Your kids just want their parents to love them. They are, believe it or not, less interested in watching you and your ex fight to the death over custody, child support, and how to parent them.
“Co-parenting” refers to how you parent your shared children after divorce or separation..
Getting a strong handle on how to co-parent effectively will spare you and your children a great deal of unnecessary pain, confusion, and frustration. This article outlines the different phases of co-parenting, and provides suggestions on how to navigate each of them successfully.
Adapting to the different constraints imposed by each phase will make life easier for you and your kids.
Overview of the Phases of Co-Parenting
Co-parenting is easier to make sense of when broken down into the following phases:
- Pre-Separation (during which the parents’ relationship shifts, but hasn’t formally changed)
- Single-Parent Family
- Remarriage & Step-Parents’ Involvement
Understanding Pre-Separation & Its Co-Parenting Challenges
Pre-separation phase occurs when one or both parents are so unhappy and frustrated with their relationship that they contemplate ending the union.
They withdraw from their spouse, engage in separate social activities, and spend more alone time with the children, at the expense of what was once family time.
Co-Parenting Effectively During Pre-Separation
- Be consistent in your schedule with your children. It will help them feel safe and secure.
- Don’t share frustrations about the other parent with your children.
- Reassure them that your relationship is solid, even if there will be changes in the family.
Understanding Separation & Its Co-Parenting Challenges
Separation begins when one or both members of a couple concretely decide to take a break from one another. This phase is decided by that decision, not by a physical milestone like moving out.
Separation drastically changes the family’s dynamics. The staying parent and the children are thrust into uncertainty by the physical and emotional void left in the absent parent’s wake. Children fear abandonment by the leaving parent. Parents may be so focused on the kids, they emotionally neglect themselves and wind up self-medicating their emotional wounds with self-destructive behaviors, or just shutting down.
Co-Parenting Effectively During Separation
- Allow yourself and your children an adjustment period.
- Help guide your child through the grieving they need to cope with their world having been split in two.
- Parents also need to give themselves the space to experience their own grieving process.
- Regular communication between spouses about the children’s schedules and emotional state. If it’s difficult to meet face to face, communicate in writing.
Understanding Divorce & Its Co-Parenting Challenges
Divorce is a legal process dissolving a marriage.
Tensions run high and tempers flare during divorce, especially during litigated divorce (in court) as opposed to mediated or collaborative divorce processes (out of court).
Ongoing conflict over time spent with the children and how to discipline them is incredibly common, and complicates the process even further.
Co-Parenting Effectively During Divorce
- Learn conflict-resolution skills and how to communicate clearly, concisely, and in an emotionally neutral way that is neither confrontational nor blaming.
- Consider hiring a divorce coach or mediator to help with the above.
- Solidify a parenting plan.
- Each parent must individually evaluate their personal expectations and discipline practices. From there, decide on a uniform framework for types of consequences, rewards, and situations meriting one or the other.
Understanding Co-Parenting as a Single Parent & Its Challenges
The single parent family phase starts at the onset of separation and becomes solidified as the divorce proceedings conclude.
It is a time of shifting roles in the family. Parents may grieve and feel lonely. This sometimes leads to inappropriately confiding personal matters (often about the other parent) in one of the children. Inappropriately involving the child, and making them comfort a parent contributes to parentifying the child. Parentification damages children by robbing them of the emotional energy they need to be in their appropriate developmental stage.
Co-Parenting Effectively as a Single Parent
- Avoid parentification by addressing concerns directly with the other parent. If that’s impossible, even in writing (instead of in person) then turn to friends, a therapist, or a divorce coach.
- To reiterate, children should not be involved in parental disputes: neither as a sounding board, nor as a source of support. Don’t solicit them for advice or look to them to comfort you.
The remarriage phase starts when a new adult moves in, even if a parent hasn’t yet re-wed.
Understanding Remarriage’s Co-Parenting Challenges
- The biological parent in the other household is threatened by the new parental figure in the children’s lives. Secrets between households exacerbate this fear and uncertainty.
- The new spouse feels insecure about the ongoing co-parenting relationship between spouses and their exes.
- Remarriage often reactivates the grieving process for the non-remarrying spouse, making them be difficult about letting kids join the wedding, change schedules, etc. because a new adult is involved and they don’t like a stranger interfering with their parenting or robbing them of a parental role.
- Children experience divided loyalties when one parent (biological or not) demands preference or respect at the expense of another. This shows up in telling a child “This is your real family” or “I’m your only/real mom (or dad).” This unhealthily denies children emotional permission to like a parent—commonly, a step parent.
Overcoming Co-Parenting Challenges Imposed by Remarriage
- Open communication between households helps reduce discomfort and fear of replacement by a new step-parent. Parents should make their exes aware that the child will continue to respect their biological parent in their role. Biological parents should evaluate whether to include the new spouse in the existing co-parenting relationship. Note: step-parents should avoid parenting directly until 18 months into the marriage.
- Reassure your new spouse that your relationship with your ex-spouse is strictly one of co-parenting.
- An ex-spouse vastly overreacting to relatively benign stimuli is a sign of reactivation of their grieving process over the loss of the marriage. There isn’t a lot under one’s immediate control here. Acknowledging and releasing the stress caused by one’s ex flying off the handle is the best one can hope for. Journaling may help.
- Tell your children the two households are different from one another—not better or worse. Encourage children to have a good relationship with both biological parents.
- Be flexible. Readjust custody plans as needed to accommodate new circumstances like scheduling conflicts, needs for parental “alone time”, etc..
How Understanding the Phases of Co-Parenting Helps
Parents understanding the co-parenting phases prevents a great deal of stress for them and their children. Know that the phases are just that: phases. As such, they’re temporary. Being temporary means they’re manageable.
It is another step in the healing process, which helps adults feel empowered by the knowledge, and enables them to be more reassuring and nurturing parents with proper boundaries which helps the children thrive.