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 and University of Nebraska at Lincoln sociology professors concluded, after conducting and referencing multiple studies, that biological and adopted children with 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 coparenting.
- What are the keys to successful co-parenting?
- What does healthy co-parenting look like?
- What does inappropriate co-parenting look like?
- What is a co-parenting agreement?
- Co-parenting FAQs
What are the keys to successful co-parenting?
Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta, a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in parenting, blended families, child development, families, marriage, and divorce, says successful co-parents work together to focus on what is beneficial for their children in the long term, which includes providing stability and structure.
She recommends parents:
- Communicate openly with their children
- Focus on compromise
- Avoid talking negatively about the other parent
“Parents should also remember not to compare what other co-parents do and to focus on what works best in their situation,” Gulotta says.
If you’re currently trying to establish a successful co-parenting relationship, we recommend enrolling in an online co-parenting course.
Our top choice for court-approved parenting classes is OnlineParentingPrograms.com, which offers classes on:
- Co-parenting and divorce
- High-conflict co-parenting
- Basic parenting skills
- Thrive class in which parents and children attend together
- High-risk parenting skills
- Anger management
What does a healthy co-parenting relationship look like?
Anandhi Narasimhan, a Los Angeles child and adult psychiatrist, says healthy co-parenting is about both parents being able to communicate effectively and respectfully to raise their children.
That means not putting the other parent down in front of the children and working together to help them navigate the transition to a new family dynamic.
“Validating the child's emotions and discussing with the other parent how to best support the child is important,” says Narasimhan, who recently published a book to help parents understand and form meaningful connections with their children. She says healthy co-parenting also involves both parents actively participating in things like health care, academics, and other key aspects of their children’s lives.
Sarah Levin Allen, a pediatric neuropsychologist from New Jersey, says successful co-parents put their kids’ needs above their own emotional reactions.
“It's about modeling healthy communication and emotional management,” says Allen, founder of Brain Behavior Bridge. “Healthy co-parenting is identifying your child's needs and pushing that to the forefront of every decision.”
If you’re looking for a guide to navigate co-parenting with an ex, check out Mashonda Tifrere’s Blend, The Secret to Co-Parenting and Creating a Balanced Family. Tifrere shares a 4-year-old son with her ex, music producer Swizz Beatz, and his wife, singer/songwriter Alicia Keys.
How to set up co-parenting 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.”
Our Family Wizard co-parenting app has a ToneMeter that flags any inflammatory words or phrases that you type — so you can delete before you send!
Healthy co-parenting boundaries
Writes Billy Flynn Gadbois, B.S, J.D.:
With co-parenting it is important to focus on the things you can control, and that starts at home. Maintaining a happy and stable environment comes first, and that includes prioritizing your romantic relationships sometimes, as selfish as that may sound. If Mom and Dad are happy, the kids are going to be happy. Trickle-down economics may not work, but trickle-down happiness does. Prioritizing the nest is ultimately the basis of good co-parenting.
If you need help embracing your power and learning to prioritize yourself, I highly recommend you check out my book Kickass Single Mom, Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children.
Prioritize your nest, every time. You don’t have to be unreasonable or rigid with it. Its simply calculating a balance with a priority in mind. If the issue will negatively impact the people in your nest in a valid way, the answer is no. If the impact is neutral or the pros outweigh the cons or if it is outright positive for the kids or the coparenting relationship and everyone is comfortable with it, then sure, do it up.
The basic advice about communicating and establishing healthy boundaries with a co-parent — especially in a high-conflict relationship — includes:
- Stick to practical matters
- Do not dig up past hurts or arguments
- Conduct co-parenting communication by text, email or within a co-parenting app like OurFamilyWizard, which has a unique ToneMeter feature to flag any language that will start a fight
- Give your ex the benefit of the doubt
- Consider taking a co-parenting class — near you or online. Read: Best online parenting classes — including co-parenting programs or Where to find parenting classes “near me” in 2023
- If it makes practical sense, invite into the group chat or co-parenting app step-parents, grandparents, nannies and friends. The goal is to share information, ease communication and share the joys and responsibilities of child-rearing!
What does inappropriate co-parenting look like?
Ineffective co-parenting can include any number of dysfunctional dynamics, including:
- One parent controlling how the other spends time with the child
- Undermining the other parent’s authority with the kids, e.g. telling the children they don’t have to follow the other parent’s rules
- Manipulating the kids to gain their favor over the other parent, to be the “favorite” parent
- Attempts to undermine the other parent’s new romantic relationship
How to co-parent with a narcissist
To successfully co-parent with a narcissist, you have to set firm co-parenting boundaries about responsibilities and communication, plus have clear consequences when expectations aren’t met, says Jameca Woody Cooper, psychologist and clinical director of Emergence Psychological Services in St. Louis.
It’s also a good idea to put in place a no tolerance policy for shaming or guilting the children or pitting them against one another, she says.
“Narcissist parents have a tendency to use these tactics as a way of manipulating their children,” says Woody Cooper, who has also navigated her own divorce and co-parenting relationship.
Narasimhan says narcissists like to push buttons and make the other parent feel wounded with devaluing statements and passive-aggressive approaches.
“A narcissist often does not have empathy for the challenges and suffering of others — even their own children — so everyone around them suffers psychologically,” she says.
Narasimhan suggests keeping interactions transactional and not expressing vulnerability when you’re co-parenting with a narcissist.
“When you feel the narcissist is attacking you and putting you down, engaging or arguing just escalates the behavior,” she says. Instead, minimize interactions and seek help from a therapist to heal old wounds. Connect with a certified mental health professional through BetterHelp.com. Read our review.
Allen says it’s important to be able to identify and label common narcissistic behaviors like gaslighting so you can avoid their emotional power. For reference, gaslighting is a technique narcissists and abusers use to control others by distorting their sense of reality (like picking a fight then making the other person believe they started it).
Because you can’t fix a narcissist, Allen says the best response is to arm yourself with knowledge about your legal rights, set boundaries based on those rights, and continue to advocate for your children. That means taking a supportive role and helping them process what’s happening at an age-appropriate level.
“Try to identify inappropriate behavior without devaluing the other parent's love. For example, you can say, ‘This behavior isn't OK. Your parent loves you, but they did not make a good choice. Your parent should not have behaved that way,’” she says. She also suggests using those moments to teach children about loving behaviors and boundaries.
How to co-parent with a controlling ex
Like dealing with a narcissist, co-parenting with a controlling or toxic ex is about setting and maintaining boundaries, Woody Cooper says.
“Early on, it is necessary to set the standard that you cannot be controlled and show that efforts to control you as the parent will be met with distance and less communication,” she says.
She suggests that when the conversation isn't acceptable, reduce or cut it off (if possible) or communicate only through email.
“It's much harder to try to control another person via email,” she says.
Allen recognizes that it can be difficult to separate your emotions from what’s best for your children. That’s why she recommends having a strong support system in place.
“Get a dream team of support like a therapist, good friends, or a mom group so you have an outlet for your emotional responses as well as a checkpoint to make sure your responses are appropriate and unemotional,” she says.
In his book, Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing, Dr. Richard A. Warshak challenges the conventional advice that you shouldn’t fight fire with fire. Instead, he teaches parents how to effectively combat an ex who is constantly trying to portray them in a negative light. His strategies help parents preserve and rebuild relationships damaged by a manipulative ex.
How to co-parent with a toxic ex
Co-parenting with a toxic ex means learning to let go, Allen says. It’s about recognizing that you can’t keep your kids from being put in the middle or being used as pawns in your relationship.
“You need to allow your children to have their own relationship with the co-parent,” she says. “By recognizing that there are things you can’t control, you are better able to support your children and separate yourself emotionally.”
Taking this approach allows children to find their own voice and develop skills to stand up for themselves.
“Look at the pandemic. We couldn't save our children from experiencing that, but we can be there to give them resources and model emotion management and coping skills,” Allen says. “Put the experiences your kids will have with your co-parent in this category. Support their emotions and reactions instead of adding to them with your own emotional responses.”For more advice on repairing a strained parent-child relationship caused by a toxic ex, check out this book: Co-parenting with a Toxic Ex: What to Do When Your Ex-Spouse Tries to Turn the Kids Against You.
Even if you have a healthy relationship with your ex, you need a solid co-parenting agreement to address how you’ll make decisions about your children and to work out the details of your parenting arrangement.
What is a co-parenting agreement?
If you are divorced, legally separated, or have filed a parenting plan with courts, you likely have a legally binding parenting agreement as part of the proceedings. If you are going through a breakup or divorce now, you may ask your ex, and/or his attorney, for a co-parenting agreement.
A co-parenting agreement is simply a contract that binds you both to certain items as they pertain to how you will behave towards each other and the children for the sake of raising healthy kids. This may also be called a custody agreement, parenting plan, or a custody and visitation agreement.
You and your other parent may create a co-parenting agreement at any time. You can do this without attorneys, and may choose to file in the courts, or it can serve as a friendly outline of behaviors, schedules and protocol for raising children together.
What is included in a co-parenting agreement?
For purposes of filing for divorce or custody, a court may require the following issues to be agreed upon (or a judge may mandate the following):
- Weekly visitation schedule
- Holiday and summer schedules
- Child support
- Payment of children’s health insurance and other medical expenses
- Payment of child care, camp and extracurricular activities
- Keeping each parent informed about medical, education and other important issues
- Restrictions on how far parents can live from one another
- Sharing decisions about religious education
Other items that you may choose to add to a co-parenting agreement can include anything you agree on, including:
- First rights of refusal
- Access to grandparents and other relatives
- Use of a shared calendar and/or a specific co-parenting app
- Protocol for requesting and negotiating schedule changes
- The requirement of responsibility for scheduled visitation time. In other words, a parent cannot simply cancel their scheduled time with a child, but must make appropriate child care arrangements in the event of a schedule change
- Transportation — which parent is responsible for transporting kids from one home to the other
- Communication — number of hours or days each parent has to respond to an email or text
- Communication about parent-teacher conferences
- Time-sharing for birthdays and other life events
- You know what you and your ex fight about or will likely fight about — get it in writing now!
Recommended co-parenting books and movies
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
FAQs about how to coparent
Here are some rules for healthy co-parenting, and FAQs:
Is co-parenting a relationship?
Co-parenting is a type of relationship, but not a romantic one!
Should co-parents spend time together?
Ideally, co-parents should be able to attend their children’s events without causing the kids anxiety by being friendly, saying hello, and possibly standing or sitting near one another.
Co-parents ideally should be able to attend school meetings, counseling sessions and even family meetings or dinners occasionally to discuss issues, celebrate birthdays and events and show the kids that you are on the same team.
However, that doesn't mean you need to be friends with your ex.
Should co-parents talk every day?
This really depends on the two of you, and more frequent communication is called for when there is an infant in play, or there is a medical or other high-intensity situation in which both parents want to know what is going on — and are entitled to daily updates. When children are very young, or the separation or divorce is very new it can be helpful to communicate more often. If there is a difficult period — a family illness, a child going through a difficult time, a relocation or other big life change — more frequent communication may naturally happen, or be useful or necessary.
But there is usually no reason to mandate daily communication between co-parents otherwise.
How should co-parents communicate?
If yours is a high-conflict relationship, keep co-parenting communication to text, messages within a co-parenting app like Our Family Wizard, or email. However, it can be very, very helpful to speak face-to-face or by phone to work through difficult child situations, share about your personal struggles that may interfere with co-parenting or otherwise check in.
Hiring a mediator, therapist or even inviting a mutual friend to moderate the conversation is perfectly fine.
Bottom line: For the sake of the kids, learn how to co-parent successfully with your ex
No matter how you feel about your ex, it’s important for the sake of the kids to maintain a cordial co-parenting relationship. That includes communicating effectively and setting healthy co-parenting boundaries.
If you’re struggling to co-parent with your ex or you just want to build a healthy co-parenting relationship, we recommend enrolling in a court-approved class from Online Parenting Programs.
You can also use a co-parenting app like Our Family Wizard to keep communication in one place and to share important info.
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, both parents are actively involved in the child's day-to-day life, communicate amicably (though you don't have to be friends to be good co-parents), share the physical, financial, logistical and emotional responsibilities and joys of parenting, and encourage your children to have a warm relationship with the other parent, and their extended family and friends.
Ineffective co-parenting can include any number of dysfunctional dynamics, including: one parent controlling how the other spends time with the child; undermining the other parent's authority with the kids; and more.
This really depends on the two of you, and more frequent communication is called for when there is an infant in play, or there is a medical or other high-intensity situation in which both parents want to know what is going on and are entitled to daily updates.
If yours is a high-conflict relationship, keep co-parenting communication to text, messages within a co-parenting app, or email. However, it can be very, very helpful to speak face-to-face or by phone to work though difficult child situations, share about your personal struggles that may interfere with co-parenting or otherwise check in.
Anandhi Narasimhan, a Los Angeles child and adult psychiatrist, says healthy co-parenting is about both parents being able to communicate effectively and respectfully to raise their children. That means not putting the other parent down in front of the children and working together to help them navigate the transition to a new family dynamic.