Co-parenting is the process by which parents who do not live together communicate and work with each other to promote their children’s best interests, including their children’s having an ongoing and healthy relationship with both parents. Co-parenting does not necessarily mean equal and identical relationships with the children–each parent is a unique individual with his/her strengths and weaknesses, and each parent has his/her own schedules and commitments. In intact families, it is not uncommon for one parent to spend more time with the children, or be more emotionally available to the children, while the other parent coaches, is a Scout leader, or helps the children with their homework. Therefore, the goal of co-parenting is for parents to communicate and cooperate with each other to help their children become well-adjusted, independent, and responsible adults.

The foundation for effective co-parenting is established when you first tell your children that you are getting divorced. If you follow the suggestions in Telling Your Children about Your Divorce, you and your co-parent will establish a model of cooperation, mutual respect and support. Your children will see that: the two of you are willing to work as a team; neither of you is a victim or villain; both of you will continue to be their parents; and their future will be secure.

The next crucial step in building an effective co-parenting relationship is how the two of you handle the actual process of your divorce. If you follow the suggestions in Helping Your Children Cope with Your Divorce, you and your co-parent will be able to work together to help your children adapt to their new situation, including living in two separate homes. Your children will begin to accept your divorce more as a change than a total loss when they realize that both parents still love them, are willing to work together, and will take good care of them.

Once your divorce has been finalized, and both of you have built the foundation upon which to build an effective co-parenting relationship, you can concentrate on the future and what is in the best interests of your children, rather than dwelling on the past and the stress and turmoil of the divorce.

This article provides guidelines that can help you avoid the common pitfalls of post-divorce parenting, as well as suggestions for how to work effectively together.

Continue to keep your spousal and parental roles separate:
Just because the other parent wasn’t a good spouse doesn’t mean that he/she isn’t–or can’t become–a good parent. Give them–and co-parenting–a fair chance. If you still have difficulties separating your anger, hurt, frustration, distrust, etc. towards your former spouse from their distinct role as a co-parent, then seek the guidance of a therapist or support group to help you gain some perspective. The objective is to focus on what is in your children’s best interests–and almost always, this means having both parents actively involved in the lives of your children.

Maintain the status quo/establish consistency:
To the extent possible, keep the children in the same schools, with the same friends, and in the same activities that they had prior to the divorce. This consistency will allow the children to have an established foundation on which to build their new lives as children of divorce.

Work together so that both households can maintain essentially the same schedules and routines–including mealtimes and bedtimes–that prevailed prior to the commencement of your divorce. Establish similar rules, expectations, routines and consequences. This will provide structure and consistency for the children, making it easier for them to adjust to the new parenting arrangement, which, in turn, will support your co-parenting relationship. Also, consistency between the households makes it difficult for the children to pit one parent against the other, such as “Mom/Dad is mean/strict/unfair, etc.,” “Mom/Dad lets me…,” or “Mom/Dad doesn’t make me…”

Keep new relationships separate:
Let the children adjust to the divorce before introducing a new “significant other” into their lives. Your children are mourning the loss of your prior marital relationship, so introducing a new adult relationship will only upset the children, make them resent the new person, and compel the children to protect their other parent who they often see as being “betrayed” by you. Furthermore, children worry that if you can leave their other parent and quickly replace him/her, then you can just as easily leave your children, and possibly replace them, too. The children need time alone with you before they can accept someone new.

Don’t put the children “In the middle”:

  • (a)  Don’t use your children as bargaining chips, or as a threat, to withhold or compromise the other parent’s relationship or time with the children. Do not refuse to pay child support or other child-related expenses if the other parent does not yield to your demands, and do not threaten to withhold or compromise the other parent’s time with the children until that parent pays you child support, alimony, etc.
  • (b)  Don’t use the parenting schedule as a threat or as a reward with the children, such as: “if you don’t behave, I’ll make you spend time with your father,” or “if you don’t go to your mother’s house next weekend, I will take you to…”
  • (c)  Don’t use the children as your personal spies and drill them about the other parent or his/her significant other; not only does this strongly suggest to the children that the other parent is doing something wrong, but it also forces the children to “betray” the other parent in order to “be loyal” to you by doing what you ask of them.
  • (d)  Don’t use the children as your “messengers,” but rather, communicate directly with your co-parent so children don’t get involved in your adult issues.
  • (e)  Don’t criticize, disparage or complain about the other parent to your children, but rather, be respectful when in the presence of, or talking about, your co-parent. Because they identify with and need both parents, children will be caught in the middle, not knowing which parent is right and which is wrong. If you have issues with your co-parent (they were late dropping off the children, paying child support, etc.) do not discuss them with/in front of the children, but rather, raise your concerns directly with your co-parent out of the earshot of your children.
  • (f) Don’t let the children take care of you or feel sorry for you. These roles force the children to takes sides by “protecting” you against the other parent. Children need your support as a parent; you can get the support you need from family, friends or therapists, but not from the children.
  • (g)  Don’t ask your ask your children to “keep secrets” or lie for you. This puts children squarely in the middle, because the secret or the lie clearly is something that you don’t want the other parent to know. Therefore, the children feel that you are doing something wrong (otherwise, you wouldn’t ask them to hide the truth) that their other parent really should know about. The children are caught between being “loyal” to you or to their other parent.
  • (h)  Transitioning from one home/parent to the other can be especially challenging for children because they don’t want to hurt or reject either parent. Therefore, it is important to establish routines for dropping off and picking up the children including times, and where you will physically greet or say goodbye to the children (in the driveway, at the front door, etc.). When you send your children to spend time with their other parent, do not act sad or make the children think that you need them to be with you. Instead, support and encourage their spending time with their other parent.

Support your other co-parent:

  • (a) Support the other parent’s equal parental role. Consult with each other before making major decisions that involve the children, and listen with an open mind to your co-parent’s opinions, suggestions, and concerns. Facilitate communication between the other parent and the children. Encourage the other parent’s participation in all aspect of the children’s lives, including medical, educational, religious, and social. Keep the other parent timely informed of upcoming medical appointments, special events, school activities, etc.
  • (b)  In order to emphasize your equal parental roles, do not use the term “visitation,” which suggests that one parent is primary and the other is secondary or part-time. Rather, refer to “time with Mom” or “time with Dad.”
  • (c)  Don’t allow the children to call your new spouse or significant other “Mom” or “Dad,” or any variations of these parental titles. Doing so severely diminishes the importance and role of the natural parent, and can be very confusing to the children.
  • (d) Honor your parenting plan, and deviate from the plan only with the other parent’s approval. Give the other parent ample advance notice of your request so that you can discuss it calmly and the other parent has adequate time to consider your request. Do not tell the children of your proposed deviation until you have cleared it with the other parent; otherwise the other parent will feel forced to grant your request for fear of disappointing or angering the children, and putting them in the middle.
  • (e)  If you cannot be with the children–even for just a few hours–when the children are scheduled to be with you, give your co-parent the first opportunity to be with the children before you leave the children with someone else, such as a babysitter, neighbor, family member, or daycare. By offering this opportunity to your co-parent, you demonstrate your support of his/her role as a primary parent while promoting your children’s spending time with the other parent.
  • (f)  Don’t keep score: even if it means giving up some of “your” scheduled time with the children, be flexible with the parenting plan in order to accommodate your co-parent’s schedule, as well as to facilitate the children’s opportunity to attend special events or spend time with the other parent’s extended family members. Focus on what’s best for your children rather than on your parental “rights.”
  • (g) Don’t allow the children to decide if or when they will see the other parent. Giving them this option shows the children that you do not respect the other parent’s equal parental role, while also giving the children power that is inappropriate and damaging to a healthy co-parenting relationship.
  • (h)  However, if the children appear to have persistent concerns about spending time with their other parent (anxiety, boredom, hunger, issues with significant other, etc.), or if the children are openly critical of the other parent, then calmly talk with your children to better understand those concerns. Don’t rush to accuse the other parent of inadequacy or wrongdoing–often the children’s concerns have nothing to do with the other parent, but rather, are rooted in the children’s concern that spending time with their other parent might make you angry or sad. Discuss those concerns with your co-parent so that the two of you can cooperatively address the situation and support your co-parent’s equal role.
  • (i)  If the other parent lacks any skills necessary to effectively parent the children, then help that parent to acquire those skills, such as how to cook foods the children like, how to do laundry, how to manage play dates or sleepovers, etc. This will make the other parent’s home more comfortable and inviting for the children. Likewise, when you are challenged by a situation, ask your co-parent for help or advice. This shows your co-parent that you respect them, their skills, and their opinions.
  • (j)  Make children feel “at home” with both parents. Help them set up their own living space to their liking at both homes. Make sure that they have pajamas, underwear, socks, play clothes, coats, toothbrush, toys, etc. at both homes, along with personal mementos of the other parent such as pictures. Allow the children to bring toys or other special items between households, and encourage them to have friends over to play at both homes.
  • (k) Don’t schedule appointments, extra-curricular activities, vacations, holidays, or family events if they coincide with the time that the children are scheduled to be with the other parent without first getting the other parent’s consent in advance.
  • (l)  Make sure that schools, doctors, daycare providers, extra-curricular activity personnel, etc. have accurate contact information for both parents. Also make sure that both parents timely receive school notices, sports schedules, and other information about the children’s lives.
  • (m) Allow and encourage your children to enjoy spending time with their other parent. Let your children know that you support their relationship with their other parent, and be positive and enthusiastic about the things they do when they are with their other parent. Try to find positive things to say about their other parent.
  • (n)  Although it may be challenging at first, try to sit next to each other at the children’s school, sports, and similar events. This way your children can come up to both of you at the end of the program/game/etc. rather than feeling torn between the two of you, not knowing which parent to go to first, and fearing that the other parent will be upset that the child did not go to him/her first. The same applies to the children’s birthdays: meet together as a family (preferably at a restaurant or other public place) to show the children that you are both their parents and that both of you love them. You may be divorced as spouses, but you should never be divorced as co-parents.

Support your co-parent’s significant other:
This may be particularly difficult to do, especially if you blame that other person for breaking up your marriage, or you feel slighted now that your former spouse has moved on. However, for the sake of your children, focus on that other person as a significant part of your children’s post-divorce reality. Work with them as a partner in raising your children.

Naturally, you want your children’s step-parent to treat your children well, and support your rules, regulations, and expectations. Also, this step-parent may help you by driving the children to/from their various activities, and even by paying for some of their needs, such as clothing, extra-curricular activities, school lunches, etc. Furthermore, this step-parent will be there when you aren’t, so he/she will be the one to guide, console, help, and nurture your children. Therefore, it makes good sense to make the co-parent your partner, not your enemy, for the sake of the children. This also avoids putting your children “in the middle” between you and your former spouse and his/her significant other.

While it is important to support your co-parent’s significant others, they should not be allowed to replace you or your role as a primary parent; you and your co-parent have the final word on matters relating to your children. Therefore, it would not be appropriate for the children to call their step-parents “mom” or “dad,” because that would clearly diminish the role of the “real” parent, while likely causing the children anxiety and confusion.

Don’t try to buy your children’s love or loyalty:
Don’t play the “Disneyland parent” with gifts, vacations, permissiveness or other rewards in an effort to outdo the other parent or make that parent appear to be mean, stingy, or insensitive to the children. This puts the other parent at a disadvantage, especially if they have neither the time nor the means to provide these extras to the children. Furthermore, this tactic teaches the children that materialism is more important than love, caring, and personal involvement–all of which are the things your children need more than anything.

Consider sharing the cost of expensive gifts, or even trips, and let the children know that the gift/trip is from both of you. Do not hint that one parent contributed more than the other.

Trust your co-parent:
It is not unreasonable to be concerned about your children’s safety and well-being, but the key is that you need to trust each other to be careful, responsible and loving parents who would never intentionally put your children in harm’s way.  Otherwise, you would undermine the other parent’s role while putting the children “in the middle.” If there is no prior history of neglect or abuse, then you most likely have no reason to believe that your co-parent would be any less concerned than you are about the children’s safety and well-being.

Once you are divorced (or living apart in anticipation of divorce), each of you has to recognize and respect the other’s autonomy and privacy. Your respective homes are your own “castles,” and neither of you has a right to enter the other’s castle, or to “check up” on what goes on there, unless there is good reason to believe that the children are in danger or at risk. If you have valid reasons to be concerned, then you would call the CT Department of Children and Families (DCF) to make an immediate inspection of the other parent’s home and investigate the accuracy of your concerns.

Communicate with your co-parent:

Regular and respectful communication between co-parents fosters cooperation and trust, while eliminating many of the misunderstandings or assumptions that often lead to conflict between co-parents. Therefore, set up a regular time each week when the two of you can discuss events of the previous week; upcoming events; changes in your work schedules; school issues; extra-curricular, religious and medical schedules; and other concerns that either of you or the children may have.

You don’t have to meet in person, or even speak to one another; if you are intimidated or irritated by more direct contact with your co-parent, e-mail or text messages can be even more effective, because you have the opportunity to organize your thoughts and express yourself clearly and without unnecessary emotion. Furthermore, written communications allow you calmly reflect on what the other parent is saying, consider the merits of their position, and respond appropriately, without a “knee-jerk” reaction that will only make matters worse.

Prepare a list of items to be addressed in your communications. Focus on what’s best for the children, stick to the facts and keep both your past relationship and your personal emotions out of the process. Avoid sarcasm, and avoid boldface type, all capital letters, or anything else that is inflammatory, critical or demanding.

You cannot control how your co-parent will behave, but you can control two important elements of your communication. The first element is how you approach the other parent–and therefore, how you influence their responses to you. For example, if you are demanding, angry, or critical, the other parent is likely to be equally demanding, angry, critical and dismissive of your needs and concerns. The second element of communication that you can control is your reaction to the other parent. Therefore, if your response is angry, critical, or dismissive, you will simply be continuing the vicious cycle that is preventing healthy communication. If necessary, seek the assistance of a therapist to help you let go of the past and focus on your children.

Remember that these conversations are between the two of you as co-parents, so be sure that your communications are kept out of earshot or eyesight of your children.

In order to maximize communications with your co-parent, there are certain behaviors you should adopt, and others that you should avoid. For more information, see: How to Communicate with Your Ex.