The co-parenting struggle is real: According to Pew Research, by the age of 9, more than one-in-five children experience a parental break-up. And while J.Lo and Marc Anthony seem to have the co-parenting thing down, for the rest of us regular people, getting along with an ex (especially when there are kids involved) isn’t easy. While you don’t have to be BFFs after a divorce, “co-parents need to suck it up and become a collaborative team for the sake of the child,” says Sherrill A. Ellsworth, former judge and co-founder of coParenter. Of course, that’s easier said than done, so we gathered the best tips from those in-the-know to help you co-parent like rock stars. (Don’t worry, no duets necessary)
What does it mean to co-parent?
“I like to think of co-parenting as child-centered decision making,” says Ellsworth. “Even if parents aren’t ‘coupled’ they are still on the same team and should be working together to help their child thrive.” To do this, parents need to be able to put a lot of the noise aside, no matter how loud and messy the break-up or how different their parenting styles. “It is work to be nice to each other, even when we may not want to be,” says Jennifer Hurvitz, author of One Happy Divorce and the podcast Doing Divorce Right. “But when you are in a co-parent relationship, you have to love your children more than you hate your spouse,” she says.
To be a good co-parent, first heal yourself.
According to marriage and family therapist Dr. Juliana Morris, if one or both parents have not done the work to move on from the past and into the next chapter, you will bring the same hurt into the co-parenting relationship. “When parents are combative, even the smallest decision, like whether a child can go on a school field trip can take on a life of its own,” says Ellsworth. To avoid this, Morris suggests viewing the relationship as a completed one, instead of a failed one. “Self-reflect and own your role in ending the relationship,” she says. “When you are happier individually, it’s easier to co-parent with focus and intention.”
When dealing with a difficult ex, remember the love you had together.
The two of you broke up for a reason, but remember when you thought you could conquer the world together? “When you’re really in the weeds of hating your co-parent, find even the smallest thing to be grateful for in that person,” suggests Morris. Then she says to try your hardest to let that behaviour shine so your appreciation can grow. But if feelings remain bitter and sharp, even after trying to find the good in your co-parent, “transform your relationship into a more business-like arrangement,” says Ellsworth. “If you cannot agree on anything else, at least agree on making all decisions child-centered.”
Communicate as a team. Even in arguments.
Disagreements will arise and when they do, it’s best to keep heated moments away from the children. “If you need to have it out, or discuss something of importance, schedule a date and a neutral place to talk,” suggest Hurvitz. Of course, some disagreements just can’t wait. So, if you must bring a contention up in front of the kids, do it wisely: “It can actually be helpful for kids to see their parents go through the process of working through a disagreement,” says Morris. “Just remember to never get personal, and to treat each other with respect.”
Be flexible, even if it pains you.
While stability and consistency are key in helping a child feel secure during unsure times, it’s also important to show flexibility. “If parents give each other the benefit of the doubt on scheduling and forgiveness—they will give their children supportive, soft places to land during hard situations,” says Ellsworth. This may mean switching days if necessary, welcoming your co-parent on the sidelines at a soccer game, or sharing the Thanksgiving table even if the thought makes your stomach turn more than your Aunt’s green beans. Hurvitz agrees: “Always try to stick to the schedule,” she advises “but if your ex needs to make a change and it’s an easy one for you, don’t say ‘no’ just to be difficult.” Hurvitz adds, “One day you might need the same favour.”
Be accessible to your co-parent.
If your first reaction is to silence your phone when your ex’s number pops up, consider yourself human. But when you are co-parenting, communication is key. “You don’t need to jump through hoops every time they call,” says Hurvitz, “but if you are available to talk, pick up the phone. And if it’s a text about the kids, respond promptly.” When the kids see that you are able to communicate kindly and respectfully, “they will appreciate it and follow suit,” she says.
Fair doesn’t always mean equal.
Your time with your child is precious, especially since it’s limited. So if you feel like your co-parent is always scheduling extra-curricular activities during your time, that could be super irritating. “Assuming that a co-parent is controlling the situation, rather than listening to the desires of your child can have an adverse effect,” says Ellsworth. But what’s best for you is not always best for your child: team sports, music groups and other activities may make her feel good about herself. So instead of getting angry, realize that “a parent’s time is their child’s time,” she says. Be a fan in the audience and cheer for them no matter when or where.
Never badmouth your ex, no matter how angry you are.
“Parents should make sure that they don’t speak negatively about their co-parent, or allow any third party to do so in front of their children,” says Ellsworth. Of course, it’s easy to channel your inner Cruella De Vil on someone that’s making your life difficult—but the consequences can be huge. “When you use negative speech in front of a child, you are teaching them to be disrespectful,” says Ellsworth. And, that’s not all: You may also unintentionally make your child feel insecure. “Children often see themselves as a combination of their parents,” cautions Ellsworth. “If parents can’t stand one another, it sets into motion a depletion of the child’s self-worth.”
Don’t ignore your co-parent’s birthday or special holidays.
It’s important to remember that you are the adult in the situation—which means putting your own feelings aside so your child still has a sense of family—even if it’s not a typical situation. “Kids don’t have cars or usually their own money,” says Hurvitz. “When they show up to Dad’s birthday dinner or Mother’s day without a present, who is embarrassed?” She asks. “They are.” If you can just try to be kind to one-another, co-parenting will be easier and more effective, promises Hurvitz, who speaks from experience.
Leave the kids out of adult decisions.
Sometimes when there is not another adult in the house, a parent may make the mistake of treating their children as a friend—bouncing decisions off of them, and discussing adult topics, like money and parenting issues. “We should give them a voice and let children pick out their clothes, class electives and ice cream flavours,” says Ellsworth, “But we should not let them pick where they will live, whether they will go to school, or get an inoculation.” Ellsworth warns that when a child has too much power it can not only lead to poor choices and lessen the respect for a parent, “it can also result in a child feeling sullen, guilty, depressed or anxious.”
Find a support network for difficult times.
When you’re co-parenting, tensions can run high, so it’s important to have someone to talk to when you’re going through difficult times. This could be a trusted religious leader in your community, a good friend that is able to help you see both sides clearly, or even a supportive Facebook group (search co-parenting support groups and find one that feels like a safe place for your needs). Another unique and helpful resource is the CoParenter App which filters communications between co-parents.