What is co-parenting?
Co-parenting is sharing the responsibility of parenting with someone else. It is usually thought of in the context of divorce or separation where the partners have kids together and share custody. This is indeed co-parenting but not the only form of it. The phrase “primary caregiver” refers to a person who takes full responsibility for someone (in this case a child) who cannot take the full responsibility for themselves. If a primary caregiver (or parent) shares this responsibility with another person that is co-parenting. A single parent may call on the support of parents or their child’s grandparents and form a co-parenting relationship. A couple with kids from previous relationships may be in a co-parenting relationship with their previous partners/ex’s. A married couple with children may need help from an aunt, uncle, or grandparent sometimes and form a co-parenting relationship. Couples in a committed relationship who have children together are in a co-parenting relationship as well as a romantic partnership. Any time the primary caregiving is done by more than one person, this may be co-parenting.
1. Identify the co-parent in your child’s life. To identify co-parents in your child’s life, ask yourself a few questions.
- If you are your child’s primary caregiver, do you share time and/or parenting responsibilities with anyone else? *If yes, you are most likely in a co-parenting relationship* If so, who (your spouse, current partner, previous partner/ ex, your parents, your child’s grandparents)? *This person is most likely a co-parent*
- If you are not your child’s/children’s primary caregiver, do you share time and/or parenting responsibilities with your child’s primary caregiver? *If yes, you are most likely in a co-parenting relationship* If so, who is your child’s primary caregiver (your spouse, current partner, previous partner/ ex, your parents, your child’s grandparents)? *This person is most likely a co-parent*
Hopefully these questions helped clarify things. It is also possible to be co-parenting with more than one person. For example, you may be co-parenting with your parents (your child’s grandma and grandpa) or your previous partner/ex, his/her new partner, and your new partner. As you can see, things can get complicated but that’s ok because all our “villages” look a little different. Once you identify if you are in a co-parenting relationship and with whom, you can work to strengthen that relationship for the good of your child. You don’t have to raise your child/children alone, and sometimes you don’t get to even if you wanted to. Whether you are co-parenting your child/children with your current partner, your previous partner/ex, or a friend, a family member like your parent, grandparent, or sibling, using effective co-parenting strategies will benefit your child/children.
2. Effective communication. Who doesn’t need more communication? I believe everyone can use a little more communication. In the context of co-parenting what I mean by communication is filling each other in on what’s happening so you can stay on the same page. It’s important to share what has been happening in your child’s life with your co-parent. Find time to fill your co-parent in, discuss your ideas about parenting decisions, and even your hopes for your child’s/children’s future. Steps 3-5 depend on communication with your co-parent, so give it a try. If it is particularly difficult to have a civil conversation with your co-parent try to start with a topic that is easier to talk about (e.g. “I noticed that our daughter had a good day at school today and she did well on her math test”) or discuss how you would like to improve your communication with your co-parent (e.g. “I would really like it if you and I could talk more, I think we can be a better parenting team if we do”). When you talk to your co-parent be sure to focus on your own thoughts and feelings and not the things you think your co-parent is doing wrong.
3. Don’t put your child/children in the middle. On the subject of communication, it is important that you don’t communicate with your co-parent through your child/children. Instead, talk to your co-parent yourself, preferably out of earshot from your child/children. Sometimes it is much easier to give your child a message from you for your co-parent (e.g. “Tell your grandma I will be late to come get you on Friday because I have an important work meeting”). Even if the message is simple, and does not seem harmful, don’t do it. Communicate with your co-parent first and then tell your child what’s going on (e.g. “I have a meeting on Friday at work so your grandma and I agreed that even though I will be a little late picking you up, you two are going to have fun baking cookies together”). It is very tempting and easy to put your child in the middle but this will give your child a role in their parenting and cause unneeded stress. Imagine that you need your car fixed so you take it to a mechanic. Now what if the mechanic walked you through the steps to fix your car yourself and sent you on your way. What would you feel? Confused? Disappointed? Angry? Excited for a new challenge? Privileged in receiving such knowledge? It’s great that the mechanic taught you a new skill, but that’s not the service you needed. You went to the mechanic to get your car fixed, not get instructions on how to fix it yourself. In the same way that you need your car repaired by the mechanic, your child/children need you to parent them. When you put your child/children in the middle of the parenting relationship, you are putting them in a co-parenting role. They may want to be in the co-parenting role and they may like it, as some people like to fix their own cars, but that is not the service you are providing. You and your co-parent are there to parent your child/children, not give them the power to parent themselves.
4. Present a united front. If it has been decided that what’s best for your child is to have split custody, even if you disagree, present a united front with your co-parent. It is not effective to express to your child that this was not your idea and you don’t like it (e.g. “I hate that I only see you x days per month, it’s your fathers fault”). It is ok to express how you feel without throwing your co-parent under the bus (e.g. “I really miss you on the days that I don’t get to see you. It hard for me to not see you all the time and I’m sure it’s also hard for your father to not see you all the time”). Find something you agree on, in the situation above, you may both agree that it sucks to not get to see your child/children all the time. It’s hard to get anything done if you and your co-parent are fighting a civil war. You don’t have to like each other (it wouldn’t hurt if you did though) to effectively co-parent. If you and your co-parent are in high conflict, your child/children will know. It doesn’t matter if you are the most careful person in the world and you hide all the evidence of conflict from your child/children, they will sense that something is wrong. When this happens children tend to do everything in their power to make things right which may look like acting out or behavioral issues to force you into communicating and co-parenting with your co-parent. The problem is this doesn’t always work and even if it does, it causes your child unneeded stress. If you don’t like your co-parent, or even if you do, it is important to think about your child/children and put your differences aside for them. Get on the same page as your co-parent and stop fighting a civil war. I am sure that both parties want your child/children to live a safe, healthy, and happy life. You are on the same team.
5. Provide consistency and routine for your child/children. Children benefit greatly from routine and consistency. Uncertainty can be very scary for a child and a lack of consistency can cause your child unneeded stress and may lead to acting out or behavioral issues. It may be difficult to agree in a co-parenting situation. Try to find anything, no matter how small it may seem, that you and your co-parent can agree on to give your child/children consistency. This could be as simple as what time you have dinner each night, or your morning/bed time routine. If your child has dinner at 5pm when at your co-parents’ house and 6pm at your house, try to come to a compromise and agree to have dinner at 5:30pm every night so regardless of where they are, you child knows dinner is at 5:30pm. If it is not possible to find a compromise and offer consistency between houses, at least give your child consistency in each house. It is good enough if you have dinner every night at 6pm with your child/children and your co-parent has dinner every night at 5pm with your child/children. As long as you are providing as much consistency as possible, your child/children will benefit. An example of a common challenge is a bed time routine. If you have a specific bed time routine that has been working, stick to it every night so your child knows what bed time looks like at your house. If you don’t have a specific bed time routine, it’s time to implement one and/or ask your co-parent what they do. It could involve queuing your child for bed, “time for bed”, then brushing teeth together, then having a little tickle time followed by a song or a story. I don’t think bed time is as easy as I just made it sound, but if you stick to a routine it will get easier over time.
It is difficult to implement change all at once. If these strategies seem feasible to you I would recommend trying them out one at a time, starting with #1 and #2, and then work from easiest to hardest. If you and your co-parent are able to work together to implement these strategies, your child/children will benefit. I hope this has been helpful and you can do it! Good luck and happy co-parenting everyone!
-Aimee Robertson, M.A.