, discrimination against their identity, or any number of challenges can lead to stress, which is then projected onto your CPP, or vice versa. The first step in getting through an issue is maintaining a sense of compassion and empathy; you of all people know how difficult the situation is and can understand how it might affect your CPP’s ability to productively co-parent. Follow up by reminding yourself, and your co-parent, about how much you both care for your child and want them to be well. Something as simple as validating their concern—“I can see how much you’re worried about Anna’s symptoms and are doing everything you can to make her more comfortable”—goes a long way in translating stress into solidarity. When your co-parent sees that you recognize what they’re going through, they are more likely to be open about working together to support your child.
By tackling the difficult stuff together, big or small, you and your CPP are demonstrating to your kids that they have a reliable safety net beneath them and an effective support team, rather than two anxious adults who are preoccupied with bickering. It also means that you have someone to help with the challenges that lie ahead, which is a more sustainable approach than one of you trying to shoulder the burden on your own. Going at it alone can deplete your resources, tangible and intangible alike, and whatever your CPP can contribute—emotional support, financial assistance, system navigation, or simply showing up—is one less piece for you to worry about in trying to help your child. Accept what your co-parent is willing and able to offer with grace, and in turn make every effort to contribute what you can to better the situation, without making it worse. Unneeded or unrequested assistance is sometimes more damaging than doing nothing at all, so work together with your CPP to identify the most effective ways each of you can be a solid team member.
If you have any questions, are looking for more tips about how to co-parent while going through a divorce, or are interested in one of our co-parenting classes, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out our upcoming virtual co-parenting classes by visiting the calendar page on our website.
“I learned how important our behavior (verbal and non-verbal) is, and how it impacts our children. How I can rise above all issues, and just focus on my babies.”
“What I learned was that the best thing I can do for my kids is to say something good about their other parent!”
“I appreciated the focus on how many different relationships my/our kids are dealing with.”
“I learned I am in control of my behavior; I can’t control my co-parent!”
“I received validation; it helped to know that I’m not alone. I appreciated the section on preparing for court – that is coming up soon and I am scared.”