How To Practice Healthy Co-Parenting

Updated August 22, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

Families come in many forms, shapes, and sizes, with many different dynamics. Consider these common terms: two-parent families, single-family homes, custody, and stepparents—and the list goes on and on. No matter what your family’s scenario might be, if you have children with someone, learning how to practice healthy parenting, co-parenting, or stepparenting can benefit both the children and the emotional health of everyone in the family. In fact, research shows that after divorce, parents who effectively cooperate as co-parents can play a significant factor in the well-being of children both in the shorter term and well into adulthood. Regardless of past relationship status with a co-parent, loving relationships with both parents supports the emotional well-being and development of kids.

Safety must be a priority: Unless your family has experienced or is experiencing a dangerous or unhealthy situation with a parent (such as domestic abuse or substance misuse), both parents playing a regular, active role in their child’s life can be in the child’s best interest. But if you have safety concerns for your child or yourself regarding your child’s other parent (or anyone in the household), please reach out for help. Keeping you and your child safe is crucial. Help is available 24 hours a day/7 days a week at thehotline.org. A live chat option is available, or you can call 1-800-799-7233 or text “START” to 88788.

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Healthy Co-Parenting Can Be Challenging, But It’s Possible

What Is Co-Parenting?

Co-parenting means much what it sounds like: parenting together and the parenting of children. The term is often used to describe parents who are raising children but live apart and aren’t romantically involved. But co-parenting can also refer to partners who are a couple and are raising children together. Whatever the co-parenting situation is, there are elements that are essential for the well-being of children, such as respectful, productive communication between parents and meeting the physical and emotional needs of the children.

Co-Parenting When Living Apart

Research shows that approximately 60% of children in the U.S. live in a home with parents who are married to each other. 40% of children live in other situations, many of which involve co-parenting. When parents are not a couple or live separately, co-parenting can work. One approach used is parallel parenting, which can reduce conflict between the parents (each parent maintains their own home, and children are shared between them with a minimum of contact between the parents). Whichever method you choose, to facilitate co-parenting, it can help to come up with a good communication plan and a thoughtful parenting plan

Tips For Successful Co-Parenting

  1. Focus On Your Child Or Children. Try to keep the focus on what’s in the best interest of the children when you’re co-parenting.
  2. Let Go Of Negative Feelings About The Past. If you are co-parenting with an ex-partner, negative feelings from a break-up or past relationship issues can linger. Feelings of contempt or resentment may negatively affect co-parenting. Letting go of bitterness can be freeing and help you find the peace to move forward in positive ways, including parenting. This doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily forget or excuse the hurt or hard times, but you may be able to put the past behind you and find you can focus on the present and future and the well-being of your child or children.
  3. Use Best Communication Practices. Try to keep communication concise, simple, and always respectful. Try to avoid sarcasm, blame, and criticism. Communicate in the spirit of cooperation. Try to communicate directly with your co-parent. (If you communicate through someone else, things might be misunderstood or unclear.) Avoid communicating through your child, as this is both very unhealthy and incredibly unfair to the child—never put your child in the middle of parenting or other adult issues. Making them a messenger can cause discomfort, confusion, depression, or a fear of conflict. Making a communication schedule and keeping a list of topics that you and the other co-parent regularly need to discuss can help. You can also have a conversation about your parenting styles and how to make them mesh.  
  4. Set Boundaries With Your Co-Parent. Try to keep communication about co-parenting business-like and focused on the children. You might try to take care of communication at regular times so that the number of texts, calls, or emails doesn’t become overwhelming. Consider preparing for conflict that may arise by having a conflict-resolution plan in place and proactively learning about the best ways to manage conflict and collaborate effectively together.
  5. Maintain A Consistent Schedule For Your Child. Try to keep schedules consistent between both households. Maintaining consistent times for children to spend with friends and doing activities they enjoy can also be helpful. If they play a sport or participate in another activity, they should be attending practice no matter which parent they are with.
  6. Use Active Listening. When you’re communicating with your co-parent, try to really listen to what they’re saying. Try to avoid interrupting. Make an effort to take turns speaking. You might try to rephrase what your co-parent has said to ensure that you’re understanding them correctly.
  7. Try To Support Each Other. For instance, if a co-parent is trying to stick with a reasonable rule that’s in a child’s best interest, try to support them even if your child complains to you. Avoiding bad-mouthing or complaining about your child’s other parent to your child can be essential. If a child hears one parent airing grievances or criticizing the other, this can affect their relationship with that other parent.
  8. Try To Develop Healthy Family-Wide Rules. Consistency with rules, expectations, routines, and consequences can help children feel safe. For instance, children benefit from such things as consistent bedtimes and rules about using technology and curfews.
  9. Keep A Healthy Balance. Try not to overindulge or be too authoritarian. Buying a child excessive gifts or giving them excessive freedoms to “win” their favor or out of feelings of guilt are likely not in the best interest of the child. On the other hand, feeling you need to be the “strict disciplinary” parent can also backfire. Research shows that the parenting style that results in the best outcomes for children is one that combines warmth, sensitivity, and the setting of healthy and clear limits with logical, reasonable consequences and positive reinforcement. This is known as authoritative (not to be confused with authoritarian) parenting. Also avoid enabling grown children as much as possible.
  10. Reassure Children That Spending Time With The Other Parent Is Good. Children may feel guilty about spending time with the other parent or worry about one parent being alone when they’re with the other. Try to offer reassurance and encouragement to your child about loving and seeing both parents. Share the schedule for spending time with each parent with your child so that they know exactly what to expect.
  11. Don’t Use Children To Direct Your Hurt Or Anger At Your Co-Parent. Actions like withholding visits to hurt the other parent or trying to diminish your child’s opinion of their other parent aren’t in the best interest of children. Also, avoid using your child to “spy” on the other parent to find out what they’re doing. This can put them in an awkward position, not to mention cause them long-term mental harm such as depression, anxiety, anger, and other side-effects of being forced into the middle of adult issues between two people they care about who are supposed to care about them and have their best interests in mind.
  12. Plan For Holidays, Vacations, And Birthdays. Try clearly communicating plans for holidays and vacations (with respect to any custody agreements) with advance notice. Considering the child’s usual routines and positive family traditions can help maintain consistency and a sense of normalcy and stability.
  13. Honor Your Promises And Commitments: If you commit to something regarding the children, honoring the commitment can be important to both your relationship with your children and your co-parent. For instance, when it's time to see or pick up your child, be there on time, so they feel safe and avoid a sense of fear or abandonment. 
  14. Practice The Art Of Compromise. You and your co-parent may not agree with everything, but you can try to find a compromise that works for both of you, and which, most importantly, is in the best interest of your child.

Creating A Co-Parenting Plan

If you have a legal custody agreement, you and your co-parent will need to follow the law and the stipulations of the agreement. In addition to following the custody agreement, creating a co-parenting plan can be helpful.

Co-Parenting topics to consider include:

  • Pick up and drop of children
  • Whether one or both houses will be “home base”
  • Basic rules, guidelines, and logical consequences
  • Finances, such as who will pay for what
  • Communication schedule: For instance, will you plan for the month ahead? The week ahead? Both? Will you have a regular time to call or email about plans and issues that need to be addressed? How will you communicate (text, phone, email, in-person)?
  • Children’s involvement in extracurricular and summer activities
  • Religious considerations and attendance at religious services
  • How children will spend holidays, vacations, birthdays, and school breaks
  • Medical and mental health treatment and choosing medical providers and medical insurance
  • Use of technology, including the internet, phones, and social media
  • Who will make day-to-day decisions and when and how you’ll discuss more major decisions
  • Choices about education and schools
  • College savings
  • Pets
  • Travel and passports
  • Teenagers working
  • Teenagers driving, what vehicle they’ll drive, and auto insurance
  • Dating
  • Piercings
  • Curfews
  • Talking to each other and the child when special circumstances arise
  • How you’ll resolve future conflicts using best practices
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Healthy Co-Parenting Can Be Challenging, But It’s Possible

Takeaway

Co-parenting can come with challenges, but help is available. A therapist can support you in learning healthy ways to co-parent. In therapy, you can find strategies to feel better yourself, to manage interactions with your co-parent, and to act in the best interest of your child. If you were in a romantic relationship with your co-parent, a therapist can help you find healthy ways to move forward and let go of the past so that you can focus on your own growth and that of your child.

Many parents have turned to online therapy to aid in communication, particularly if they are separated or divorced but have children together. Online therapy does not require travel to a physical office. Sessions can take place virtually, so co-parents don't have to be in the same room to talk with a therapist. This can aid in working through issues without the tension of having to be in the same physical space.

At Regain, you can connect with a licensed mental health professional who will be a good fit for your situation. A Regain counselor can offer individual counseling or can work with you and your co-parent together. A therapist can help you find the tools to co-parent and care for yourself and your child in positive ways so that you can meet your child’s needs and focus on what’s best for them. You can learn effective ways to give your child stability, and close, loving relationships with everyone they love.

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