A Contest with No Winners—How competitive co-parenting hurts kids, and 10 Tips to avoid it

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No one will say it’s easy. Learning to co-parent with your ex is one of the most challenging parts of divorce when you have a family. There’s no foolproof roadmap, no one-size-fits-all solution. You won’t always get it right, especially in the beginning when the emotional temperature is likely running high.

But it’s important to be aware of one major co-parenting pitfall that can be especially harmful to children—competitive co-parenting.

Research has shown that intense or ongoing conflict between parents harms children. “It is not the divorce itself but rather the toxicity that can stem from the divorce and carry on into the co-parenting relationship,” says Dr. Debra Carter, Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, in coParenter, citing a 2013 study by Dr. Irwin Sandler.

A 2015 study led by Sarah Murphy at the University of Texas at Austin, which observed more than 100 families at two points, five years apart, found that even when considering the numerous forms of conflict that a child may experience during divorce, competitive co-parenting, in particular, was associated with lasting negative impact.

“Competitive co-parenting has emerged as a robust triadic predictor of children’s negative outcomes, particularly externalizing symptoms. Competitive co-parenting refers to parents jockeying for control over their child, undermining each other’s authority, or trying to be the favorite parent. As such, it involves triangulation of the child such that the child is put in a position of having to choose between his or her parents regarding whom to obey.”

Child and Family Blog further explains the same study: “Competitive co-parenting did indeed often go hand in hand with family conflict and a negative atmosphere. However, they found that if they controlled for those things, competitive co-parenting remained as the sole predictor of worse behavior in children five years later… The researchers concluded that competitive co-parenting, where one parent tries to pit the child against the other parent, is particularly detrimental to children’s social and emotional development.”

Still, it’s not hard to see how even well-meaning co-parents can fall into the competition trap.

You’ve been through a rough divorce. You know your child is hurting. Everyone is still adjusting to the new family setup and custody arrangements. You may have insecurity about how it will work out; you may feel guilt, embarrassment, inadequacy, worry, and more. You’d do anything to make your kid feel better and ensure that the time you spend together is “perfect”— happy, fun, full of love, and closeness. The urge, even subconsciously, to vie for your child’s affection—to be the fun, easygoing parent or the most generous one—is understandable.

But feeling stuck in the middle, torn, forced to choose between parents, or hiding information—in overt or subtle ways—is highly stressful for children. So, too, a lack of structure and consistency results when parents aren’t (or don’t appear to be) on the same page.

Types of competitive co-parenting – and the problems they create

Competitive co-parenting can take numerous forms, but experts say it tends to fall into two general categories:

Structural/Disciplinary. Children need stability and age-appropriate boundaries; they thrive when rules are clear and consistently enforced. When one parent gets too lax, neglects to adhere to agreed-upon rules and plans, or tries to undermine the other parent, the child needs more structure. Kids can sense when parents are not on the same page, and that tension is another source of stress. They may feel they need to conceal the differences in parenting choices. Further, it gives the child an inappropriate amount of power in the relationship and the temptation to leverage one parent against the other.

Financial. After a painful divorce, it can be tempting to “spoil” your child with lavish gifts, exciting outings, special treats, and fun trips—to consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, try to buy their love. This problem is so common it has a name with a legal definition: “Disneyland Parent – a noncustodial parent who indulges his or her child with gifts and good times during visitation and leaves most or all disciplinary responsibilities to the other parent.” However, even in shared custody situations, either parent can be guilty of these behaviors, which can be especially problematic and unfair when one parent has more financial resources than the other.

Remember that what’s most straightforward at the moment is not always best in the long run. The path of least resistance with your child isn’t necessarily the healthiest, most positive, productive choice for your child or the co-parenting relationship.

Remember, too, that it’s never in your child’s best interest to use parenting as a way of one-up or getting back at your ex. There are no winners in competitive co-parenting—but the children lose.

Although you are not married anymore, your child must see and know that you are still a team, working together, playing by the same essential rules, and committed to the common goal of their security, stability, health, and wellbeing.

Co-parenting without Competition – Ten Tips from the Experts

  1. Put your child first. Just as the court must consider the best interests of the child in custody decisions, healthy co-parenting relies on both adults focusing on what serves your child’s needs and wellbeing. It also means being very honest with yourself about motive and intent.
  2. Communicate. You can only work well as a team if you communicate. Things won’t run smoothly, and your child will feel you’re out of sync. Find a method that works well for you (in-person, phone, email, app, etc.). Model for your child that people can communicate and cooperate even under challenging circumstances.
  3. Agree on ground rules. Everyone has their own parenting style, but together, you can create a basic structure of discipline and rules (bedtimes, curfews, responsibilities, values, behaviors) that are followed no matter which parent the child is with.
  4. Be kind and above board. Always speak positively about your child’s other parent. No matter how much your ex is driving you crazy, don’t criticize or put them down to (or in front of) your child.
  5.  Encourage the relationship. Except in rare cases (such as abuse), children thrive when they have a meaningful relationship with both parents. Be upbeat about the child’s time and connection with your ex. Strengthening their bond does not weaken your own.
  6. Don’t take sides. Never make your child feel they must choose between parents, love one of you more, or hide their affection for the other parent from you.
  7. Correspond directly. Don’t make your child a middleman, messenger, or go-between. Don’t ask intrusive questions about the other parent or create a need for the child to conceal information.
  8. Give a little. Be flexible. Take turns. Have each other’s back. Your willingness to help, support, and accommodate will return to you.
  9. Choose your battles. Prioritize your co-parenting relationship’s long-term health and success over winning on a single issue that won’t matter in the long run.
  10. Seek support. Take advantage of the many available apps and online tools that can help smooth the tricky logistics of the co-parenting process. Seek professional help from a co-parenting counselor.

With time, practice, and mindfulness, you can become a confident, positive, practical co-parenting team.

The skilled and compassionate family attorneys at SFLG have been helping families successfully navigate divorce, custody, and co-parenting for well over 30 years.

By Debra Schoenberg

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