Why it is Vital to Create a Co-Parenting Relationship Following a Separation

Jan 15, 2021
A co-parenting couple walking down a street while holding hands.

A massive fear for most separating or separated parents is whether the children will be damaged by the process. 

Typically, separation is a disorientating experience for all members of the family. There are literally hundreds of practical and emotional decisions that need to be made, and you are suddenly faced with the challenge of implementing many adjustments to the living arrangements.

Despite these challenges, there are many ways to make co parenting work for you and your children.

What is co parenting?

A young couple, radiating joy, stands alongside their child, all adorned with warm smiles.

Co parenting refers to a parenting dynamic where divorced and separated parents think together about the child’s needs and make decisions together that support the child’s emotional, physical and practical requirements. A co-parenting relationship is not about you or your ex-partner. It is about your child’s best interests and loving them above your own hurt, sadness, or resentment. A co-parenting relationship is one of the most important ingredients for children to flourish and develop well post-separation.

Why are co parenting arrangements so important?

The greatest gift for your child

A family gathered around a dining table, enjoying a meal together.

Divorce or separation, and the process of establishing a co parenting dynamic isn't easy. That being said, forming a co-parenting relationship is the greatest gift you could ever give your child. It says “We are still your parents. We look after you. You are still our priority. You are still a child who should just be focusing on your schoolwork, sports, friendships, having fun and learning.” The gift here is freedom, the freedom to continue to be a child following a separation.

Good mental health

A mother and daughter enjoying a cozy moment on a sofa.

Typically, children of parents with a good co-parenting relationship remain emotionally well even if they are sad about aspects of the separation. They thrive and can settle into life in two-family units.

Sadly, children do not fare as well when their parents are in continuous conflict. They are more likely to struggle with mental health issues (particularly anxiety and depression), acting out behaviours, and substance abuse.

Peer reviewed studies have revealed that children with higher levels of conflict between their co parents are more likely to have better emotional regulation and capacity to adjust to new living arrangements.

Having a successful co parenting relationship helps the child feel secure in their home environments, and prevents them from becoming wrapped up in distressing conflict.

Allow your child to dream about the future… in the present

A family joyfully engrossed in building with legos on the floor, capturing their playful bond.

When parents create a co-parenting relationship, a child can fantasise about a future where both parents can be in a room together celebrating life with them. This could be future birthdays, graduations, getting married and having children.

When parents remain entwined in perpetual conflict or a cold war, a child cannot even imagine their future wedding day without their parents situation ruining the event. It kills the fantasy and they become anxious in the present.

You get to be the parent you would want to have

Mother and daughter engrossed in a book before bedtime.

Stand in your child’s shoes for a moment. Your family unit is dismantling. Your future is uncertain. You do not control the separation process. If you were your child, how would you like your parents to behave at this time? You would absolutely want a co-parenting relationship to be created. You would want the right to love both parents without bitchiness and belittling of the other parent. You would want to have them model respectful communication and demonstrate good decision making. Be the parent you would want for yourself at this time.

The quality of your co parenting relationship has a large impact on the well being of a child with divorced or separated parents. For example, having a willingness to drop your child at the other parent's house, share child care responsibilities, attend school events together and to both turn up at events like parent teacher conferences demonstrates positive communication to your child. This greatly helps with child adjustment. It also demonstrates to them that you both have the capacity to resolve conflicts and cooperate in a relational way, even if you are no longer in a loving relationship.

Preserve energy lost in conflict with the other parent

A dad and his kids enjoying the outdoors in their backyard.

Even one round of conflict with one’s ex is physically and emotionally exhausting. It takes up SO much energy. Typically fights leave everyone feeling depleted, unhappy, and require a period of recovery. As much as you feel entitled to your upset or rage with your ex, conflict serves no useful purpose and will only keep your nervous system jangled and your life filled with unhealthy drama.

Avoiding conflict and preserving the peace also helps the child learn what healthy relating looks like, instead of being modelled a more distressing conflict-filled way of relating. Don't be afraid to apologise and own up to past wrongs - it demonstrates a high level of maturity and teaches your child how to be more relational in their own relationships.

It makes your life easier

A mother waving goodbye to her little one at the entrance of their door.

As well as making life easier and more peaceful for your children, it will also make your life as a parent easier. Having a cooperative co parent means you can access parenting support more easily.

If you have special events to attend, your former partner can help look after your child. Similarly, there is more of an ability to set up child support payments and make amendments to existing co parenting plans to ensure that your child's needs are met. If your children's schedules change, it is easier to be flexible and make these accommodations when both parents are willing to be flexible and change the plans to support their child's needs. This added layer of support will make your own life easier.

Gives your child consistency

The family is busy cooking in the kitchen.

Having a co parenting plan means that the parenting style across households is more consistent. This consistency in parenting approaches creates further stability for your child, a gives them a healthy example to follow. Children encode a large amount about relationships based on the dynamics they witness as a child, so setting a good standard is highly valuable.

Establish similar household rules and discipline processes and commit to making all important decisions as co parents. This co parenting plan will help to determine processes ahead of time and make things easier when challenges arise.

Tips for a new co parent

There are a few things you can do to improve your co-parenting relationship. These will improve the child's well being and help with your own feelings around parenting styles and co parenting arrangements.

Create an entirely new relationship with your ex

Whilst you may have a messy emotional history with your other parent, consider viewing your co parenting dynamics as an entirely new relationship with them - one with new rules and new priorities. It is no longer about old conflicts or showing who is "right," but rather solely about giving your child the best support possible as they go through their childhood.

You may be divorced, but your family is not over, since - like it or not - divorced parents are still connected as long as there are children involved.

This new relationship will also give you someone else to lean on. For example, if both parents work then you can collaborate to find alternative care for your child during these periods. Your co parent can also be a useful source of information, providing a helpful report on the needs and desires of your child when you are not around. They can become a resource that helps ensure the well being of your children.

Have a parental communication plan in place

An African woman engrossed in her phone, texting someone.

Decide what your method of communication is going to be, and how often you will be touching base. For example, decide how you are going to consult on processes like doctor's visits or vacations for your children and stick to this. Maintain a professional tone, and always keep your child as the priority.

Listen to what your children say and give them time to adjust

Parents and their teenager son sitting together, deep in conversation.

Allow your children space to settle into their new arrangements. Even in a perfectly arranged co parenting arrangement, children can still find the adjustment period unsettling. Give them the time and space to express any upset or frustration they may be experiencing.

Talk to your children about their desires and preferences, and respect these, even if it brings up difficult emotions or means you will have to compromise to meet their needs. Being a cooperative co parent means taking their needs into consideration. Listen to your children, and work to respect their desires.

Be open to compromise

A couple having a chat on a comfy couch in a living room setting.

Whilst you and your co parent may have different parenting styles and you may disagree with some of their methods, make sure you give them the freedom to parent as they like as long as your child is being kept safe and their needs are being met.

Compromise is particularly essential when coming up with a co parenting plan. If there is a joint custody arrangement, then decisions should be made by both parents, rather than just one parent. Give your partner room to express their own parenting opinions, and ask their opinion on various parenting scenarios.

Many separated parents will have some agreed boundaries that they will both stick to when parenting their children. Beyond this, allow your co parent the freedom to parent as they see fit.

Be respectful when talking about your co parent

A kitchen scene with a man and woman shaking hands, signifying a peaceful resolution between ex-spouses.

Demonstrate to your child and extended family that you have maintained positive relationships with the other parent. Avoid badmouthing them in front of your child as this can negatively affect their perception of both you and the other parent. Prioritise your child by always being respectful when talking about the other parent.

Separate past conflict from current actions

A married couple sitting on a couch, with strained expressions and a sense of tension in the air.

Put your own feelings about the other parent aside, and choose actions based on what is best for your child. Don't complain to your child about your co parent - keep these as private adult conversations.

Never put your child in the middle or use them as a messenger between parents. This is distressing and not something a child should ever be tasked with.

Despite frustrations that may arise, always put your children first for the sake of maintaining a good co parenting dynamic with your former partner.

You are not alone

A happy family giving each other a high five.

Consider reaching out to other co parents to hear about their life experiences, and how they deal with parenting challenges. Use this time to open up to other family members, and lean on each other for support. They are also a safe place to discuss relationship issues, particularly those which you cannot discuss in front of the children. Your community is a major asset, and can act as a helpful resource to help you navigate these complex processes.

They are of course not the only high quality sources of information when it comes to co parenting. There are a wide variety of mental health professionals and parenting resources available to help throughout this process. Don't hesitate to seek out help if needed - this can be a fantastic protective measure for the children.

When is it NOT an option to be co parents?

A beautiful bond between a mother and daughter - captured in a sweet embrace on a soft couch.

There are some specific situations where a co parenting relationship cannot be maintained. These are when there are actual threats to a child's life.

If the other parent cannot provide the child with a safe and secure home environment, then a co parenting arrangement would not be in the child's best interests. For example, if a parent has substance abuse issues, or there is domestic violence present in the home. In these situations it is okay if you cannot make co parenting work since joint custody arrangements are not in the best interest of the children. In these cases a stable environment is more important than having two parents present, and you may have to establish boundaries with your former spouse and put the co parenting aside.

There are of course other situations where a healthy co parenting arrangement cannot be reached. For example, when one parent is doing everything they can to obstruct this process. Unfortunately, we can only control our own behaviour and must continue to model mature parenting behaviours. It is possible that modelling this behaviour will eventually bring the other parent around, although this is not a guarantee. It is still best to set good standards at your end, even if the other parent is not doing their bit. Your children's lives are more important than winning a fight with your ex.

Final PSA: Successful co parenting protects your child

A cozy family moment, reading a book together during the nighttime.

Having a civil relationship with your co parent, despite negative feelings, can greatly help a child adjust to their new parenting arrangements. It guarantees you both get to spend time with your child and be involved in your child's life.

Children with separated parents who co create and implement a successful parenting plan typically end up with higher levels of emotional well being. It reduces noise in the child's life. Instead of being weaponised and caught between conflict, or forced to be the messenger, it allows them to focus on one thing - being a child.

Co parenting is not always easy. When parents live in different places, conduct their lives in different ways and have a difficult relationship with one another, trying to co parent can be a challenging process - especially when it involves putting your feelings about another person aside.

Remember, you both brought this child into the world - they did not choose anything about this situation. It is now your responsibility to put their needs first, even if it comes with some difficult challenges and emotions.

Successful and healthy co parents free up their children to enjoy life, and model healthy dispute resolution to them. A healthy co parenting dynamic is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children during a separation.

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