Divorce happens. For couples with children, what comes after can make all the difference in how family dynamics continue.
Co-parenting is when divorced or separated parents work together to raise their children, instead of operating as fully independent parties. Typically co-parents collaborate on the big, impactful decisions and operate independently on small, everyday ones. Some of the biggest decisions regard visitation, education and health, which all look different in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As in any partnership, it takes compromise and mutual respect to make it work. What sets co-parenting apart from other partnerships, however, is that kids’ development is at stake.
Don't communicate while angry
“When marriages don’t work out, spouses can part ways and do as they please. Parents cannot,” medical psychologist Dr. Baraka W. Perez says. “Your child is your creation and shared responsibility. When co-parenting, it is essential to focus on the task at hand: parenting.” Start the co-parenting conversation assuming the child’s other parent also has the child’s best interest at heart. If talks get tense, try to take a breather. Communicating while angry could lead to hurtful outbursts and hasty decisions. “The takeaway message is to put personal grievances aside for the wellbeing of your child,” Perez says.
One way to help keep things fair, therefore civil, is to consider each parent’s skills and circumstances in creating a cooperative system. For instance, a parent who is an educator could have the final say in where a child goes to school. A parent who loved sports as a kid could have the final say in choosing extracurricular activities. “Once you both divide and decide to mutually parent your child, you really home in on making the decisions from your individual perspectives,” co-parent coach Toni Latrice Coleman says. “It is important for the individuals to learn they are two different people and they both hold strengths and weaknesses. I try to help identify these in my clients so that we are handing tasks off to each parent based on their strengths.”
Don't use children as the messenger
Many co-parents find that the same problems which plagued their romantic relationships are often the source of conflicts in their co-parenting. “Co-parenting can be challenging as poor communication may have contributed to the actual divorce,” Perez says. “When parents are amicable, this improves your child’s mental health and wellbeing. It also demonstrates problem solving and how to get along with someone with whom you may not see eye-to-eye.” A mistake co-parents often make, is having children relay messages to the other parent. Not only could it lead to misunderstandings, a la telephone game, but it sets a bad example of communication for the child.
Be consistent with plans
Aside from involving them in some decisions, one-parent-to-one-kid, children shouldn’t be privy to any co-parenting discussions. “Plans should be made when both parents are calm, willing to compromise, and mentally prepared to have these conversations. If circumstances allow, children should not be a part of, or even in earshot of, these conversations,” Perez says. “Imagine an auction with the child as the coveted item and parents as bidders. How must it feel to hear your parents ‘bid’ for your time?”
“Co-parenting can be challenging, but your child is worth it,” Perez says. “Communicate amicably, compromise, and be consistent with your plans.” It’s OK that it might not always be perfect or 100 percent equal. “Sometimes the choices don’t necessarily hold the best interest of the other parent,” Coleman says. “But looking at the positives of the entire picture is what can help you navigate with a lot of peace in the process.”