Your parenting plan is final with the courts, and now you find yourself in a new role as a co-parent. This is entirely new territory for you. You are implementing your parenting plan, but you have so many questions about other challenges that you are experiencing.
We have partnered with over 1,000 parents during their co-parenting journey, and the top three most common questions we get asked by our clients are:
- Why is communication so difficult?
- What happens when we can’t agree on decisions about our children?
- How do I handle different rules and expectations between our homes?
Not only will we answer these questions, but we will also provide tips to overcome these challenges. If you need more help with your co-parenting relationship, sign up for our virtual co-parenting workshop for even more in depth information and the chance to get your questions answered during our live Q&A.
Why is communication so difficult?
Parents often observe to us that communication seemed easier when they were parenting under the same roof. The other parent was right there (or at least easy to reach) to ask a quick question or to make decisions “on the fly”. Now, there is a gap in both availability and communication between co-parents. Trying to find a method of communication is now a challenge. Parents ask questions such as: “Do we text, email, or talk on the phone? How often should we be communicating, and what should we be communicating about?”
What: In part, the answers to “what should co-parents be communicating about” lies in their parenting plan. Custody – or decision making – around religious training (if any), education, and medical decisions, or extra-curricular activities regarding your child are the major areas to be considered. Do you have joint custody or sole custody? This will determine who and what co-parents should be communicating about.
Tip: Know what’s in your parenting plan, and who is identified as the decision maker(s). If you have “joint” custody, then both parents must agree on decisions related to their children. This will require that you meet and/or discuss the decision with your co-parent and if there are financial implications to the decision, how will it be paid for.
When: The answer to “how often” centers around several factors, such as how amicable you are with your co-parent and the ages of your children. Another factor that determines “how often” is the urgency of an issue or topic. Is it an emergency (such as taking your child to the ER), or is it about taking a vacation with your children this coming Christmas? Emergencies would require immediate communication whereas a vacation at Christmas (months away) would be less urgent, yet still require a conversation with your co-parent.
Tip: Set a regular monthly meeting with your co-parent to discuss issues regarding your children. Some parents even create a shared family calendar where appointments, events, activities related to the children can be seen and entered by both parents. This will help co-parents look at the calendar together during their regular meetings to discuss any upcoming things, or work out vacations, etc. in the future.
How: Parents who used to find texting back and forth about their kids, now find the same method of communication becoming contentious or used as a weapon by their co-parent. A parenting plan may state that “parents must mutually agree” on decisions about their children, but how can parents reach mutual agreement when they are ghosted or attacked by their co-parent via text, email, or in-person? Sometimes a change in the method of communication may help break an unhealthy cycle between co-parents, or the use of a parenting app may be the answer. Two apps we would recommend are Family Core and Family Wizard.
Tip: Find a method that works for both you and your co-parent. Keep all communication about the children and avoid bringing up past issues or grievances with your co-parent. Keep your communication present and future focused, centered only on the children. Keep your emotions in check during your communications and treat it as a “business meeting” about your children – this can help eliminate emotional and personal issues from the conversation.
Communication is one of the keys to healthy co-parenting and is important and crucial to help children receive the support they need from both of their parents. Effective communication is more than just exchanging information; it involves a wide range of skills such as listening, understanding what is being communicated, sharing concerns, feelings, or a point of view, communicating non-verbally, and having open-honest exchanges between co-parents.
What happens when we can’t agree on decisions about our children?
When parents made agreements that became their parenting plan, the hope was that everything going forward would be able to be worked out. This is true especially for parents with joint custody. But soon this hope becomes squelched after the first conflict rises about the children. Do you become aggressive or even attack the other parent when you disagree? Or do you give in or even avoid the conflict entirely? None of these methods are helpful in resolving conflicts or disagreements with a co-parent. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when you find disagreements on the rise with your co-parent.
How am I approaching this conflict? Do you immediately go on the defensive and attack or become aggressive? Do you avoid conflict and try switching the topic? Or do you find yourself giving in, so you don’t have to deal with the conflict at all, then become resentful you had to do so?
Tip: Know your intent when dealing with a topic of conflict. If your intent is to “be right” at all costs, then this approach will fuel the conflict. However, if your intent is to come to an agreement regarding your children, and you are willing to compromise with your co-parent, then a conflict can be de-escalated and focused on resolving the issues amicably.
What is my greatest concern? Are you most concerned about yourself, being right, or getting what you want? Are you most concerned for others (such as your children) and want to be cooperative in resolving a disagreement? When engaging in a conflict, your “greatest concern” will determine how you approach the conflict – aggressively or cooperatively.
Tip: The most successful approach to conflict is cooperation and collaboration. Cooperation is key with your co-parent, and can help demonstrate to the other parent that you are willing to work things out versus fighting over the issue. Give and take is one of the keys to successful conflict resolution.
Whose interest am I focused on? Are you looking at the situation with the perspective of “what’s in the best interest of my children”? Or are you looking at the situation as a battle with a winner and a loser? When you place your children at the center of the conversation – focusing on what’s in their best interest, it can shift the entire conversation and help refocus it to a more cooperative and affirming decision-making process that provides your children with a sense of safety and security and reduces tensions within the family.
Tip: Keep your children at the center of the conversation. Acknowledge that each parent wants the best for the children – so try to come up with solutions that meet this desire. Keeping your discussions intentional and focused on the children vs spinning off on a “rabbit trail” of emotions or unrelated issues, will help keep the conversation moving in a positive direction.
Have I considered asking for help? There are times when co-parents need the help of a third party to help resolve disagreements. This doesn’t mean dragging conflicts through the courts, but rather reaching out to someone who is detached from the situation who can help see things from an “outsiders’ point of view”. Asking for this type of help can reduce the tension and allow for alternative strategies which may help both parents when future disagreements arise – because they are certain to happen.
Tip: We all need help every now and then, and co-parenting is no exception. Asking someone else who is not emotionally connected to your family or situation can be a helpful resource to resolving conflicts. Counselors, mediators, etc. can all serve this role for co-parents. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help from a professional.
How do I handle different rules and expectations between our homes?
This is a common struggle for co-parents. When the rules used to be the same under one roof, now parents find themselves living in separate homes, and/or the addition of a significant other or spouse in the picture. There may even be additional children from a new relationship or marriage that become challenging when trying to navigate expectations and rules for your own children. Perhaps your child is now a teenager and topics of dating, driving, or curfews are now an issue and your parenting plan, which was drafted when your children were younger, no longer fits your situation. What can you do?
Know yourself: It is important that while you are a co-parent, you are also an individual with your own expectations and experiences. These factors will influence your decision-making for your children. Understanding your own values and standards will help you navigate your decisions around your children. Also, knowing your co-parent’s expectations, experiences and values will help inform your approach when working through the expectations you come up with for your children.
Tip: Make sure you have the personal support you need to help you understand yourself (emotions, strengths, weaknesses, etc.). Surround yourself with a support system that can provide you with perspective and awareness. You can find local support groups of other co-parents, a counselor, or a coach that can provide you with this kind of support.
Know your children: This is not to assume you don’t know your children; however, do you know the characteristics and behaviors of children who are preschool age, elementary, middle school, high school, or college age? They are very different, and understanding where your children are within these stages will help you and your co-parent adjust and allow for the healthy growth and development of your children.
Tip: Educate yourself on the stages of child development. There are many books on child development and co-parenting that are helpful for parents who find themselves in new territory when it comes to their children’s developmental changes. School teachers, counselors, and pediatricians are also great resources.
Understand the impact of separate homes upon children: Besides knowing the stage and development of your children, it is important to understand that living in two separate homes is very challenging for children. These challenges vary based on the age and stage of a child’s development, but regardless, all children need consistency, clear expectations, and opportunities to communicate their feelings and concerns when things change.
Tip: Again, educating yourself on the impacts separation or divorce has on children is important. The same tips (stated above) apply here. Reach out to professionals, co-parenting books, parenting coaches, support groups, etc. for help.
Re-evaluate regularly: Co-parents need to make sure they review their current parenting plan on a regular basis – having it close at hand as a reminder of what you and your co-parent agreed to – and understanding what your expectations and rules were to be for your children. It is also important for co-parents to re-evaluate their parenting plan every 2-3 years (on average). This allows parents to make changes that are in the best interest of their children, adjust for a child’s age and stage of development, and to accommodate any changes in households, rules, and expectations. The courts expect parents to modify their parenting plans for all the reasons listed above, as they too want to see parents make changes that are in the best interest of the children.
Tip: Make it a regular occurrence to review your parenting plan with your co-parent and determine when it is time to make changes that best reflect the life you are living with your children. Plan to address these changes through officially modifying your parenting plan with the courts every 2-3 years.
We understand that co-parenting can be challenging, and if any of these top 3 questions have entered your co-parenting relationship, we invite you to join us for our next free virtual Co-Parenting Workshop. We can help provide answers to these common co-parenting questions or concerns and provide strategies that you and your co-parent can use now and in the future, setting a path forward for a healthier co-parenting relationship. Feel free to invite your co-parent to join in this workshop too. We will also provide a Q&A at the end of the workshop to help answer any questions you may have about co-parenting.