Navigating the stressful world of co-parenting can sometimes make you feel like blasting the vengeful Beyoncé mega hit "Best Thing I Never Had" all. day. long. Coordinating schedules, grappling with different parenting styles, communicating effectively, and, ya know, coming to terms with the fact that your ex tends to be about 10 (read: 100) minutes late is no easy thing.
Add on to all that the particular challenges the current global health crisis has yielded on the united-but-separate parenting front, and co-parenting becomes straight-up exhausting. As Dr. Tamar Blank, PsyD, director of Riverdale Psychology, a private practice in Riverdale, New York, puts it: "Co-parenting can be tricky when we are not living through a pandemic, but as it goes, stressors often elevate our levels of stress and reduce the resources we have to take care of everything else."
So, if you're feeling the pressure right now, that's only to be expected (and totally normal). But, global pandemic or not, experts agree it’s more than possible for divorced, separated, or non-dating parents to excel at co-parenting. And, believe it or not, you may even discover a new inner peace with your ex through the process. Getting there isn’t always easy, though, so these psychologists are sharing their best advice to knock the co-parenting game out of the park.
Co-parenting refers to the act of two parents raising a child even though they are no longer romantically involved. Both parents work with each other to ensure their child has a safe and loving environment to grow up in and—in an ideal situation—communication lines between parents are kept as open as possible.
"When co-parenting biological or adopted children with a former romantic partner, healthy co-parenting is geared toward making joint decisions that allow the child to have consistently safe and loving parenting," says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist in private practice, advocate, and author of Joy from Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend.
But, depending on the particular situation, you might not always be the one making those decisions. "When co-parenting involves a partner's children, the person who is not the [biological] parent may have less influence or say than might be desired," she notes.
Through therapy and candid conversations, the non-biological parent may be able to work out arrangements to allow for a more regular role in the child’s life, but the "individual may need to be highly accepting of the situation as it is, unless occasional gentle guidance and advice is invited," adds Manly.
Above all, when co-parenting, it’s important to place the needs of your child or children first. Amy L. Stark, PhD, a child psychologist in private practice specializing in teaching families how to transition after divorce, says the secret to successful co-parenting is being engaged and open at therapy sessions. It's also about making decisions based on what is best for your child, even if you don't necessarily agree. "Co-parenting greatly helps the child when the parents can actually get along and work for their betterment," says Stark. Now, onto the nuts and bolts to "Surviving Co-Parenting 101":
As you establish your ground rules for co-parenting, Manly says, remember to put your and your ex's differences on the back burner in the interest of what will most benefit your child or children. "When co-parents create a joint agreement as to bedtimes, social rules, phone and computer use agreements, etc., the kids know their parents have a united front," says Manly. "This gives children a great deal of safety and stability because they know that, no matter which parent they are with, the rules will be the same. And, when agreements are safe, stable, and reasonable, everyone will feel much more positive and steady in the long run."
And the kids not clamoring to stay up until 11 p.m. on a school night because your co-parent did? Let's just called that #blessed.
Watch Kate Hudson share her advice for co-parenting with an ex:
If you don’t have the greatest dynamic with ex and harbor negative feelings towards them, let this phrase be your mantra. And keep repeating it to yourself whenever you feel like lashing out. (See: When they let your youngster play video games beforefinishing their homework. Again.)
"I tell every parent who comes into my office that their primary directive is to love their child more than they hate the other parent," shares Stark, who does court-ordered co-parenting therapy. "They must be able to identify what their child's needs are and help support the other parent in getting those needs met. The parental breakup is not what the child should be focusing on. Instead, everyone needs to focus on making sure the child's developmental needs are being met."
Shining that spotlight on your child or children's needs extends beyond their emotional life. It’s also pivotal that both parties work to understand and promote their kids' educational, social, and activity needs. (For example, would it benefit your child more if they took up music lessons or joined a sports team?)
Firing off a three a.m. text rant to your ex about how they missed the enrollment deadline for your kid's dance class helps exactly no one. To foster strong communication—free of personal gripes or emotional baggage—Stark suggests using the Talking Parents or Our Family Wizard apps to instill healthy co-parenting practices. "[With these tools, parents can] inform the other parent about things like medical appointments, activity choices, etc.," she says. "The hard-and-fast rule is not to discuss your relationship with each other, keep on topic, and discuss only what your child needs."
With secure messaging, shared calendars, a place to share expenses, recorded calls, and more, these apps help streamline and encourage practical and respectful communication between co-parents. Best part? No more panicking every time your phone lights up with a text once you transfer all your communication to a separate platform.
Regular check-ins foster solid communication skills and can also help you nip any budding issues from the outset. Keep the meeting focused on your youngster or youngsters' wellbeing set a time limit of under 30 minutes, advises Tamekis Williams, MSW, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice and the owner of Real Life Solutions, LLC in Douglasville, Georgia. "This will give you the opportunity to check in with each other to see what needs to be addressed when it comes to your child’s needs, and discuss and solve any problems," she says.
Williams suggests setting some meeting "ground rules" to keep things on track:
"These rules will reduce the chance that defensiveness or accusations will reroute the conversation and interrupt the purpose of coming together," she adds. Stick to the logic and facts, folks, logic and facts.
Yes, this means even if you personally can’t stand them. "Offhand comments, snide remarks, and belittling are all things your children notice. If you are upset with the co-parent, seek out adults to have those conversations," says Dr. Cassandra Fay LeClair, PhD, Senior Lecturer in Communication Studies at Texas State University, who specializes in communications across interpersonal relationships. "If the co-parent is caring for your child, and you are not concerned about their well-being—the feelings of anger belong to you."
And you alone. Remember that your child or children can still—and ideally will—have a loving, healthy relationship with their other parent post-separation. "Their relationship should be allowed to develop in a new way and not merely be a reflection of your feelings," adds LeClair.
If you've been trying to deal with a particularly difficult ex to no avail, sometimes, you just need to call in a professional, advises Manly. "When in the hands of a skilled therapist who specializes in co-parenting issues and can act as a mediator and objective guide, the difficult parent often feels heard and soothed," she says.
That's not to say all—or any—sessions will be easy, but putting the time and energy into therapy can lead to healthier co-parenting in the long haul.
To ensure positive results as co-parents, keeping a shared family calendar online—that can be accessed by both parents and your kids, if appropriate—can be a boon. "This type of calendar allows everyone involved to keep abreast of school and social events, medical appointments, and sports schedules," says Manly.
But more than just a digital gathering place for everyone to stay organized, it can also strengthen your sense of teamwork with your co-parent as it helps both parties feel "kept in the loop" and helps curtail conflict that may arise from scheduling mistakes. You can even keep this calendar on a co-parenting communication app (see tip #3!), or make a shared Google calendar.
"If you have a partner who is difficult, I suggest having threads in writing [i.e., the entire line of communication], because sooner or later you will end up in court," cautions Stark. "Then, most likely, you will have the opportunity to work with a co-parenting therapist who can show you the ropes, let the court know when someone is not cooperating, and get the court's help in enforcing and following court orders for your child’s benefit."
Sometimes, a co-parent will show a threatening thing their ex has said in court, not revealing that it actually came after countless pages of awful words from the other parent, Stark explains. "Evaluators and judges want to know the entire correspondence that occurred between people, so they know what led to whatever the threatening statement was," she says. "It sometimes turns out to be a reaction to a lot of abuse."
Again, all the more reason to download a co-parenting app, as they keep unalterable records of communication between exes safe and secure.
Especially now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, this has become an increasingly contentious topic among co-parents. "There are serious decisions that must be made: Right now, enrolling your child in hybrid school versus staying totally online is the most major. Both parents need to consider the best way to augment what the kids are or aren't learning in the classroom during these difficult times," says Stark. "Identify your child's educational strengths and weaknesses to best determine how you can both work to achieve them."
As with all difficult decisions, you may find that coordinating a family therapy session (or, you know, five billion) might be helpful in forging a path forward.
"Do not expect the children to be the messenger or go-between. This is true for logistics and also for making comments about the other parent," counsels LeClair.
LeClair recommends establishing with your co-parent your preferred form of contact ASAP. "If phone conversations lead to miscommunications, agreeing to text or email to have a record may be more beneficial," she says. Forgive the broken record, butco-parenting apps can be a real savior here.
Because, this year,sigh. "When it comes to social-distancing issues, many co-parents clash as to their rules and needs. Given that COVID-19 has many people on edge and frustrated, I recommend that co-parents create a 'pandemic agreement' that covers the basic family rules," suggests Manly.
Doing so will help make sure everyone is on the same page about attending or avoiding family gatherings, school, and even down to nitty gritty details like safety protocol when grocery shopping. "Although formulating and collaborating this agreement can be a bit tricky, the payoff is terrific in that the co-parents (and children) are aligned," she says.
Sometimes, you might feel like you have to cave on your opinions in order to appease your ex. Other times, you may feel like the future is hopeless if they just can’t come around to your view on something. Be kind to yourself, and know that this is not the case.
"It is not important for the child to experience parents that agree on everything, but rather parents that are able to communicate their opinions in a healthy manner," says Blank. "I most often tell parents who are co-parenting and experiencing difficulty with one another to remind themselves that the parents should present as a harmonious unit in order to keep the child’s wellbeing in the spotlight."
To accomplish this, Blank recommends that parents strive to overcompensate for their ill feelings towards one another (easier said than done, I know) and ensure they speak very positively about the other parent or parents in front of their kids.
Look, you’ve come to terms with the fact that your ex isn’t going to become the Paddington Bear of co-parenting overnight, or potentially, ever. But if you shift your attention away from your interpersonal dynamics, you may find some workable solutions.
Erlanger Turner, PhD, founder of Turner Psychological & Consulting Services says this strategy proves especially fruitful if your co-parent is tough to deal with: "Be prepared to approach all interactions as a 'business transaction.' Schedule a time to meet or discuss co-parenting concerns. It may also be helpful to find a neutral meeting place in public for difficult discussions. During the conversation, only focus on the decision at hand. Don't allow the other parent to get under your skin." Same goes for sending messages—think about how you'd frame an email to a work colleague or client, and then replicate that with your ex.
Williams suggests employing this technique at a co-parenting check-in if you can’t come to an agreement on a particular situation with your kiddo(s): "Each parent can give two possible solutions per issue and discuss the advantage and disadvantage of each as it relates to the child—and not themselves—to eventually come up with a solution they can agree on and implement," she says. "Once parents agree, it is important for them to follow up in the next parental team meeting to discuss the progress or troubleshoot if things didn't work out as planned." As much as you can, avoid "pointing fingers," and stay focused on finding the best possible solution for your child.
If teamwork makes the dream work, then a successful co-parenting win should certainly qualify for a celebratory treat or bottle of vino—blissfully alone in a bubble bath, of course.