There’s Not Just One Way To Co-parent: Co-parenting Therapy Helps Parents Articulate Shared Values
When families with children decide to live separately, this can raise so many questions around what co-parenting will look like. As co-parenting therapists, we don’t assert one way to co-parent. There are many ways to co-parent depending on the family, parents, and the kid or kids. Our job isn’t to impose our ideas of what co-parenting looks like (though we aren’t shy about sharing them), but rather to help each parent express his or her own values, which are at the core of parenting decisions.
Co-parenting therapists are a mix of parenting coach, mediator, and couples therapist. We provide a structured environment and guidance to work through setting up a co-parenting situation that works for a particular family. Creating parameters for how to co-parent in the beginning sets the stage for success immediately.
All of our therapists have extensive experience working with children and families. Our role is to offer expertise around what kids often need, and assist couples who may have had trouble parenting when they lived together in order to work on behalf of their family. We help families focus on the shared goal of what is best for the kid(s), and help parents not lose sight of this.
Co-parenting Isn’t Just For Couples That Live Apart
It should be noted that co-parenting isn’t just for couples that live apart. There are intentional co-parenting situations like, for example, friends who choose to have a baby together outside of a romantic relationship, couples co-parenting, and open adoption. While conflicts and challenges can still arise, as with any relationship, intentionally co-parenting couples have a number of advantages baked in. In addition to an absence of historical enmity, couples in these instances often have the opportunity to plan for challenges even before a child arrives. Employing a family therapist or co-parenting counselor can, therefore, be a part of this planning and problem prevention.
Conflicts about parenting can also exist even when couples live together. Families bring all sorts of different ideas, experiences, and assumptions to parenting. Therapy can help sort out how to create a specific way of parenting that suits a family’s needs, backgrounds, and beliefs. Our work here is to help create a common language and understanding of what kids need, and get parents working together. This can include using our knowledge about kids to create behavioral plans that parents can implement and get our feedback on.
Co-parenting For Parents Who Are Divorced, Separated, Or In The Process Of Uncoupling
Couples can have difficulty imagining how they will lead their children through the divorce or separation process. Kids need lots of reassurance and holding, which makes this task particularly demanding. Parents are put in the position of having to lead their families at a time when they too are stretched emotionally.
Especially when there is a history of pain and conflict in a relationship, this can easily spill into parenting, whether through talking badly about a co-parent, litigating past grief, asking children about a co-parent’s personal life, or rude behavior. Many well-intentioned parents sincerely struggle with managing frustrations. While relationships nearly always end in conflict, ending them is a decision (mutual or not) to stop airing those frustrations and part ways. However, a partner may continue to exhibit hurtful or even harmful behavior, leaving one parent with a complex challenge: advocating for their child’s needs and standing up for their own self-protection, while also continuing to support the best possible success in the relationship between their child and the other parent. This can feel like gymnastics. When couples invite a co-parenting counselor to influence how they operate, these issues can be negotiated with help.
It’s important for co-parents to share love without diminishing love. Kids are sponges. Developmentally, they tend to blame themselves. Therapy helps get co-parents on the same page around staying connected to the big picture: the health of the family, best practices for nurturing kids through this, and letting old hurts go.
Co-parenting Therapy Helps Parents With Decision Making
Helping parents make decisions is at the heart of everything we do in co-parenting counseling. We help everyone in the family deal with what’s in the way of leading first with concern for the child. We don’t just insist on this; we use our skills as therapists to understand and address what conflicts make that difficult. Our job isn’t to be a third set of opinions in making a decision. We give parents space to listen, as well as set aside their opinions enough to truly be curious about the other parent’s position. We also help everyone get better at articulating that position.
Parents split for a reason, and usually struggling to communicate or feel heard is part of that. Sometimes we simply need to support both parents to get better at being assertive, being less intimidating, taking in what’s being said, or not being a pushover so that they can come to a decision that works for the family.
Maintaining Communication Between Co-parents And Avoiding Voicing Conflict To Children
Establishing and sticking to ground rules that are based in the developmental needs of the children and will promote strong relationships amongst all family members is key for co-parents. Of course, zero communication isn’t possible, and would leave many decisions unmade and children’s needs unattended. A set of off-limits topics and some up-front agreements about how the conversation will be redirected if broached can be helpful.
In nearly all instances–no matter how much one parent feels hurt by the other, or feels the other has been a poor parent or has made a decision that was bad for the child, the right thing to do is not share these opinions with the child. That doesn’t mean never say, “It sounds like Daddy was pretty short with you this morning.” We help parents understand the difference between helping young people manage their relationship with the other parent and being with them when they’re hurt, and a character critique of the other parent. Our go-to principle is that Parent A’s job is to work their tail off to help their kid have a good relationship with Parent B, and vice versa.
Supporting Children Transitioning Between Two Homes
As therapists, we recognize that once the logistics are settled (e.g. where will the child or children sleep on which night), what’s left is a child navigating between two homes. While this can be and is often done well, it needs tending from both parents. One reason is that the transition itself is challenging. Many questions come up in this process, which we can help guide a family through, including: How can a parent support a child’s comfort and success at home? What needs to be communicated between the child and parents to help put a child at ease? How much communication between co-parents is helpful? How similar should rules and routines (screentime, bedtime, etc.) be at each home? When there are challenges, should the schedule be disrupted? And if so, for how long?
A question that commonly comes up relates to how a family can balance adjusting and shifting homes during otherwise stressful times in a kid’s life or development. Childhood is a multivariable equation. When navigating moving between two homes and adjusting to a parental separation, kids are also potty training, starting school, breaking up with girlfriends or boyfriends, being offered pot, getting cut from the soccer team, being asked to star in the school play, and dealing with pimples (among other things). In therapy, we look at how co-parents can help young people navigate these experiences, while living in separate homes and struggling in their own relationship with a co-parent.
Quite commonly children show a preference for spending time with one parent versus the other. Of course, this can shift over time, and as kids get older, their preferences may become more insistent and sincere. At times, we have to work to confront at what age or under which circumstances a child’s wishes should supersede a custody agreement. How can we allow some autonomy or choice on a child’s part, while continuing to reinforce the importance of that child’s relationship with both parents?
Moving Long Distance Between Homes
Moving between homes long distance is always a particular challenge for co-parenting. Depending on the distance, this can create moderate to quite drastic changes in how co-parenting happens. Once the change is legally settled on in mediation or in court, the work for supporting children through the emotional changes begins. Some important questions in this situation are: Will a child be changing schools? What changes need to happen in regards to communication via phone or video chat? Is this an adjustment that the child or children will experience as a form of loss? If so, how do we support a child to understand his or her place in this?
Establishing Co-parenting Rules
While expectations from one household to the next will inevitably vary, continuity and overall parity between behavior expectations, how those change with development, and consequences are important for children’s development. When parenting principles are mostly aligned, the process of sustaining this continuity is largely a matter of strong communication. Questions like when to introduce chores or when to move from time-outs to losing privileges can merely be coordinated.
In co-parenting situations where core values of discipline are poorly aligned, the negotiation can be more severe. Spanking in one home versus time-outs in another, or paying an allowance in exchange for chores in one home versus chores being simply expected in another can be quite consequential for young people. In these instances, rules and expectations may call on the diplomacy skills of a co-parenting counselor. In most instances, we urge parents to recognize that continuity with high-stakes issues is more important than the particular approach they’re advocating.
Managing Behavioral Problems With Young Kids
One of the most common reasons families parenting separately seek co-parenting counseling is behavioral problems in young kids. Acting-out behavior is often best seen as a child communicating to their parents that something in the arrangement isn’t working. If we can help parents get on the same page, manage disagreements and old hurts, and communicate consistently and without conflict, often the behavior problems vanish.
With young children, behavior problems are often how emotional strain or a lack of continuity between co-parents’ households can present. While the cause of behavior problems, especially in young children, is often complex (and not necessarily obvious), establishing clear expectations and routines, and an agreed-upon system of responding to acting-out behavior is a critical first step.
Parents Need To Watch Out For Splitting, Whether Intentional Or Not
Kids are keen observers of their parents–they have been studying them daily. Sometimes separation, divorce, or living in two-households creates an opportunity for kids to hide issues from each parent, or to “split,” where they leverage their parents’ separation to test limits or break rules. Splitting can be intentional–kids hiding getting in trouble in school, or finding loopholes around rules or punishment. For example, in one home, the consequence for getting in trouble at school might be not being allowed to go to a sleepover, but this isn’t communicated, so the other parent brings the child to a sleepover.
Another huge concern with splitting (which can co-exist with intentional splitting) is when kids’ needs, worries, and struggles get lost between the two households. Kids’ struggles with learning issues, bullying, or even a health concern can fall between the cracks.
While there are techniques for helping parents communicate, by negotiating shared rules and a system for tracking enforcement, what’s truly needed to reduce the risk for splitting and for things getting lost in the cracks is for co-parents to form a relationship around their shared care for their kids. We can help identify unhelpful dynamics that create space for splitting, and guide the family toward change.
Introducing Romantic Partners, A New Spouse, And Step Families
Deciding when and how to introduce new romantic partners or spouses to children can be tricky for families. Doing this in a way that respects the agreements and needs of the family is essential. Most important is not putting kids in the middle of relationships, and not asking kids about an ex’s relationships or new spouse.
There can also be confusion in families about how to define stepparent roles. In our therapy practice, we know there are many ways to do family, and we celebrate that! However, we also know the roles that stepparents play impacts the well-being of the family. Therapists can provide a lot of direction around helping families navigate and define these roles so that the family functions well.
Sharing Responsibilities In Children’s Education
As kids get older, accountability around homework and school increases as it becomes more time consuming and challenging. Simple things like having a reference book at one house when it’s needed at another can be tough. It’s essential for both parents to make sure accountability is locked down: Do both parents check homework? Are both getting notes and calls from school? Are both parents responding to concern in ways that respect shared values and a shared sense of balance between a punitive and supportive response?
Similarly, if learning issues come up, it’s critical to decide on a tutor or specialist. If more assertive interventions are necessary, parents have decisions to make, whether to consult (and pay for) experts or consider a change in school placement (whether a better fit or special education). These, of course, can bring emotional challenges for both the family and the child.
Sharing A Nanny Or Household Help
It is important for families to hold onto or retain good help when they rely on that help for childcare. Household help can be a huge resource in easing this transition, and a constant who isn’t engaged in the conflict the parents may be experiencing. With young children, a nanny, babysitter, or other household helper is often the conduit between homes. If families share childcare, the household helper is in the unique position of witnessing both parts of a transformation. They also have to navigate directions on how they’re supervising a child from two sets of parents. When not shared, this can lead to their own feelings of loss and challenge in the transition.
Disparities In Wealth Or Status Between Homes
Time can bring a number of changes. Whether because of the terms of a split itself, a new marriage, or other life circumstances, one family may begin to have more wealth, and with it, more access to fancier toys, bigger (and second) homes, and loftier vacations. As this happens, children get older, and they become more aware of these disparities and more invested in their significance.
In therapy, we separate parents’ resentment of these differences from the needs of the children so that parents can discuss and guide children through them. We also understand what help children need to make sense of class and money. In a co-parenting situation, these issues may become apparent sooner than they otherwise would, and therefore, parents may need to provide more and more guidance.
Making Health Decisions When Co-Parenting
Health is both vulnerable and highly personal. In co-parenting, it’s easy for health decisions to become an area where historical grief plays out. How co-parents approach the health of their child is reflective of deeply personal beliefs and each parent’s past experiences. These decisions can be embedded in a way that relates to a parent’s own childhood–either emulating perceived good decisions their own parents made or avoiding what they perceived to be mistakes.
Under the best of circumstances, when a child is sick, parents fret over making the right decision. In co-parenting, health decisions are an especially notable area of parenting where each parent may be tasked, in some degree, with supporting a decision they may not have made themselves. Health decisions also exist in an environment of uncertain outcomes. One parent may fight for a particular plan that goes poorly.
Health problems can also come with a sense of resentment. Take, for example, a child who has serious dental problems. This is a situation in which it’s easy for one parent to blame the other (or both). Part of our task as therapists is to separate feelings of fear and worry from the rational elements vital to good decision making.