In It Together—Common co-parenting mistakes and how to avoid them

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Raising your kids is the most important and rewarding job you’ll ever do. Parenting brings immeasurable love, joy, and satisfaction. It’s also one of the most challenging tasks out there—and that’s true whether you do it as a married couple, single, or separated person. Still, there is no question that divorced parents face specific challenges.

Especially in the first few weeks and months after your divorce is final—when you’re in the thick of raw emotions and complicated logistics, when things are unfamiliar, stressful, and chaotic—it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the demands of co-parenting: juggling new schedules, having to interact with your ex.

Co-parenting is tough. There’s no perfect formula that works for everyone, no foolproof roadmap to make it a perfectly smooth ride. Fortunately, there are some basic guiding principles to follow—and some common pitfalls to avoid.

First, remember that co-parenting is about maintaining a family unit that supports your child’s well-being even though you’re not married anymore. Research shows that except in rare situations (such as a history of violence or abuse), children benefit from a meaningful relationship with both parents and quality time spent with each other regularly. Shared parenting is about helping your child thrive in your family’s new form.

So, first and foremost, stay focused on your child as you begin navigating the new normal. When the court is making decisions about custody and parenting plans, it must consider, above all else, the child’s best interests. That may sound like legal jargon, but it can be a helpful lens through which to think about co-parenting: in each decision and every parenting-related encounter with your ex, and even in how you interact with your child—consider intention. What am I trying to accomplish right now? Is this issue/conflict really about what’s best for our kid—or am I trying to stick it to my ex? Am I focused on my child’s needs or my desire to win, be right, or get revenge?

With that in mind, here’s what experts say are the six biggest co-parenting mistakes—and tips to help you avoid them:

Communication breakdown. Talking with your ex may be the last thing you want to do right now. But in both amicable and high-conflict situations, effective, shared parenting relies on positive, fluid communication. Fortunately, many tools and apps are designed to smooth the way for co-parents (message boards, calendars, etc.). Written communication is helpful when in-person interaction is complicated (and suitable for documentation of plans), but remember that it takes time to read tone in text and email, and it’s easy to create misunderstandings. Be mindful of staying neutral, respectful, positive, and businesslike in all interactions. Consider the other parent’s point of view; listen – don’t just wait for your turn to talk.

Fighting in front of your kid. Perhaps your emotions are on a hair-trigger right now, and your ex pushes all your buttons. As you embark on your co-parenting journey, you will not always agree and get along. It will drive you nuts sometimes. But even when you’re struggling, do your best to stay calm, logical, reasonable, and civilized; genuinely look for resolution. Always keep conflict out of your child’s view and earshot—their well-being is more important than your need to fight it out. Also, remember that you’re modeling cooperation and the ability to get along in challenging circumstances.

Putting your kid in the middle. Don’t make your child a messenger or go-between. Never pump them for information about the other parent. Don’t badmouth your ex to your child. Avoid anything that has an “us vs. them” tone. Your child should never feel they must take sides or choose between you. Especially with young children, make plans and decisions with your co-parent, then explain them to your child with assurance that both parents are pleased and on board. Regularly reinforce to your child how much you both love them.

Oversharing. Your child should not be privy to your divorce’s legal, financial, or logistical details. They have no control over these complex adult matters, and knowing too much makes them feel unstable and insecure. Likewise, boundaries are essential, although you may be wearing your heart on your sleeve right now. Your child is not your therapist. Don’t reveal your frustration, resentment, anger, or anxiety to your child. They are processing so much right now, so focus on reassuring them, through words and actions, that everything will be okay.

Being a stickler. Once signed by the judge, your parenting plan becomes a court order that you must abide by. Still, things come up. Plans change. People get stuck in traffic. Don’t be overly rigid to punish or control your ex. It will only hurt your child if they are willing to compromise occasionally. When something comes up that requires a bit of flexibility, focus on the big picture. Giving a little sometimes can build trust, and your ex will likely reciprocate.

Trying to buy or win your child’s love. Healthy co-parenting relies on prioritizing collaboration over competition. Don’t try to score points on your ex or be the favorite. Shared parenting is about giving your child a strong sense of family despite your split. A solid relationship with both parents benefits kids, so support, nurture, and facilitate their relationship with your co-parent. Don’t worry- you will still have a unique and special bond with your child.

You won’t always get it right—nobody does—but over time, you can become more confident and positive co-parents. You’ll find your way toward a new family unit that runs smoothly and surrounds your child with love, trust, and security.

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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