It is not divorce or separation that harms children — but conflict between parents, no matter if they are married or divorced, studies find.
Penn State University sociology professors studied 2,000 married persons and 700 children and concluded that children that had the highest levels of anxiety and depression either had low-conflict parents who divorced or high-conflict parents who remained together.
Thankfully, it is within your control as a separated parent to lower the conflict in your co-parenting — even if your ex is a narcissist.
What is co-parenting?
The definition of co-parenting is the practice of two parents working together to parent the kids. While married or coupled parents can and should certainly co-parent amicably, and collaboratively, the term is usually used when navigating divorced and separated families where parents live apart.
Ideally, co-parenting moms and dads work together in the raising of children, including big decisions like medical and religious practices, as well as daily routines, discipline, schedules and values.
Co-parenting and shared parenting are separate, but closely related terms.
Shared parenting is the term used for time-sharing in the event of separation or divorce in which the kids split the hours and days approximately equally between both parents' homes.
Other terms include shared physical custody, equally shared parenting time, equal co-parenting, and equally shared parenting responsibility.
A full 55 peer-reviewed and published studies on shared parenting find that children fare better when separated, and divorced co-parents share parenting time and decisions approximately equally (courts and academics consider at least 40 percent time with each parent to be considered shared parenting, a.k.a. equal co-parenting).
This is also true for co-parenting in high-conflict situations.
How to co-parent: 29 co-parenting tips for divorced parents
Whether you can stand the idea of relinquishing control of your children to an ex you dislike, loathe or hate, you likely do not have a choice.
Shared parenting legislation was introduced in more than half of states last year, and as science, media and general common sense infiltrates family court and culture, there has been an incredibly positive movement towards it.
Even if the kids are with you a majority of the time, there is a lot you can do to promote a family culture of equality and harmony.
Working with a therapist (opposed to an expensive lawyer), can help. Online therapists specializing in mediation, divorce, co-parenting or couples are a great option for co-parents, as the process is very affordable, anonymous, convenient (you connect via video, phone or text), and you don't have to be in the same room as your ex!
1. Trust, not control your ex
The big, over-arching theme in successful, harmonious co-parenting is that both partners respect the other to be a safe, decent parent when the other is not around.
If you truly believe that your kids' other parent is unsafe, then you need to take legal action to minimize contact.
Which brings me to the big point about shared parenting: If a parent is deemed safe to be with the kids 10 percent of the time, they are then safe to be with them 30 or 50 or 80 or even 100 percent of the time.
That means that you do not try to control what happens at the other parent's house.
Maybe he is the fun weekend dad, all the time, and you prefer children have structure, chores and downtime.
He is a strict vegan and never allows sugar, carbs or produce grown outside of the county. You think kids need animal protein and the occasional cookie.
You have to let that go.
Do not call all the time to check in on the kids, or chat with them. Do not ask to take the kids more in the name of doing something special with them. Honor that his scheduled time belongs to the kids.
The beauty of successful shared parenting is that once you trust each other and learn to communicate, you are more likely to peacefully negotiate differences for the sake of everyone's best interests.
“My ex and I started to co parent amazingly once I let go of trying to control the situation, let him parent the way he wants to parent, be understanding when he was late, and ignore the clothes never being returned. Once you take the pressure off, the tension eases and you can start to bond and connect better.”
2. Shared parenting is about gender equality
Accept that men and women are equal.
That includes that mothers and fathers are equal parents.
3. Protect the kids after divorce or separation
If things are tense between you, keep the focus of any must-have interaction on the kids.
If you are going through divorce now, consider low-conflict options like mediation, collaborative divorce, or file for divorce yourself online. There are a number of quality apps and programs that will help you file for divorce online.
For a flat fee of $299, CompleteCase provides all the paperwork you need to file for your divorce, as well as detailed instructions for how to file for divorce in your state. Check out CompleteCase now >>
RocketLawyer allows you to buy legal documents including a divorce settlement agreement, and divorce worksheet, for $39.99 each, as well as consulting with an attorney for $49.99 per question. Checkout RocketLawyer now >>
4. Even after divorce: co-parent as a team
Focus on parenting as a team.
Ask his advice about behavior issues.
Do not allow the kids to pit one of you against the other, and never vie for the position as favorite parent.
As one member of my Millionaire Single Moms Facebook group said:
“In parenting, there is no good-cop / bad-cop. Sometimes we are both the bad cop.”
I'll add: And you both get to be the good cop!
5. Choose carefully words you use for your kids' homes, and their dad
The kids have two homes — use pronouns accordingly.
When communicating with him, use ‘your house' and ‘my house' … not ‘Home,' as in ‘When will you bring the kids home?'
It doesn't matter how much time each parent has with the kids, keep these pronouns neutral.
That goes for the language you use with your kids, too. “Daddy's house” and “mommy's house” — not “your dad's house” and “home.”
Similarly, watch your mouth re: what you call your kids' dad — even when speaking with other people.
From Maggie: “Change your own thinking by reframing what your relationship is with him in your head. ‘My child's other parent,' instead of ‘my ex.'”
6. Have family meetings with your ex
From Erin: “We still occasionally have family meetings.
It benefits the kids to see that we are on the same page and then everyone gets everything out at once.”
7. Consider co-parent counseling with your ex
Similar to family meetings, many parents who live separately find it helpful to meet with an objective, professional third-party to work though co-parenting challenges, as well as everyday parenting woes. Does your kid struggle with anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, social or academic challenges? A lot of narcissism flying around? A licensed therapist can help.
Online therapy is a great option for co-parents. These platforms are anonymous, much lower-cost than in-person counseling, and because you connect via phone, video, text or email, you don't have to be in the same room as your ex! BetterHelp is a popular online therapy site, with an A+ BBB rating, the ability to choose from thousands of licensed, certified counselors, and fees starting at $40/week, for unlimited sessions. Learn more about online therapy now >>
9. Use a co-parenting app
For co-parenting schedules, expense sharing, and more co-parenting apps can be a handy, low-cost (or free!) way to make co-parenting easy, plus create a document to help resolve any conflict quickly.
The most advanced technology, and beautiful interface, Fayr is backed by co-parenting advocate Gwyneth Paltrow. Features include co-parent schedule calendar, expense recording, date-stamped messaging, and geo-location pinpointing so you can prove you were on time for parenting exchanges. iTunes rating of 3.7, Google Play rating of 3.5. Fees start at $6/month.
One of the firest co-parenting apps, and widely used app, OurFamilyWizard's features include chat, information storage (like pediatrician and teacher contact info, prescriptions, etc.), and financial record-keeping. OurFamilyWizard app has 2/5 stars on both iTunes and Google Play. $117.97/year.
This app provides messaging, expense documentation, and geo-pinpointing, plus on-demand, live conflict resolution from a team of retired judges, child specialists, mediators and therapists. 3.9 rating in iTunes, and 3.6 in Google Play. $12.99/month.
9. Keep co-parenting communication open and frequent
Routinely involve him in decisions about the kids' child care, school, health, activities — even if he doesn't attend events and appointments, or pretend to care. Just share anyway.
10. Boundaries with your ex
IGNORE when he gets pissy.
DO NOT ENGAGE.
“It took me a while to release the angry texting habit I adopted once he moved out, criticizing him every time he was late, or his stories sounded fishy about a plan change.
Now I say to myself: ‘And that is why I divorced him,' and breathe an actual sigh of relief.
I text ‘OK thanks,' like a robot and get on with my life.”
11. Invite your ex to birthday parties
Invite him to birthday or graduation parties you throw for the kids.
You can also ask him to participate in the planning, to bring the cake or otherwise be involved.
12. Stay involved with your ex-in-laws
Stay connected to his family and friends.
Send them holiday cards and invite them to school, sports and birthday events.
Better yet, in the case of a dispute, just let him take the kids for the holiday.
13. Tell your kids happy stories about their dad
Share positive stories about the other parent with the kids.
Tell them about how you met, or trips you took, or positive qualities about their dad.
This communicates to your children something positive about a person they love, and reconditions you to think differently, and better about your ex.
This shift will infiltrate your energy, vibration, and interaction with him.
Here is a post I wrote about various funny, happy stories from my marriage I share with my kids.
14. Cooperate with your ex on holidays
Buy him a holiday and birthday gift on behalf of the kids. Be generous with the holiday co-parenting schedule.
15. Support your ex's new girlfriend or wife
Be positive about any romantic partners in his life — both to the kids and to him.
It doesn't matter if you like your kids' new stepmom or whether she was the affair partner.
16. Respect your co-parent
When he makes a suggestion or request about parenting, listen and follow it unless you actually really object.
17. Support your kids' dad's parenting
Think about what you can do to help the other parent win at parenting.
These might include daily reminders, scheduling and planning emails, or follow-up phone calls.
Do it from a place of love and unity, and without being condescending!
18. Let him fail.
There is a fine line between being supportive and co-dependent.
Ultimately, he is responsible for being the best father he can.
I have heard moms say they schedule fun activities for their kids' dad to do with “because I love my kids and want them to have fun weekends.”
That is actually controlling and co-dependent and doesn't work in a co-parenting relationship.
19. Celebrate the kids with him
Share the kids' successes with him: Screenshot good grades on homework or cute craft projects and send him, send pics or videos from sports events he misses – and not in a passive-aggressive way to punish him for not being there.
20. Say yes more than you say no (if you can)
Say ‘yes' as very often as you possibly can when he asks for flexibility in the schedule.
21. Please and thank you
Thank him when he is flexible with you, no matter how much more of the work you know you do.
22. Don't keep score of stuff
Let go of the, ‘I bought those clothes so they stay at my house.'
If you're running short on certain items, just ask that enough be returned when you are running low, and pay back that favor.
23. Let the kids see you speaking well of one another — to one another
Give him a compliment. Do it in front of the kids.
It is so important for your kids to hear nice things about YOU — if your ex is not the person, find someone who is.
24. Careful with your new boyfriend on social media
Refrain from posting social media pics of your new boyfriend with the kids, with the exception of when everyone is really getting along awesome and it truly is NBD.
Otherwise, that is not only counter-productive for co-parenting, but it is mean and targets his manhood on the most primal level.
25. Move on after divorce
Co-parenting advice from single mom Laura: “Change your own mindset about the past/divorce/your heartache.”
LET IT GO.
You are co-parents now, and it doesn’t matter how you got here, or whose fault it is. He’s your co-parent and children’s dad first, opposed to focusing on the fact he is your ex.
His girlfriend or new wife is just that, not his mistress/affair partner. Learn to respect their relationship, even if you don't like it, or it still hurts.
Staying in a positive mindset about the now is critical for healthy co-parenting.
26. Always always be the bigger person.
When you feel the rage coming on, STOP.
It’s not about you.
Save your energy for the battles that really matter in the long-term.
27. Accept that you don't have to force the relationship.
You may not want to spend the holidays together or sit on the same bleachers at the kids' volleyball match.
That is OK.
28. Be patient.
Take it from me: people change and grow and forgive and mellow.
Over time, handoffs at the police station can cease and be replaced by shared holiday meals.
Explosive texting can stop and words of support and encouragement can reign. Life is long.
Having a hard time letting old stuff go? My quick tip for forgiving your ex
Common co-parenting problems — and how to deal with them
1. My ex cancels all the time
When parents do not show up for visits, or are late often, is uncool at best, but really abusive. Failure to adhere to a visitation schedule expresses to the children that they are not important, and disrespects the other parent's time, and causes stress, chaos and breaks down any trust — for both the co-parent, and kids.
2. My ex is trying to prevent me from introducing my boyfriend to the kids,
or: I'm upset my kids' dad introduced them to his new girlfriend right away.
Sorry this is upsetting, but everyone is an adult and entitled to their own romantic lives — including deciding when to incorporate a new person into their home life.
3. Aren't women naturally better parents?
No. Science proves kids need both parents equally. More on why women exercising the golden uterus complex, a.k.a. maternal gatekeeping, hurts kids, co-parenting relationships, and gender equality.
4. How do I co-parent with a narcissist?
Maybe he or she has been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, or perhaps they have a more-than-normal dose of narcissism. Either way, you are stuck co-parenting with your kids' other parent, and it is possible.
Perhaps you have to resign yourself to parallel parenting, in which you do not interact much at all, but instead allow each other to parent as you see fit when the child is in each of your care.
Or you learn to ‘grey rock' your ex — not react to any inflammatory texts, calls or messages sent through the kids. Co-parenting therapy can help.
5. “But my ex and I hate each other and it is impossible to co-parent.”
My post-divorce road with my ex has been rocky. We’re six years into this co-parenting business, and we’re far from hitting a permanent groove. In the early days, aside from screaming matches in front of the kids and neighbors alike, there were in fact calls to police and a restraining order. Weeks would go by without seeing him, and last-minute cancellations were commonplace.
Whatever nasty thing you can imagine saying to another person were in fact said. I’m guilty.
It seems inconceivable that our relationship would be anything other than an East Coast version of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, minus the fake tits, drugs and millions of dollars.
Every day I hear from people in the midst of co-parenting hell: Dads who check out, moms who block visitation, parents who cancel visits while the kids are waiting by the door, parents who call police when the other is one minute past the court-ordered time, screaming matches and one or the other spending nights in jail — for no good reason.
Fast-forward to today, and my ex and I hardly have it figured all out, and ups-and-downs ensue. What I could not have imagined has come to pass: More or less regular visits and smooth communication. Spontaneous meals together with the kids, whether at my place or restaurants. Rides shared in one or the other’s Subaru to soccer games. Gifts exchanged on behalf of the kids to the other parent on birthdays and holidays. Chit chats and the occasional hug after a big argument or birthday party co-hosted successfully at the local bowling alley.
As I told him recently in a co-parenting counseling session: I love him. I’ve known him for more than 15 years and have two kids with him. He’s a good person. I’m a good person. We both love the kids. At some point everything more or less calmed down, the divorce was finalized and life moved forward. Battles picked. The immediate trauma of divorce subsided.
I wish I could say we are perfectly civilized like the lovely Brandie Weikle, my friend who heads the excellent blog and podcast TheNewFamily.com, and who lives next door to her ex and his new wife, and are the shining model for what a healthy co-parenting relationship can look like — but that would be a lie (though we did discuss vacationing together — until we got into a fight about it, but nevermind.)
Instead, I am here to tell you that it can get better. That one day while you’re both at the soccer game expecting the usual arctic glacier to stand between you on either side of the sidelines, you will find that you need help passing out rice crispy treats for the team in order to make it to the team manager meeting for your other kid across the park. And you will say, ‘Hey, can you handle this for me?’ and he will be so glad to thaw the boreal tension that he will chirp, ‘Sure!’ and suddenly there is a bit of a rapport, a hint of cozy relations that suggest the potential for more of good vibes and less of teeth-grinding hostility, and it feels good.
It feels good to you, and it feels good to him, too. And after a while you forget why you were so freaking angry at him all the time, because being angry just sucks and being nice and getting along is so much better. Even if it isn’t fair or logical, you let go. You forgive. He forgives. You see this has been hard for him, too. You see that he does love the kids, and that is a lot. You offer him a ride home. He offers to help you replace your windshield wiper blade.
You get on with it. Steel yourself not for friendship or even a sense of family. At least not yet. Instead, you open yourself to a relationship that you have not yet defined, but will explore. And everything is better.
That, I want you to know — need you to know — is possible.
Related documentary and books on shared parenting:
Recommended shared parenting documentary: Divorce Corp
Blend, The Secret to Co-Parenting and Creating a Balanced Family, By Mashonda Tifrere
Co-parenting with a Toxic Ex: What to Do When Your Ex-Spouse Tries to Turn the Kids Against You, By by Amy J. L. Baker, PhD and Paul R Fine, LCSW
Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing, By Dr. Richard A. Warshak
Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, noted blogger, and bestselling author. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.