Co-parenting is one of the biggest challenges parents face…and it is one of the most common topics my clients ask me about. Regardless of the relationship status between parents, whether married, divorced, together, or separate, these challenges naturally arise. Here’s why: anytime two people embark on an adventure together, their unique perspectives and values are going to play a role in how each approaches situations, and ultimately what choices they make. Parenting is different than any other adventure, however, because the task you set out to complete is to raise a human being, and there is so much pressure to succeed. It is no surprise that parenting decisions, then, hold a lot of weight and can cause tension between co-parents.
Though this experience is normal and common, that doesn’t mean that it is easy! But maybe there is a way to ease some of the distress and improve your “working relationship” with your child’s other parent…
One of the major reasons that co-parenting can be difficult is the idea that parents need to be on the same page. This is a parenting myth that is not serving you or your parenting partner. In order for parenting conformity to occur, both parents must hold and utilize the same boundaries, values, and strategies. Due to their own unique perspectives, however, it is very unlikely that two parents actually share the same perspective in all of these areas. Instead of forcing each other to parent inauthentically, why not encourage one another to love your unique parenting strengths, making your partnership stronger than either of you could be independently? Here’s how:
1. Love your parenting style
In order to love your personal parenting style, you first have to know what your parenting style is, which requires building awareness of how you view and approach parenting challenges. Are you more structured, or more flexible? Do you value nurturing support, or are you usually pretty strict? Determine which areas of parenting feel effortless and easy to you, and which feel more tense and challenging.
Determining your values is an amazing place to start. If you are a parent who really values education, likely you will be spending more time trying to teach your child to also value education, and supporting them in educational challenges. Likewise, if you value compassion and human connection, these are lessons you can weave into parenting moments. Determining your top values can bring clarity to the areas of parenting where you are congruent, and the areas of parenting where you may want to make some changes in order to parent accordingly. When you know what you are trying to teach and why, parenting from a place of confidence and congruence becomes so much easier.
Even the most congruent parent, however, is going to have areas of weakness. It is totally normal to feel like there are areas where you are not the best person for the job. Please, have compassion for yourself when this arises. It is as normal as it is uncomfortable. Children are meant to be raised in community. The age-old adage that it takes a village is referring to exactly this experience. These areas of “weakness” can be amazing opportunities to teach your child two profound lessons: how to love every aspect of yourself—even those that you perceive as flaws, and how to seek help and support when you need it. This is where trusting not only yourself, but also your co-parent, becomes an empowering team experience.
2. Trust your co-parent’s parenting style
Getting clear about the benefits of your parenting style is most likely going immediately help you to also see the benefits to the parenting style of your partner, as well. Once you are looking for strengths, your brain is going to be able to identify them with greater ease. In addition, it may also become clear where your co-parent is being challenged. I invite you to have an open conversation about how both of your parenting skills and styles actually compliment each other, as well as areas where each of you may feel lost or unsupported. If your parenting situation is not one where open and honest communication feels possible, fear not. If you have the willingness to trust both yourself and the other parent, it is going to ease tension in the entire system.
The most common issue brought up to me in co-parenting conversations is that each parent “is too different,” or “doesn’t get it.” The most important thing to understand in this situation (and often the hardest) is that these differences are a huge asset. Different worldviews, values, and approaches help to balance the two people who are influencing the family system. It also brings much more possibility to the children who are being influenced. Here’s an example: in a single family there is one parent who is highly creative and has a flexible way of thinking, and one parent who values structure and routine. While they may argue about what homework time looks like, what they likely can’t see is how they influence each other and together create a home environment with a balance of both creativity and structure. In addition, their children learn two very different ways to approach situations in their own lives.
In any variety of circumstances, regardless of your relationship with your co-parent, relinquishing control is one of the greatest challenges. Not being “on the same page” as your co-parent means that you do not get to be in control of all parenting situations. Especially in situations of divorce or high-conflict parenting, relinquishing control can feel impossible. As a parent, you want to make sure that your child is getting the best care possible, which means this process can be extremely scary. Ask yourself the following questions, and let them be a guide in trusting your parenting partner: Does my co-parent want the best for our child(ren)? Does my co-parent feel and believe that their parenting strategies are beneficial? Is my co-parent parenting in a way that is safe for our child(ren)? If you can answer yes to these questions, what is holding you back your trust?
3. Trust that your child can handle it
“But isn’t this going to confuse my child?” Not at all! The only consistency your child needs is consistency of the individual. Confusion will arise if you are not firm in your parenting style, and therefore you engage in parenting flip-flopping. The danger of flip-flopping is that your child won’t know what to expect in terms of boundaries, limits, or consequences, the result of which will be anxiety and anticipation.
Your child absolutely has the ability to learn from and respond to two different parenting styles. If both you and your parenting partner are firm in your parenting approach, your child is going to know that parent #1 responds in a specific way, and parent #2 responds in another way. No anticipation or anxiety there. Plus, you get the added benefit of teaching your child through experience that there can be two different ways to approach any given challenge.
You do not expect your child’s teacher to “follow your rules” during the school day, so why would you expect your co-parent to do so? Diversity of experience, not conformity, is what is going to spark your child’s growth, curiosity, and creativity.
4. Don’t undermine each other—work as a team!
The biggest challenge in this model of parenting is this: your child will, inevitably, try to manipulate a situation by aligning him/herself with whichever parent they perceive will parent them more favorably in a specific moment. The antidote to this particular poison is communication. If a decision has already been made by one parent, it is imperative that the other parent respect and uphold that decision. Any decisions made or consequences given must remain in place when the other parent is “on duty.” This means that both parents need to be up to speed on what decisions have been made while they were not present, so that they can act accordingly.
Being willing to ask for support is another essential skill in co-parenting. If you are exhausted, triggered, or just generally struggling with a parenting challenge, having your co-parent “tap you out” is a great way to take care of yourself and show your parenting partner that you trust and respect them. If there is an area of parenting that feels uncomfortable or unfamiliar, feel free to ask your co-parent how they would approach it and try on their way. Your co-parent is both an asset and a source of knowledge. They are the only other person who knows your child, and the specific challenges of parenting your child, as well as you do.
Ultimately, the most imperative pieces of co-parenting are trust, respect, and communication. These are no small tasks; they can be difficult to practice for any number of reasons. If you or your co-parent are struggling in any of these areas, please remember that seeking parenting support or individual/couples counseling does not mean that you are failing—it is simply a toward self-understanding and self-care. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs in this world, and it’s okay to have bad days. To be the best parent you can be, sometimes you need a little extra support.