The breakdown of a relationship is never easy, but it takes on a whole new meaning when you have a child (or children) together.
Unless there have been serious issues like domestic violence or substance abuse, many separated or divorced parents prefer co-parenting as the preferred way of raising their children and ensuring their children's well being.
But what exactly is co-parenting and how do you successfully co-parent?
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What is co-parenting?
Co-parenting is joint custody parenting style whereby both parents are actively involved in all aspects of their child's life.
There are many different types of co-parenting, each with their own subtle differences. However, there are three main types:
Parallel parenting was considered the norm for many years. It sees separated parents operate in their own way. The child will often have a totally different set of rules to follow with both parents. There is little or no engagement between the parents and there is a total absence of a co-parenting relationship.
This approach is more common when ex couples have particularly fractious relationships, and want as little do with the other as possible. However, experts widely agree having such wildly different parenting approaches and rules have a damaging effect on the child.
Without a proper co-parenting plan in place, many former couples fall into the trap of conflicted co-parenting, where they are unable to resolve conflict.
Whether they think they're co-parenting with a narcissist or there's a total breakdown of the relationship, they become so focused on the disagreements they have that they are unable to co-parent effectively. In the worst cases, they may even speak negatively about their ex partner to their child.
While it's widely accepted that staying in an unhealthy or broken relationship 'for the sake of the kids' is unwise and can actually cause greater harm than good, many experts believe conflicted co-parenting to be just as bad.
Cooperative co-parenting is increasingly what parents think of when they hear 'co-parenting'. It sees both you your ex partner work together to maintain a healthy relationship for the benefit of your children's lives.
While you may have different parenting styles, both parents are on the same page when it comes to general day-to-day rules and how the children should be brought up.
Cooperative co-parenting is based on the following principles:
'Bird nesting' or 'nest parenting' is a variation of cooperative co-parenting that is becoming increasingly popular - prominent parenting journalist and campaigner Anna Whitehouse (aka Mother Pukka) recently revealed she and her ex husband decided to nest parent.
Unlike traditional forms of co-parenting where the children will live with one parent and visit the other parent's house on agreed days, bird nesting sees the children remain living at the family home with the parents taking it in turns to live there.
The idea is that it provides comfort, consistency and stability for the children. Of course, it has it's challenges - and not everyone can afford to run three separate homes.
How to tell your kids you’re getting separated
For many parents, telling their children that they're getting divorced or separating is the hardest part of the break up. Depending on the child's age, separation can be difficult to understand. Here are some tips that will help your child understand the situation:
Tell them they're loved
Young kids in particular can become worried that one parent (usually the parent moving out, which is usually the dad) doesn't love them anymore. Whatever age your children are, you should remind them that you both love them and that will never change.
Harry, dad to Charlie (8), recalls when he and his ex told their son they were separating:
"I was nervous, very nervous. We both spoke to him together, and explained the situation. He was young at the time (pre-school) so I’m not sure he really fully understood, and only a few months in was he really asking questions. He’ll occasionally still ask a question but he does understand why. The thing to remember here is that it’s not a ‘one and done’ conversation. Making your children know they can ask you questions about it, always, is really important."
You should be especially mindful of your child's age here, but do try to be as honest as possible when telling them.
Although you may have incredibly strong negative emotions towards your partner at this point, try not to let them show and do your best to minimise conflict. If your children are older, you could continue your honesty and say that while you're not on great terms right now, you want to work together to build a positive co-parenting partnership.
Your children will have their own questions about your break up and what it means for them. Their questions will help them to form their own understanding of the situation and help them to feel more in control.
If you've been able to come up with the answers to some of the questions beforehand and are able to give them, brilliant. If not, be honest and explain that you don't have all the answers right now. But reassure them that their health and happiness will always be their focal point.
Encourage talking about feelings
Make sure to tell them that however they're feeling is okay. They might feel angry, confused, upset, or even relieved if they're an older child whose become frustrated seeing their parents arguing all the time.
It's important to understand that some children experience the same stages of grief when they parents separate as they do when a relative dies. Check out our guide on childhood grief for a rundown on all the symptoms to look out for.
How achieve healthy co-parenting
Now that you've separated, it's time to put a co-parenting plan in place so that you can all maintain healthy relationships and embark on an effective co-parenting journey as you embrace your new family dynamic.
Creating a schedule
Arguably the first (and most important) part of your co-parenting plan is deciding where everyone will live and when each parent will see the children. There's no right or wrong answer here. It's down to you, your ex and your children (if they're old enough) to determine what works best, factoring in everything from school and work schedules, to extra curricular activities, and social lives.
It's important to recognise that this plan doesn't have to be set in stone. After a few months, you may realise that your schedule doesn't work or one parent gets a new job and their working patterns change.
You'll also need to work out what to do about big events like birthdays, school holidays and the festive season. Some co-parents who are able to maintain a very healthy co-parenting relationship continue to spend these events together just as they would've when they were still a couple, while others prefer to alternate or split the child's time.
Communication is arguably the single most important factor in successful co-parenting. It's a hard thing to get right when you're in a relationship, let alone when you're separated. Here are some things to bear in mind.
Your child isn't your messenger
When you're going through a messy divorce, some parents will ask their child to relay messages to the other parent. You should always try to avoid this. It places the child right in the middle of conflict between their parents and can cause them to feel at fault if one parent gets angry or upset at the message.
How often do you communicate?
You should also set expectations in how often you communicate. You need to ask yourselves a number of questions to establish your outline.
Do you want to commit to giving each other daily updates of the child's day at school, or even sharing photos and videos as they happen? Or would you prefer a summary when the child transitions from your house to your ex's? Does your child want to video call the other parent every night before they go to bed?
There's no right or wrong answer, and you may find that your preference changes over time. Remember to be flexible. You may have decided to update each other on handover day, but there may be occasions where more regular communication is needed.
Disagreeing is inevitable as a co-parent. And it's certainly possible that disagreements can escalate into full-blown arguments. It's your job to try and prevent that happening, because no one benefits from it.
Think about the language and tone you're using (especially when sending messages, where it can be especially difficult to interpret tone), talk a breather and think about your response to avoid overreaction, be constructive and respectful.
Most importantly, listen. Even if you don't agree, listening and trying to show that you understand their point of view will go a long way in maintaining a positive relationship.
"I wouldn't say we're best friends by any stretch, but it's important to keep things friendly where possible. I've always tried to make things about our son rather than my personal feelings.
"We message relatively regularly - mainly as one of us always seems to need spare school kit!"
One of the biggest aspect of co-parenting, or cooperative co-parenting is just that... cooperative. You've taken the decision to work together for the good of your child. And while you may have different parenting styles, you should be able to establish some ground rules and make major decisions together. Equally, don't be afraid to offer extra support or lean on the other parent at certain times. We all have our own strengths, and it might be better for one parent to tackle a certain issue or situations. The most important thing is that you are able to hold a united front on the key areas of your child's day-to-day life.
While creating a schedule is an important step in developing a wider parenting plan, it can cause friction between co-parents if you're not flexible. It's easy to view your time as exactly that and nothing else.
Charlie's dad, Harry, says:
"My ex has a job that means she goes away for a few days from time to time, and I’ve always tried my best to be flexible to it. Creating a shared schedule/calendar for those parenting duties has been a big saver so we have a joint parenting schedule so to speak. "
So, when the other parent tells you they've booked tickets to an event or they've got relatives visiting on your day, some people might get upset or annoyed. They may even make it perfectly clear how annoyed they are with the other parent.
However, showing flexibility and understanding is more likely to contribute to a better relationship - flexibility that is more likely to be reciprocated in future when you have something that comes up on your ex's days with the children.
It's difficult to know where the boundaries are as a co-parent. If you didn't have children, you'd likely go your separate ways and possibly never speak to each other again. But you've taken the decision to co-parent for the good of your child. You've taken the decision to communicate regularly but it can be difficult to know where the line is.
Some family experts recommend keeping a businesslike tone, advising you to speak to the other parent as if they were a colleague. And while this may be the best course of action is your relationship is somewhat strained, it can make things awkward if you have separated amicably and remain on good terms.
Jason, dad to a five-year old and four-year old, says:
"We only communicate where and when necessary. We communicate via text, voice and video calls or when we meet for pick ups and drop offs. We catch each-other up on what we need to regarding the kids. It all depends on the relationship dynamic of the separated parents."
However, if you've decided that you're both happy to receive updates, photos and videos from each other as and when, there is a risk that your conversation moves away from the children - and that can make it difficult to manage the emotional separation between you as a couple. And I'm sure it doesn't need explaining why that can be a problem for co-parenting.
Of course, each (former) couple is going to be different. But be sure to establish the boundaries that are going to allow you to have the best possible relationship as co-parents while simultaneously doing what is best for your child.
Assessing and organising your finances
An unfortunate reality of separating is that it can have a dramatic impact on your finances, so it's important that you assess your finances, both individually and as a co-parenting unit. There's no correct answer on how to manage your finances after divorce - it all depends on your circumstances.
For example, you may wish to follow bird nesting. But unless you've both got relatives or friends you can move in with, you're going to need to run two households individually and the family house together.
You may want (or need) to continue contributing to the mortgage/rent or the household bills. You should also consider things like paying for their extra curricular activities or when they need new clothes. Some co-parents prefer to pay into a joint pot and take the money out when needed for things like that, while others might choose to take it in turn s. Or, some parents prefer to split it so that one parent pays for ABC and the other parent pays for XYZ.
Get a co-parenting app
Such is the way of the modern, digital world that there are even apps for co-parenting. These apps are designed to help co-parents communicate effectively and clearly, and manage their child's schedules in one central location.
While each one will have its own unique features, the majority of choices will have a joint calendar, secure messaging, important document or information storage, expenses tracker and photo sharing.
In the spirit of cooperation, be sure to decide on an app together - rather than one parent registering for one and forcing the other to use it.
What happens when you struggle to co-parent
Despite even the very best of intentions and the best-laid plans, co-parenting is extremely difficult. You may struggle to agree a united front on something like screen time, or maybe a message come across a bit frosty and there's been a lot of tension in the relationship, since.
Whatever the issues are, you can remain committed the wellbeing of your child while seeking to improve the situation.
Check out some co-parenting quotes
In life, we often take a great deal of inspiration from quotes. Whether it's a father daughter quote or something about or working lives.
At times where the relationship with your ex spouse is particularly frayed, or you find yourself getting frustrated during interactions, take a breather, have a look at some of these co-parenting quotes, and rediscover your focus and inspiration. Remind yourself why you're doing this...your child.
Here are 75 inspirational co-parenting quotes for you.
Review the plan
Perhaps the parenting plan you put in place at the start of the journey just isn't working. That's okay. What works when you create the plan might not work a few months later - or what you think will work might not work in practice.
If you're finding some difficulties in your relationship or logistical problems, spend some time reviewing your co-parenting plan and see if you can find areas to improve (while highlighting the positive things about it!).
In fact, it's a good idea to review the plan regularly - perhaps every three or six months.
Give family therapy a go
Dealing with a difficult ex is very hard. Sometimes you might really struggle to get past the conflict between you both, even if you have a strong desire to do what's best for your child.
Visiting a family therapist will help you to talk, express your feelings and work towards ironing out any issues between you in a calm, neutral environment.
Depending on your child's age and level of maturity, they may wish to join you. They'll see different situations to how we might see them. And, despite your encouragement, they struggle to talk about their feelings. Joining you in family therapy may provide them with the safe space they need to express themselves freely, without judgement.
Maintain a support network
You will have no doubt built up your support network in the early years of your child's life - grandparents, siblings, close friends etc. But one of the unfortunate realities of divorce or separation is that people tend to takes sides. Even couples who were both of your friends will often take one side or another. And that means you might lose some of your support network.
Being a co-parent is hard, and so it's vitally important that you not only maintain your existing support network, but build on it. Speak to other co-parenting dads, join a local support group or connect with other dads through the DaddiLife Community.
Going on a co-parent holiday
If you and your partner have a good enough relationship, some divorced parents choose to still go on holiday as a family. While it may seem alien to some former couples, there are a few reasons why some people choose to go on a family holiday with their co-parent.
First, they might not be able to afford to take the child(ren) on holiday alone, but can together - and don't want them to miss out on holidays just because their parents are separated.
Secondly, even if one parent is able to take the children on holiday on their own, they have a strong enough relationship with their co-parent that they don't want them to miss out on the special memories.
Going on holiday as a family with your co-parent requires careful thought and consideration from both of you. Worse than missing out on a holiday for your children is remembering a holiday full of arguments and hostility.
What is classed as co-parenting?
Strictly speaking, parents who have joint custody of their child(ren) are co-parents. However, in recent years, cooperative co-parenting has become the default meaning of co-parenting - whereby both parents communicate regularly to stay as involved in their child(ren)'s life as possible.
Why is co-parenting so hard?
Parenting is hard even if you are still in a relationship with the other parent. It's not going to get any easier after you've separated. Differences in approaches, tension between you both, the physical and emotional distance between you, and sometimes just needing to adapt to life as a single parent all contribute to co-parenting being difficult.
What is a co-parenting plan?
A co-parenting plan is something you agree upon with your ex spouse after you separate (or some may be able to put it together as they moved towards separation). It contains your plans for when your child will stay with each parent and who they'll spend birthdays and special occasions with, how you'll communicate and how often, who will pay for what etc. While it's not always a written document, it's definitely advisable.