“Co-parenting is not a competition. It’s a collaboration of two homes working together with the best interest of the child at heart.” — Heather Hetchler
In a day and age where long-term marriages are the exception and not the rule, the issue of co-parenting is one I see every day. In fact, my practice is overflowing with families trying to navigate the challenges of effective co-parenting. Even the most amicable divorce can trigger feelings of abandonment, anger, betrayal, grief, and loss—all difficult emotions to navigate. Supporting your children through these difficult emotions while simultaneously experiencing them can feel almost impossible at times.
CO-PARENTING IS HARD
Let me begin by saying the art of effective co-parenting is not an easy topic, nor is it by any means an easy task! The feelings following separation or divorce are often still very raw—and may be exacerbated if the end of the relationship was characterized by a high level of conflict. Working cooperatively with someone you no longer hold in the highest regard can be very difficult—but your children are counting on you to put your own feelings aside to attend to their needs.
CO-PARENTING IS WORTH IT
Effective co-parenting mandates a level of maturity and strength that requires each partner to put their egos aside and come together to present a united front to the children. Your little humans are looking to you both to assure them that, regardless of changes in the family structure or dynamics in your relationship with each other, they can count on you to provide structure, consistency, safety, protection from conflict and other adult matters, and a sense of grounded stability. They are counting on you to work as a cohesive team. I’m not suggesting that you and your co-parent have to remain best friends. What I am recommending is that you find a way to unify and come together around your children to ensure both of you consistently meet their needs—and sometimes this means stepping up your game and redefining your definition of teamwork with your co-parent so that your ability to meet your children’s needs together exceeds your ability to do so when you shared an intimate relationship.
FIVE TIPS FOR EFFECTIVE CO-PARENTING
#1: Never let your children hear you speak negatively about your co-parent.
This is one of the most common and most damaging things I see occur in dysfunctional co-parenting relationships. Under most circumstances, children experience love and a deep, primal connection to both parents. Even at a young age, they understand that they are a product of you both. Making disparaging comments about your co-parent may cause your child to question your love for them. It also puts your child in a position to feel as though they must defend their other parent. I guarantee they will grow to resent you for this over time. Overtly or covertly expressing your disapproval for your co-parent to your children causes them to feel trapped in the middle of the conflict and responsible for negotiating co-parenting issues, an adult responsibility for which they are ill-equipped. Children should never be tasked with negotiating issues between their parents.
#2: Enforce the expectation that your children respect you both.
Building on the first tip, it’s equally important to enforce an expectation that your children respect not only your parental authority but also that of your co-parent. This can be challenging, as you want to allow a space for your children to freely express the big emotions they are experiencing. At the same time, teaching your children how to express these emotions appropriately is an important life skill. Children of divorce will often test the limits of the co-parenting relationship by expressing feelings of hatred toward one parent or another. It’s important to challenge your child to identify that they may be frustrated or hate one parent’s behavior but that it’s not appropriate to make disparaging remarks toward or about their parent. When this occurs, children are often attempting to determine if you remain aligned with your co-parent when it comes to matters concerning them or if there is a crack in the alignment that they may be able to exploit. Children do not engage in this behavior with malicious intent. Instead, they are seeking validation that they remain safe and protected from any challenges between you and your co-parent.
#3: Be consistent in the rules and expectations between homes.
This requires frequent and effective communication. If your child gets in trouble at one home, the other parent must enforce the consequences when your child returns. For example, if your daughter loses “screen time” for two days for talking disrespectfully to her mom, it’s essential you enforce the punishment if it falls during the time she is in your care. By doing so, you prevent your daughter from splitting your united front and capitalizing on any conflict between you and your co-parent. My Parental Handoff Worksheet may help support effective communication and positive exchanges between homes.
#4: Show up—ALWAYS show up!
Showing up is one of the most important things you can do for your child. Do not make your child choose which parent will attend major milestones and life events—and don’t trade off. Not only will you miss out on some of your child’s most important moments, but they will as well. Your child doesn’t want to have to sacrifice when it comes to the defining moments in their lives; don’t make them. Even at a young age, your children expect that you can put any anger, ego, or resentment toward your co-parent aside to celebrate them—particularly in the big moments. Your child needs to know that they are so precious to you that you’re willing to put your feelings aside and be a little uncomfortable for an afternoon. They need to know they can trust you will always show up when it really matters.
#5: Recognize if you and your co-parenting partner need additional support!
Raising children to thrive in their environment is a challenge under the best circumstances. Reaching out for support, and doing it early, doesn’t suggest a parenting fail—instead, it suggests you understand the stakes are high and you aren’t willing to take any chances with your child’s well-being. There are resources available to support you through a difficult process; make use of them.
WHEN YOUR CO-PARENT ISN’T ONBOARD
Of course, what I’ve said up to this point speaks to the ideal situation after divorce or separation. But what happens when one parent is willing to do the work and the other parent is not? The answer is simple but often painfully to execute—you never give up hope. Continue to move forward parenting your child in the best way possible because you and your child deserve and need to heal. At the same time, you leave the door open to the other parent with the hope that they will one day do their own work and be willing to sit at the table with you. It’s ok to be frustrated and angry because it’s really not fair—but at the end of the day, kids don’t care about fair; they need you to be present and always show up for them. When you become a parent, it’s no longer about you—your priority becomes your child’s needs and best interest. You will make mistakes along the way. Your children don’t need you to be perfect; they need you to never give up and always love them unconditionally and unapologetically.
Hetchler, H. (2014, September 26-28). Full-time stepmom [Conference session]. The Stepmom Retreat, Asheville, NC, United States.
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