Co-Parenting Tips and Traps

Lingering animosity leads to a lot parenting conflicts after divorce. But these co-parenting tips and the pitfalls to avoid can help shed a different light on the situation. And maybe even smooth the way to a more cooperative post-divorce relationship with your ex.

Ten Common Co-Parenting Pitfalls

Quote on effective co-parenting

by Paulette Janus, LCSW

Co-parenting with your ex can seem like an impossible task. How do you put aside your history or emotional baggage, and continue to interact with this person on a regular basis?

Parenting is forever. So the question is not if you can co-parent, but how you co-parent. Your co-parenting relationship is the number one factor that will influence how your children are impacted by this change. Your children deserve to have a healthy relationship with both parents, so let's take a look at ten common co-parenting pitfalls and how you can manage them.

1. Not communicating 

This can be a particular challenge after a contentious divorce where you were accustomed to communicating with your ex through attorneys. Yet, to co-parent, communicate you must. You will need to talk about schedules, activities, schoolwork, medical appointments, and such.

Think of co-parenting as a business relationship -- the business of raising your children, and communicate how you would in a business environment. Be respectful. Focus on one issue at a time. Set aside a specific time each week to exchange information, when your children are not around to overhear.

And if you feel that you are unable to communicate effectively with your co-parent, seek a neutral third party such as a mediator, family therapist, or co-parenting coach to facilitate these discussions.

2. Responding from emotions 

Find an outlet where you can express your feelings, process, and develop coping strategies, so that when you interact with your co-parent, you are able to do so without becoming emotional. Your support can come from friends, a counselor, your pastor or rabbi, or even a support group.

Remember that although your co-parent can light the fire (as they most likely know exactly how to push your buttons), you have a choice in how to respond. Do not fuel the flames.

3. Putting your child in the middle 

This includes having your children relay messages to your co-parent, not sitting together at events, or putting your children in the position (whether purposefully or inadvertently) of having to choose between spending time with you or with your co-parent.

You are both your child's parents and your child should be encouraged to love you both. Think about a child at bat while playing baseball. If their parents are sitting on opposite sides of the field, where do they turn for that smile of encouragement before the ball is pitched? They are in the middle, literally.

4. Not letting go of the past 

The past is just that, the past. When communicating with your co-parent, focus on the present and leave the past in the past. If something occurs repeatedly, reflect on the pattern and focus on problem solving and generating multiple creative options, rather than listing all the times in the past that just such a thing happened.

5. Focusing on the absence of your child when they are not present 

Find a hobby, spend time with friends, go to the gym… you get the picture. You do not want your children to worry about you while they are with their other parent or to feel guilty for leaving you. It is not their responsibility to take care of you. You should have activities, roles and responsibilities outside of parenting, so that you feel fulfilled and are able to enjoy your time when your children are with your co-parent.

6. Thinking it is your time rather than your child's

Now that you are a two-household family system, you may feel that your time with your child is limited and that when you do have time, you want to spend it with them. While family time is important, remember that this is your child's time, not yours.

Developmentally, children need to be engaged in activities and spend time with friends. Your role as a parent is to facilitate this, to be the "taxi driver" so to speak, and take note that sometimes the best discussions occur in the car while driving to and from events.

7. Thinking your parenting strategies are the only way

You and your co-parent most likely had differences in parenting when you were married. These may have even contributed to your divorce. It is unrealistic to believe that the two of you will now parent exactly the same. It is important to communicate and be on the same page in terms of larger issues, such as when your child is allowed to date.

Yet otherwise, "pick your battles" should be your mantra. If your co-parent lets the kids stay up an hour later, think first, does this really matter? You cannot control every little thing that happens during your co-parent's time. Rest easy that children are resilient and can manage differences in parenting style. Plus, your co-parent will likely figure out that a later bedtime is not a great idea when the kids refuse to wake up the next morning and eventually do so in an irritable state.

8. Expecting your co-parent to change

If this were going to happen, it would have happened already and you and your co-parent would probably still be married. Your ex is not going to change. Accept this fact. Do not provide advice or suggestions, unless you are directly asked. Realize that you are the last person your ex is going to listen to. It will be more productive to figure out how to co-parent within the confines of the idiosyncrasies of your co-parent.

9. Pathologizing issues related to normal child development

Children grow, change, and react in typical social-emotional ways. It is normal for a child to feel anxious in response to a transition or change. They may even show regressive behaviors. Teenagers argue with their parents and would rather spend time with their peers. Before blaming your co-parent for these issues and questioning what your co-parent is doing "wrong," think first if any issues can be attributed to normal development and if so, discuss with your co-parent how to manage the issues.

10. Ignoring your co-parent's family or new significant other

You are both still your child's family and that family includes your co-parent's parents, siblings, and yes, significant other. Think about what it would be like for you to have various family members who do not speak to each other, or who pretend that your other family members are nonexistent. If you act like this towards certain members of your child's family, you are not only denying part of your child's family but also part of your child themselves.

So grin and bear it and meet your co-parent's significant other, remembering that you do not have to be best friends. Make sure to have photographs of all your children's family in their room. This is about celebrating their family and their family is different than yours.  

Paulette Janus, LCSW is a divorce coach and therapist committed to helping children and families through the divorce process. With over 15 years as a therapist, she is also a certified divorce mediator and helps assist clients in resolving conflicts as part of the collaborative divorce process. She is a member of the Collaborative Law Institute of Illinois and the founder of Janus Behavioral Services, LLC.  

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