Co-Parenting: The Most Important and Difficult Thing

Family structures are changing. The emergence of non-nuclear families that include step families, blended families, co parents, and platonic parenting indicates that parenting is changing. The step family network states that 64% of all children live in some form of divorced or step family structure. This number does not include the number of parents who were never married but who work together for the growth of their child.

Many divorced or never married parents engage in some form of co-parenting. Co-parenting is an active process of unmarried and non-cohabiting parents actively working together for the success of the child. Co-parenting may encompass various legal custody arrangements; however, it must include some level of active involvement from both parents. The Michigan State University co-parenting curriculum defines co-parenting as “both parents sharing the responsibility for raising and parenting their children.”

A leading family researcher found that children in joint parenting custody arrangements fared better than the children in sole custody arrangements after controlling for sole custody arrangements because of abuse. Children in joint parenting arrangements performed better on measures of academic achievement, emotional health (anxiety, depression, self-esteem, life satisfaction), behavioral problems (delinquency, school misbehavior, bullying, drugs, alcohol, smoking), physical health and stress-related illnesses, and relationships with parents, stepparents, and grandparents.

While having both parents involved in a child’s life is ideal for a child, oftentimes working with someone who you have a failed relationship with can present quite a challenge, especially because you cannot just breakup and never speak to or see your ex again.  Here are some lessons that I have learned from my own experiences co-parenting and that researchers suggest will help make your co-parenting relationship successful.

  1. A broke clock is right at least twice a day— After a breakup, you may feel your ex is a bad person. They may have made bad decisions throughout your relationship. Thus, you may feel that this bad judgment will extend into parenting. Thus, learning to respect your co parent’s opinion and thoughts about how to raise your child may be a struggle. Appreciating that their opinion COULD be correct, allows you to listen. Listening and deferring judgment can help build a bridge.
  2. My office hours are 9 to 5—When Big Red said these infamous lines in Five Heartbeats, he was establishing a firm boundary (too firmly). Establishing a firm boundary of when and how to conduct business with your co-parent is essential. Allowing your co-parent 24-hour access to you is not helpful. Decide when you will communicate about the child and your preferred contact method (phone, text, email). Keep non-emergency communication between appropriate business hours. One co-parenting communication guide provides excellent guidelines for engaging in business communication with your co parent.
  3. Good fences make for good neighbors and good parenting contracts make for good co parents—Develop a parenting agreement that outlines visitation, child support, medical coverage, holidays, school registration, and whatever else you fought about it in the last year. I would also suggest including ways to mediate disputes that fall outside of the current agreement. This article discusses some other key ingredients to a good co-parenting plan.
  4. Don’t sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff—Early on in my co-parenting journey, everything was an emergency. Everything required an email or a phone call. Everything my co parent did or did not do upset me. Everything was overwhelming.  Out of the thousand things that I felt was an emergency, there were probably only two within that first year. Worrying about every little thing as a parent and desiring to make your co parent worry too leads to disaster. Therapy may help you cope and manage the many feelings that came with parenting, breaking up, and working with my ex.
  5. Every pot has a lid—One of the things that comes with co-parenting is managing negative feelings. Being a “single parent” is loaded with stereotypes. A common stereotype is that no one will want a person with a child.  Feeling that having a child confines you to a life without a loving committed partner is depressing. It may make you blame your ex or worse yet your child. Remaining hopeful about your dating life will help not only with co-parenting but also with your child-parent relationship.
  6. One monkey don’t stop no show—Co-parenting requires a diverse support network. You must fill your cup and your child’s cup with as much love as possible. That love can come from your co parent, extended family, neighbors, friends, coaches, teachers, and anyone else who wants to take an active and healthy role in your child’s life. The absence of one monkey will not stop your show.
  7. When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on—Parenting is hard. Parenting is hard with a committed partner and without. During your parenting journey there will come a time when you feel like you can’t go on and at that time it is okay to rest. Give yourself the space to rest…the time to stop the climb and just hold on.  Researchers have found that having a positive outlook promotes wellbeing in single mothers; thus, believing that the storm will pass is helpful.  Sometimes weathering the storm is all you can do and all you have to do…so hold on.

How we co parent and promote wellness within our children and our family unit is diverse. Feel free to leave a comment on the SCP connect page and let us know how you are making it work or what else we can write about to help you with your process!

Shareefah N. Al’Uqdah, PhD

Assistant Professor/Director of Clinical Training



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