Navigating co-parenting relationships is not easy, whether co-parenting with a particularly difficult ex or with a former partner you generally have a positive relationship with. Most people are not irredeemable jerks, though, and when the focus of a co-parenting relationship can continuously be centered around the needs of the children involved, it is possible to develop a healthy, workable dynamic—even while dealing with the fallout from a relationship between a couple that didn’t work out.
Shon Hart, who founded the Flint, Michigan-based nonprofit InvolvedDad in 2015, often sees firsthand the impact that negative or unhealthy co-parenting behaviors can have on children and families. InvolvedDad uses research-based methods to mentor, support, and connect fathers with training and resources to strengthen them as fathers and improve their relationships with their children. A lot of the families InvolvedDad works with are low-income, and some are returning citizens. In some cases, the fathers they work with haven’t been involved in their kids’ lives for a significant period of time.
Learning to practice some empathy for the other parent in the relationship is often a vital first step in developing a healthy co-parenting dynamic.
“Guys come in late in life to establish a relationship, but the mother’s been doing it for 10 years or more, sometimes, so now you’re coming in and mom is looking at you like, ‘I don’t need your help, I’ve been doing it,’ so we try to educate on that,” Hart says. “You have to understand how the other side feels, to allow them to still take lead and figure out where you fit in.”
We asked Hart to share some tips to navigate co-parenting relationships and the traits that make them positive and successful for the kids.
Understand the barriers
Hart says overcoming some of the economic barriers is often one of the first steps in creating a healthier co-parenting dynamic.
“A lot of the men that come to us have child support challenges, so it brings barriers a (higher income) person or father doesn’t deal with,” he says. “If they’re not paying child support, that can bring some tension to the relationship between the father and the child’s mom. If the mom and father don’t know their rights, we associate child support with access to child, but those are two separate issues—child support is one thing; parenting time is another.”
Having a parenting-time order is an important step—one that some parents lack if they haven’t gone through an official divorce or custody process—in establishing rights and boundaries for each parent. Hart also notes that if a parent or parents grew up in homes with unhealthy co-parenting relationships, it becomes easy to repeat those behaviors. Committing to breaking that cycle and seeking help or counseling for unresolved childhood traumas is an important step in breaking some generational curses or passing down bad behaviors.
“A lot of times for the fathers we work with, their dad wasn’t present, so we want to deal with that,” Hart says. “How did that make you feel, what were the results of him not being present? A lot come in bitter and angry.”
Some relationships have too much lingering pain or trauma to make effective co-parenting untenable, especially after relationships end. Hart says it’s important as a first step to understand if you should be working on a co-parenting relationship or a parallel parenting relationship.
“Co-parenting is one of multiple things we look at to handle each particular relationship—you can’t just make a blanket statement about what works best,” Hart says. “We try to determine if we can empower dad to help begin working alongside with mom; or if we can’t, the other part is parallel parenting where we may not ever establish a great relationship (between the parents), so how can we work side-by-side without making the relationship more tumultuous.”
Communication and boundaries as a foundation
The first step in establishing a healthy co-parenting relationship is simply an understanding that the kids involved are the priority, even if there is lingering hurt or unresolved feelings between the parents from a relationship that ended. One way to start developing healthy habits is communicating in planned and intentional ways, and implementing strict boundaries for both parties.
“Communication is the biggest thing,” Hart says. “We mediate and help people understand the importance of both parents being involved, and also healthy ways to communicate. That includes not talking derogatorily about the other person, making a plan for how and when you communicate, not trying to have a sexual relationship, and taking responsibility for your actions. Are you breaking old cycles or habits that made the relationship difficult in the first place?”
Having some ground rules for how and what you talk about with one another as well as a commitment to civility, especially in front of the kids, is extremely important for creating a healthy, trusting atmosphere where kids know both parents are on the same page.
Hart also notes that, once some basic rules of engagement and how you communicate are established, being consistent about those rules and boundaries and following through on what you say you will do is vital.
Respect their time with the other parent
Even when two people get along and manage big issues well as co-parents, there are still bound to be differences in how each person manages their household. It’s important for each person to understand that when households split up, there are simply some small day-to-day things one parent doesn’t have a say in and to not overstep that boundary.
Author Lorraine Ladish wrote for HuffPost about how she navigated her own successful co-parenting relationship with her ex-husband, stressing the importance of this concept:
If your kids only see dad during the weekends, don’t put a damper on their time together by calling them too often. Especially, don’t call when you know they may be having dinner or if it’s past their bedtime. If you miss them, call a friend to commiserate. Think of how you would feel if your ex insisted on calling your home at odd hours and made the kids feel bad about him.
Seek help when it is needed
“You won’t go to a family doctor when you need brain surgery,” Hart says, noting that there are different experts and professionals available to help parents mediate a wide range of challenges, from parenting-time agreements to child support to family counseling services.
“The biggest thing that keeps the relationship difficult is unaddressed challenges,” Hart says. “Whether that’s things that went on in the relationship, unforgiveness, or not dealing with any elephant in the room–instead of dealing with it through a mediator, they try to handle it on their own or receive unhealthy advice that keeps the fire going.”
Talking in advance about how to handle disagreements can be a part of a successful co-parenting strategy. Having consistent, agreed-upon rules in advance, including trusted sources to turn to as objective third parties when conflicts arise, can enhance stability and make difficult moments easier to navigate.
Provide updates on life changes
Something that can derail even healthy co-parenting relationships is when new partners are introduced into the dynamic. Hart says that any new significant others who are brought into the equation should be done so with care and openness.
“Don’t force new significant others on them,” he says. “Come up with a plan and strategy on how this relationship will work with these other parties. Some have the mindset that this is my new girl or my new man, and they ought to just accept them. But focus on what the child wants and needs first.”
Parents should also avoid asking the kids questions directly about the personal lives of their other parent if it isn’t related to the wellbeing of the child or children.
“We talk to dads about being mindful and careful about what they say around or to the child that may make the relationship darker,” Hart says. “So not asking about who they’re dating, or what they say about them, or blaming the other parent for not being able to see the child as often as they want to. We discourage that type of communication. That might even be the facts, but that’s still not information the child should be privy to.”
Instead of addressing new people in the lives of kids with honesty or openness, it is sometimes hidden—meaning the kids can be put in awkward positions of trying to hide things about new significant others from the other parent. As Dr. Deborah Serani writes in Psychology Today:
Although it may be emotionally painful, make sure that you and your ex keep each other informed about all changes in your life, or circumstances that are challenging or difficult. It is important that your child is never, ever, ever the primary source of information.
Removing the need for the kids to ever be the source of news about major life changes is healthy for the co-parenting dynamic, but is most of all healthy for the kids.
Understand the impact of doing it right
Having parents who don’t get along—and as a result put kids in the middle of their disputes—can have dramatically negative impacts on children. Conversely, parents who handle a traumatic event like a divorce or splitting up of a household well, can make a big difference for kids and their understanding of what healthy relationships look like.
When parents co-parent effectively, “it definitely increases their global self-worth; you see them light up when the relationships are stronger like that,” Hart says. “We see the child’s self-esteem increase, academics increase. The child is happier when mom and dad get along. Co-parenting is a piece that a lot of people struggle with, and it’s something we have to do a better job at as communities providing services.
“If I can give any advice, it’s just that it’s not about you, it’s about the child and what the child needs. You have to be strategic in coming up with plans that aren’t just favorable for you and be committed to that plan; think about the other party. If I continue to use the child as a weapon, the child suffers—yeah, you can hurt the other parent by keeping the child away, but in the long haul, the child is the one who suffers.”