Parenting a child is likely the biggest challenge that you will ever undertake.
One of my first recommendations for any parent is to read Dan Siegel’s fantastic guide for parents and anyone involved in the lives of children, The Whole-Brained Child.
Another is to take great care to have a strong co-parenting relationship.
This article addresses the way in which to create an enriching environment for your child through establishing a functioning co-parenting relationship.
Children require a certain level of structure and consistency in order to feel safe and to thrive. Your relationship is the space in which your child lives and learns.
If there is respect and appreciation, then your child will have tools to thrive. If there is chaos and contempt, it will negatively impact your child’s mental health and emotional well-being, as well as his or her social and academic success.
So how can we create a co-parenting relationship that will help our children to learn and grow?
Here are the top 5 tips for success in a co-parenting relationship.
1. Do: Take care of yourself and your needs (both physical and emotional), and try to consider those of your co-parent.
Here’s how (and why):
- Remember that we can control only our own behavior. Communication with your co-parent is key, and we tend to become reactive without even being aware of it.
Practicing taking a few deep breaths, communicating calmly and directly, and take a break in the conversation if you need it. Modeling ways to self-sooth is just as important for your child as it was to sooth her yourself when she was an infant.
- Find a way that you and your co-parent can connect at least once a week. This time should be spent appreciating efforts that the other has made, sharing a joy that you had with your child, and expressing something that you hope to see more of in yourself as well as in your parenting partner (how to improve).
Maintaining a healthy relationship with your co-parent can be put on the back-burner because caring for a child consumes so much of your time, so remember that the quality of your relationship with your co-parent makes a huge impact on the health of your child.
2. Don’t: Criticize, argue with, or complain about the other parent in front of your child- ever.
Here’s how (and why):
- Choose your words carefully during your day-to-day, because a child internalizes criticism of his parent, almost as if it were about himself. Hearing critical things about his parent will make your child susceptible to self-doubt and confusion, because he naturally yearns to adore both of his parents.
- Limit criticizing the co-parent altogether, even when your child is not present. Although it is important to have a safe space to vent about the frustrations of co-parenting (like with a friend or family member), it is also hard to find solutions and appreciate the joys of parenting when we get stuck in talking about the problems.
- Focus on mutual respect and collaboration as often as possible with your co-parent. This can still be done even if you do not agree on every single issue.
3. Do: Collaborate about appropriate rules, consequences, and general expectations of your child’s behavior.
Here’s how (and why):
- It is crucial for your child to see that his parents are united in their approach to discipline and expectation of appropriate behavior. If your child sees that you can accomplish some problem-solving with your co-parent, then she will be much more likely to learn how to problem solve on her own.
- It is important that you and your co-parent educate yourselves about the developmental stages of children. This information will help you to understand their current development tasks, and to determine appropriate expectations for your child as far as behavior.
There are some straightforward models that you can explore (such as Erikson’s Developmental Model). This will also help you to plan appropriately for the next phase of your child’s life when she will require additional freedom.
- Be sure that you check in with your co-parent to determine a good time to talk about parenting decisions. Clearly communicate to him or her that the issue is important to you. This will reduce the likelihood of one or both of you getting defensive or otherwise reactive.
4. Don’t: Let “adult” issues compromise the unity and caring within your relationship with your co-parent.
Here’s how (and why):
- Have grown-up conversations when only grown-ups are around. I am referring to issues of finances, work-related stress, troubled relationships with members of the extended family, etc. If we forget this rule, it can seriously impact the sense of emotional and physical safety that your child has.
- You are compromising your own ability to be a good parent when you let yourself engage in the “blame game.” In many cases, it is tempting to blame the other parent if he or she does not seem to consider the well-being of your child when they make life decisions. Do the best you can to sort out adult issues with your co-parent, or at the very least, with the help of other caring adults.
- Take the time to appreciate any small gestures that your co-parent makes within the key “trouble” topics of your relationship. This will help you to focus on the unity and caring that does exist, which allows those things to grow, and this is what your child needs to see.
5. Do: Invite discussion of feelings and maintain flexibility throughout communication.
Here’s how (and why):
- Many studies have shown that an “authoritative” parenting style is the most successful. This style is also called “balanced” or “democratic” parenting.
This means consistently maintaining structure and rules, but also inviting discussion. It also means clearly explaining consequences, modeling forgiveness, and being attentive to children’s needs.
These behaviors can also be modeled between the two parents, because although we don’t enforce “rules” in a co-parenting relationship, there is a call to maintain consistent expectations, to show forgiveness, and be open to discussions.
- Model to your child that everything that we feel is okay, but that we are also responsible for our own behavior. Help your child to distinguish between an action and a feeling (for example: feeling angry is okay, but yelling is not).
If a child does not feel safe expressing anger or hurt feelings through words or appropriate actions, he will likely begin to act out in negative ways.
Provide 2-3 options for acceptable actions for your child to take. This will reduce your child’s level of frustration and improve her level of self-esteem.
- A huge part of healthy discussion in relationships is taking the time for repair. We all make mistakes when we become frustrated with our child or with our parenting partner.
If we can return to genuinely apologize and offer suggestions/solutions, we foster forgiveness, flexibility, and hope in our relationship with both our co-parent and our children.
Here is some more information about making use of the tips above:
For parents who are separated or divorced:
I invite you to entertain the idea that while there are many ways in which living in separate homes influences a co-parenting team, these guidelines remain the same.
- Do your best, and don’t let shortcomings of the other parent keep you from doing your best. For example, as far as connecting weekly (tip #1), if your co-parent tends to be hostile, it is best to keep contact to a minimum. However, in many cases some connections still must be made, so this tip is especially important to comply with if you want to keep your communication calm and purposeful (as it should be).
- Remember that children crave a certain level of structure and consistency, so it will really help him if things such as bed time, meals, and the times that she will be picked up and dropped of remain consistent for both homes.
For “blended” families (for example, with a step-parent in the home):
- In this circumstance, perhaps there must be extra care taken in deciding who will approach and discuss parenting issues with the child, based on the child’s comfort with the newer parent.
However, issues of parenting will impact the whole family unit in one way or another, so it is important for both parental figures to be on the same page about parenting decisions.
Have continued communication with your newer co-parent about how much he or she will be involved in creating structure for your child, and how involved he or she will be in enforcing rules. Be sure that you include your child in this conversation, as well, to the extent that it is appropriate for his or her age.
For any and all parents:
Seek out other parenting teams to help you and your co-parent work together to benefit your children. Remember to appreciate the support that you get from other family members and friends, as well as from your co-parent.
Perhaps most importantly, remember to appreciate yourself for being a brave, dedicated, and loving parent.
About the author
Kristine Gottesman is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern who offers psychotherapy to individuals, adolescents, families, and couples. She specializes in working with parenting issues, transitions of adolescence and young adulthood, anxiety, stress and depression. Her private practice office is located in Sherman Oaks, CA.
Kristine is under the supervision of Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT, and offers a sliding fee scale. Please visit her website: www.kristinemft.com
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