Solo parent

Week 10 – Co-Parenting Tips and Strategies

Doctor: “You need to eliminate your stressors. It’s not looking good.” Me: “How exactly do I do that when I must see my stressor daily?”

Author Niedria Kenny’s imaginary scenario is one we all know well. You may not be confronting your ex daily, but the bond of marriage or intimacy—when it’s followed by children and then a break-up or loss—is for life. no matter how broken it may be. For good or for ill, we will always be bound to each other’s fates.

Given the discord, disappointment, betrayal, or grief of the past, how are we meant to get along in the present? You might wonder: Do I fake it until I make it? What happens if I’m alright to fake it, but my ex is not? You may have an ex who’s determined to work in bad faith against your efforts. Or your ex may be exercising his or her anger at you by being as difficult as possible. They may be litigating what happened in front of your kids, or disparaging you. It doesn’t matter if their rage is narcissistic or justified. No matter who perpetrated the wrong and who suffered it (though most splits can’t be reduced so simplistically), the ideal scenario is that your children are oblivious.

It’s a tall order, but the stakes are high. We don’t want our children tainted by the mutual resentment and negative narratives of their mother and father.

Many of us co-parent. Even if you became a solo parent after the death of your spouse, you’re likely to retain connections and links to their family members. No matter why we’re called to reconcile and carry on, the dynamic of caring for children after relationship breakdown or loss is complex. Past hurts, rigid behavior patterns, and even new fears can get in the way.

Today, we’re here to talk about the difficult feelings, yes—they’re inevitable. But channeling those feelings into our interactions, and fueling them in front of your kids, is not inevitable. Regardless of the love lost between you and your ex, your kids still crave contact, approval, and guidance from both of you. They may have witnessed fragments of the discord, disappointment, or betrayal—we can only hope not too much—but it does not belong to them. Of course, they love their dad, the guy you think of as an inconsiderate or unfeeling jerk. It’s natural for them to love their mom, the woman who’s had you tied up in miserable knots for years. They need you both.

Your job as a co-parent is to think of yourself as still partnered, in the “family team” sense. Tap into what drew you to your ex in the first place. Use that memory (no matter how radically it’s been overwritten) to respect your ex and treat them as your child-rearing partner. That’s what they are, for better or for worse. A long time ago, they made you laugh. They were always goofing off. You might remember the way she never missed a game, and cheered the loudest. You might remember how he’d get up before anyone else to make dinosaur-shaped pancake stacks.

To get along, you need to acknowledge the good in each other—not only the bad—and let your kids see you doing so. That’s how we let them know they’re loved. And you may be the first one to do so. It may not be reciprocated. Lead the way.

Redefining the “Family Team”

Your children learn how to live by watching you. They form their goals watching the ones you strive for, and the ones you reach. They turn to us to figure out how to deal with failure and rejection. We are their first and most vivid teachers. No relationship crime is worse than wrenching children back and forth in an emotional tug-of-war, or drawing them into being their father’s therapist, or taking on their mother’s adult responsibilities. We spoke of the damage of codependency last week—that’s how codependent, damaged people are made. Children suffer when made to grow up too fast. They need their innocence as much as they need food and shelter.

You and your ex or extended family will negotiate big picture questions like schedules, rules, and boundaries, as well as day-to-day logistics like birthday party presents, a reward for high exam marks, or parent-teacher meetings. It’ll be years of this. If the thought of it makes you groan, that’s a sign of a dynamic that needs to be shifted not only for your benefit but for the kids.

The family team is the “co” in co-parenting. Everyone says Put the kids first and that’s true—they are our singular focus, beyond our own hurts—but the family team also needs you and your ex to lead by example. “Co” means being committed to being steady, firm, and kind as you work with each other; and being cooperative as much as you reasonably can through the transitions from one home to another. If you’re both treating the children well but then turning and muttering snide remarks at each other, your child may internalize that discord and become withdrawn, limit their trust in others, or never feel truly safe. Remember: they love you both. Hits between you will land on your children.

You might think of handoffs with one of those groans. How will she be this time? More surly silent treatment? Will he refuse to get out of the car again?

Shift your view of these transitions as an opportunity to build a core of safety within your child or children. Let them see you chit-chat. Let them see you friendly, without friction and hostility in the air. This is not the time to discuss parenting or relational issues, but to plan ahead and make things as smooth and as cheerful as possible. Let them say goodbye to you and hello to them with more innocence than you can afford. Stretch for it— even if you’re the only one engaging positively. Do your part to make it drama-free, even if that means biting your tongue or taking on the lion’s share of leading “family team” spirit.

Share Time:

Are you and your ex in agreement on the “‘family team”’ concept? If so, what’s working well, and what needs work? If not, what would need to happen to enlist them?

Author Lara Carter wrote, “Not everything your partner is feeling must make sense to you. Learn to be compassionate even when you do not understand them. Compassion is part of being human. Acknowledging the other person’s fears and insecurities does not hurt you.”

Co-parenting is complicated, but most parents share a deep love for their kids. Take on the responsibility to heal and mature so you always come from a place of stability—even if your co-parent cannot. Remember the wise words of Paul in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (NIV) Notice his qualifiers for living at peace, “if it is possible” and “as far as it depends on you.” You can only be responsible for your part in peace.

How to Co-Parent Proactively and Responsibly

It’s one of the most frustrating but everlasting truths: we can only control our own actions, and never the actions (or outcomes, decisions, or character) of anyone else.
The good news is that focusing on your own actions has the potential to make more positive change than fretting over others:

1. Before every interaction, take a breath and recenter yourself to the immediate and long-term consequences of how you’re about to show up and react, emote, or set the tone. This matters. Be bigger than your feelings.

2. Detach from emotional charge to be calm and clear about your expectations and boundaries, both with the other parent and your kids. Then conduct yourself in a way that respects their expectations and boundaries.

3. Be consistent and reliable. Avoid missed visitations and neutralize scheduling if needed, using an app like Family Wizard to streamline communication.

4. When intense emotions arise in you, return to your center and do not react. Awareness is the first step to controlling your behavior and showing up intentionally. In the moment, respond positively. Defuse difficult situations with, Let’s talk about this another time or I’m listening and want to respond, but I need some time to think about that. Then close the loop when you’re in a quiet place away from the kids and feeling steady.

5. Don’t return negative with negative. Never talk about your child’s other parent within earshot. Remember they’re always listening. Vent to trusted friends or family members if you must, but don’t say things you’ll regret. Maintain your commitment to be responsible, reasonable, and thoughtful. Don’t let a reactive co-parent take you down to their level.

6. Maintain rules and expectations at your house and let go of expectations at the other house. Look after your side of the street, as they say. Find peace by letting go of things your co-parent does differently that aren’t harmful to your child.

7. View the co-parenting handoff as a transaction. Fulfill your arrangement without making it overly emotional for your child or the other parent. Be responsible and considerate when handing off and picking up.

8. Every now and then, if you’re reasonably cordial in your relationship, set a private time and place with your ex to discuss how things are going. Share your happy moments and good news as well as your concerns and your challenges. Try to show up as a friend might: listen well, empathize, and offer support for the rough days and congratulations on the wins. We’re all busy, and the weeks run away on us—having a set plan makes your team status intentional, and allows a space where you can both be genuine without the kids overhearing.

Share Time:

Which one of these strategies are you doing well at right now? Which one do you still need to work on?

Carving out space for peace in a sometimes resentful or even volatile co-parenting relationship may not feel simple, but it’s important. It’s better for your health. It’s better for your ex’s health as a fellow human being who shares your love for your offspring in a way that only you can understand. And it’s most certainly better for your kids.

Further Action Step:

Choose one of the strategies listed above and decide how you will put it into practice, or, consider ways you can improve the effectiveness of strategies you are already using.