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A definitive list of 7 co-parenting boundaries you need to know

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Ending a relationship or marriage is a significantly different experience for couples who have children and those who don’t. 

If you don’t have kids, you can walk away from your partner with little reason to maintain a relationship. If you do have kids, however, you will likely always be connected to your ex. 

Although it’s important to maintain a respectful relationship with your ex for the sake of your children, that doesn’t mean your ex gets to dictate how you parent and live your life. Setting co-parenting boundaries can allow both of you to move past your romantic relationship and establish a new normal. 

What are co-parenting boundaries?

Co-parenting boundaries are rules for non-coupled parents to follow when it comes to their children, while also pursuing the other unshared aspects of their individual lives. By laying out these boundaries, co-parents can collaborate to the extent that they choose and hold the other person accountable to play by the rules. 

The list of 7 co-parenting boundaries 

When you’re trying to establish a successful co-parenting relationship for the sake of your kids, follow these seven rules to set clear co-parenting boundaries and reduce stress and inconsistency in your lives: 

1. Follow your parenting plan

A parenting plan is a document that spells out the details of raising a child whose parents are not a couple. It covers things like: 

  • Parental responsibilities
  • Custody/visitation schedules
  • Health care
  • Education
  • Social activities
  • Religion

Parents may negotiate on their own or work with a mediator to set the terms of the agreement. In rare, high-conflict cases, a court may step in and set the terms. 

An effective parenting plan limits communication between exes (if that’s what you want), prevents disagreements, and promotes consistency in children’s lives. Parenting plans can be adjusted as children grow and their needs change.

2. Stick to a consistent schedule

Schedules provide structure for children and help parents establish when and how they’ll interact. Set consistent times and locations for drop-offs and pick-ups to prevent unexpected visits and disruptions to your life. 

Using a co-parenting app like Our Family Wizard allows you to keep track of your co-parenting schedule and keep records of any time your ex doesn’t stick to your parenting plan, for example, if he cancels a visit or shows up unexpectedly

I recently met the mom of a teenager who had been divorced for more than 10 years. She hadn’t dated since her divorce, she said, because she didn’t have a predictable schedule. Her kid’s dad would show up without warning — and rarely stick to any pre-determined schedule. She felt his impromptu visits and failure to show up when expected was an attempt to control her, since she could never make any plans — including with men. “I couldn’t bring myself to tell my son he couldn’t see his dad — especially when he was standing right there at the door,” she said, shaking her head, sadly. “He was so heart-broken that his dad never prioritized him. I didn’t want to be part of the problem.”

Here’s the thing: She was part of the problem.

If you don’t require your kids’ dad's respect everyone’s time with a reasonable schedule, you are perpetuating the problem.

Emma Johnson, Founder of Wealthysinglemommy.com

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3. Communicate with respect and civility

When you’re interacting with your ex — either via text, on the phone, or in person — try to be conscious of the tone of your voice and what you say. 

“Change the tone to one where you're not policing, but supporting,” says Laura Katz, a Los Angeles-based licensed marriage and family psychotherapist.

Unless you’ve agreed to an open and collaborative co-parenting plan, keep your communications business-like and focused on your children and their needs. You might schedule a weekly or monthly call to discuss schedule changes, appointments, or major concerns, rather than bringing these things up at random times.

Also, make sure to communicate directly with your ex, rather than through your kids, who don’t need the burden of being messengers. They can also learn from your respectful interactions.

4. Disagree in private

Even if you and your ex don’t get along, refrain from having arguments in front of your kids. 

“You don’t want them to become parentified, which means that the children assume the responsibility and the roles of the parents,” says California-based therapist Alison Roth, LMFT. Instead of a parent taking care of a child’s needs, the tables are turned.

Roth says parentification can stunt development and make kids feel like they need to pick sides, which can lead to detrimental anxiety.

“Parents need to maintain roles and be on the same page so there’s no bifurcation, and so kids don’t play sides against the middle, either,” Roth says.

5. Don’t leave your co-parent out of the loop

Share information about your child’s life that your co-parent may not have. For instance, include the other person in communications to school or activities, and relay news that may have been missed. You may not care if your co-parent knows every detail, but your child likely does. 

According to research published in the journal Paediatric Child Health, children benefit from communication between co-parents regarding the child. If you don’t want to be constantly texting or calling your ex, you can use Our Family Wizard to communicate updates and share important milestones in your child’s life.  

6. Avoid bad-mouthing your kids’ other parent

“The relationships that children have with each parent set the stage for their future platonic and romantic adult relationships,” Roth says. 

Parents should put aside their own feelings and respect their children’s relationship with the other parent, not attempt to negatively influence it. 

“Never disparage him or her in front of them, which can have a devastating effect, sometimes leading to what’s called parent alienation syndrome,” Roth says. Parent alienation is categorized by fear, hostility, or disrespectful feelings toward one parent caused by manipulation by the other. 

7. Avoid talking about new romantic relationships

Keep conversation focused on your kids, and steer clear of personal topics, such as new romantic relationships. It’s not your ex’s business who you are dating, and it’s not your business who your ex is dating, unless you have legitimate founded concerns about that person being around your kids. 

Consider setting ground rules with your ex about when it may be suitable to introduce a new partner to your kids. Check out our advice for when to introduce kids to a new partner.

Reasons why you need to set co-parenting boundaries

If you don’t set co-parenting boundaries, you’re setting yourself up for potential stress and conflict between you and your ex, which will also impact your children’s wellbeing. Without boundaries in place:

  1. Your ex might show up any time, cancel without notice, and otherwise disrupt the new life you’re trying to build. 
  2. You may regularly argue over contentious topics because you don’t have a written plan for how to handle them. 
  3. Children learn that it is OK for people to be disrespectful — of someone’s time, feelings, and beliefs.
  4. Your partner may try to maintain a level of control over you by giving commentary on your romantic, professional, or personal life. 
  5. You introduce instability into everyone’s lives.
  6. You give away your power by playing victim to another person’s rude behavior. Your time, schedule, plans, and LIFE are yours to make amazing.

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Examples of co-parenting boundaries

These are a few examples of co-parenting boundaries: 

  • Sticking to specific times and locations for drop-offs/pick-ups
  • Keeping conversations strictly about your children
  • Sharing updates on a parenting app like Our Family Wizard
  • Not talking negatively about your ex (at least in front of the kids)
  • Respecting any boundaries your ex sets

Common questions about co-parenting boundaries

How do you set boundaries when co-parenting a narcissist?

Narcissism is a personality disorder characterized by an unstable self-image, which can make people inflexible and defensive. They seek out adulation and attention, thinking that they are special. 

“When people grow dependent on feeling special, they stop thinking that their partners are the best because they need to claim that distinction for themselves. They lose the capacity to see the world from any point of view other than their own,” writes Dr. Craig Malkin in Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists.

A co-parent with narcissistic traits may test your limits and push your boundaries, part of which may involve disrespecting your agreed-upon guidelines. A narcissist often doesn’t welcome or understand compromise and often will put you in the position of protecting yourself from emotionally hurtful behaviors and comments.

You’ll need to exert extra control over your guidelines and be exceedingly clear about what you will and won’t accept. If that means calling the police because your ex shows up unexpectedly and won’t leave, so be it. 

Communicate in writing as much as possible to avoid aggressive conversations. If you do have a personal exchange, avoid arguing, stay calm and temper your voice. Resist the urge to engage. It may be helpful to have a third party, like a friend or other family member, handle drop offs and pickups from both parents.

What are good co-parenting boundaries while in a new relationship?

That’s really up to you and how much you choose to share with your ex. You are not required to tell your ex when you’re in a new relationship, and your ex doesn’t have to tell you either. When you decide to introduce that person to your children is also your decision.

What should I do when boundaries are crossed?

When someone breaks an agreement, our natural reaction is to dig in our heels, which immediately creates a power struggle, Katz says. 

Instead, she advises trying to figure out why the person felt the need to go against your boundaries in the first place. If it’s a difference of opinion about how something should be handled, you may need to revisit your agreement to come to a compromise, perhaps with the help of a third party like a mediator. 

However, if the boundary-breaking puts the child at risk, stop at nothing, she says. 

“Call the appropriate people, get it done — safety comes first,” Katz says.

When should I consider parallel parenting boundaries?

For co-parents who have trouble getting along, parallel parenting offers a way to share responsibilities while having limited interaction. You’ll have a parenting plan and shared goals for your children; you’ll just keep in-person contact to a minimum. 

For example, you may sit across the auditorium at a school function or have two birthday parties instead of one. Parallel parenting is often a last resort arrangement between two co-parents who simply can’t get along.

“You don’t want to create such an acrimonious situation that it bleeds over to the kids,” Katz says.

Bottom line: Co-parenting boundaries are worth it

Though they may take some time to get used to, and it may seem strange to have written rules about how to raise your children, establishing do’s and don’ts for you and your ex will help keep your children’s lives as stable as possible after a divorce or breakup.

“Even though people think boundaries are something bad, they are really supportive,” Katz says. “They’re a very compassionate way to let people know what’s okay and what’s not.”

If you’re struggling to co-parent with an ex or you need to take a court-ordered parenting class, we recommend Online Parenting Programs, which has: 

  • Courses for specific needs, including co-parenting, high-conflict situations, teens and more
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What are co-parenting boundaries?

Co-parenting boundaries are rules for non-coupled parents to follow when it comes to their children, while also pursuing the other unshared aspects of their individual lives.

How do you set boundaries when co-parenting a narcissist?

You’ll need to exert extra control over your guidelines and be exceedingly clear about what you will and won’t accept. If that means calling the police because your ex shows up unexpectedly and won’t leave, so be it.

Pamela Gwyn Kripke is an award-winning writer whose fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Dallas Morning News, Slate, Salon, Medium, Folio, The Woven Tale Press, The Barcelona Review, The Concrete Desert Review, Doubleback Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Book of Matches, Embark, West Trade Review, Round Table Literary Journal, and other venues. Her essays have been published by Creators Syndicate, Gannett Newspapers, McClatchy and The Huffington Post. Kripke holds an AB in English from Brown University and an MS from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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