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What Is Co-Parenting – Definition & Tips for Custody Agreement

By Mary McCoy

divorcing with kidsExperts have long recommended happy, stable marriages as the ideal setting for child-rearing. Unfortunately, half of all American marriages continue to end in divorce, and many of these breakups involve children. These statistics don’t even include the relationships between people who never married, but still had kids prior to the dissolution of their romantic partnership. Whatever your opinion is about the state of American marriages and relationships, it’s hard to argue against the need for consistency, stability, and effective communication between parents for the best possible child outcomes. In terms of child development, research has even indicated that a successful co-parenting partnership between exes is preferred to a two-parent home with ineffective or hostile communication between partners.

If you and your ex are committed to providing a stable environment for your kids, but can no longer continue in your marriage or relationship, you may need to consider co-parenting as a pragmatic social, emotional, and financial alternative to an intact home.

What Is Co-Parenting?

The term “co-parenting” was coined to describe a parenting relationship in which the two parents of a child are not romantically involved, but still assume joint responsibility for the upbringing of their child. Occasionally, social scientists also use the term to describe any two people who are jointly raising a child, regardless of whether or not they are both biological parents or have ever been romantically linked (i.e. a single mom raising a child with the help of her own mother). But more often than not, co-parenting occurs following a separation, divorce, or break up of a romantic partnership in which children are involved.

In co-parenting arrangements, both parents choose to put aside their personal differences to develop and implement a parenting plan that they feel is in the best interest of their child’s development. Healthy co-parenting usually requires ongoing communication, troubleshooting, and mutual responsibility, so it can prove challenging to implement following the dissolution of a relationship. But if you and your ex are able to put aside your differences to co-parent effectively, your child can reap the following benefits:

  • Stability. When children experience consistency in communication, expectations, and schedules from both parents, they are more likely to feel safe and stable. Children who feel stable at home are more able to adapt and face daily challenges without feeling overwhelmed.
  • Limited Parentification. A “parentified” child is one who feels the strong need to take care of his or her parents’ feelings and social lives. A parentified child may provide inappropriate emotional support to a grief-stricken parent, or offer to serve as the messenger between parents in an attempt to absorb the emotional fallout of a breakup. Certainly, children can become parentified even in intact homes, but the risk of parentification is especially high following a divorce or break up because of the emotional and financial expense of splitting one home into two. Children who sense that their parents can communicate effectively and manage the trauma of divorce are less likely to assume adult responsibilities in the home.
  • Solid Relationships. Effective co-parenting provides a framework from which children can develop and maintain healthy relationships with both parents, which is important for emotional well-being.
  • Limited Splitting. If a child knows that he or she doesn’t have to manage the relationship between his or her parents, then he or she is also less likely to feel unnecessarily torn between the two. Co-parenting, if done well, can further reduce the likelihood that your children will feel split down the middle.
  • Conflict Resolution. Children learn by example, which means they are watching and learning about relationships and conflict resolution during your breakup. With effective co-parenting, kids learn that they can cooperate with others even in undesirable and painful situations.

Ultimately, effective co-parenting helps mitigate the social and emotional consequences of a divorce or separation. Co-parenting does not take away all of the pain of a split, but it does reduce the damage and provides a safe environment in which children can successfully integrate the sadness of the break up into their development.

co parenting

How to Create a Co-Parenting Plan

Regardless of the benefits of co-parenting, there are many reasons for ex-partners to struggle with the endeavor. Most breakups occur because of a betrayal or a breakdown in communication that cannot be rectified. These patterns of behavior and hurt often follow couples through divorce proceedings and the emotional turmoil of turning one home into two. Successful co-parenting, however, requires solid communication skills and a commitment to honesty, integrity, and cooperation. Many parents – even those with completely irreconcilable differences – can find a way to create a successful co-parenting plan if they consistently recall that they are doing so for the love of their children.

With the Help of a Mediator

Consider enlisting the help of a mediator to develop a co-parenting plan. Many mediators specialize in creating co-parenting plans following a divorce or custody agreement, which can help parents put a plan on paper in a setting that reduces the emotional volatility of both partners. Many mediators also provide ex-partners with co-parenting classes, workbooks, and additional information. A mediator is a great option if you know discussions with your ex will be emotionally fraught and challenging, and if you want to protect yourself from additional arguments, conflicts, and confusion.

Without the Help of a Mediator

If, however, you want to create a co-parenting plan without outside help, you need to speak with your ex about common questions and concerns. Make sure the conversation is respectful, and leave the negotiations immediately if the conversation turns into an argument. Consider the following parenting concerns as you discuss your plans:

  • Discipline. How do you want to handle discipline between the two homes, and who is responsible for discipline? Will you talk with your ex every time your child needs correction, whether at school or at your own home? You need a solid plan for how to manage your child’s discipline with consistency between the two homes. Moreover, it’s a good idea to devise a discipline plan that is fairly consistent between homes, because an imbalance between discipline structures may cause your child to “triangulate” – or pit you and your ex against each other – when he or she gets in trouble.
  • Decision-Making. Who is responsible for which decisions? It’s wise to have a “go-to” parent for issues regarding education, health, childcare, and sports, and it’s also wise to have a plan in place for decisions that arise at a moment’s notice. Make a list of all areas of your child’s life, even the areas you and your spouse don’t spend much time thinking about. For each area, make a note about which parent has the final authority, or if authority is entirely shared. If you and your ex are amicable, you may decide that all decisions are joint. However, it’s a good idea to have it all down on paper to avoid future misunderstandings.
  • Ongoing Communication. How will the two of you communicate about issues related to your child (i.e. via e-mail, phone, or in person)? How often do you plan on communicating? Make sure you both know to never communicate with each other through your child, as this is emotionally damaging.
  • Shared Schedules. What is your custody arrangement, and how will you handle scheduling changes? Who is responsible for childcare arrangements? What is your expectation for notice of a changed schedule?
  • Emergency Preparation. When emergencies arise, as they inevitably do, how will you and your ex manage the concern? Who can provide consent for emergency medical care? How do you wish to be notified?
  • Future Relationships. Once you and your ex’s relationship is over, you can each pursue other relationships. How do you want to introduce your child to new boyfriends and girlfriends, or do you want to forego introductions until relationships are headed toward permanency? What is your rule about having a boyfriend or girlfriend stay the night? You may even want to specify the amount of time you will date a new partner before introducing him or her to the kids.
  • Finances. Child support is almost always a part of the custody arrangement for kids. But what happens when unexpected expenses arise? How do you wish to manage these expenses – simply as part of the child support payment, or do you have other ideas?

Once you come to an agreement, put your plans on paper so you have a mutual understanding of your co-parenting expectations.

When an Ex Is Abusive

Never try to come up with a co-parenting plan on your own if your ex is emotionally or physically abusive, or if he or she is unable to communicate effectively and respectfully. While physical abuse is obvious, emotional abuse can prove a little trickier to pinpoint and avoid. If your ex calls you names, manipulates, blames, threatens, or isolates you from loved ones, he or she is emotionally abusive and you should not create a co-parenting plan without outside help.

The Final Step

Whether you use a mediator or create a co-parenting plan on your own, file your plan with the court as part of your legal proceedings and custody arrangements. Some components of your co-parenting plan may fall outside the court’s jurisdiction, but it’s still helpful to have the documents on file as part of the record. That said, many components of the co-parenting plan are within the court’s jurisdiction, such as your child’s schedule, and how you conduct your relationships with future romantic partners.

parents fighting

Alternatives to Co-Parenting

Healthy co-parenting is the next best thing to a happy and intact home with both parents. Since co-parenting requires consistent communication between ex-partners, however, it isn’t always possible. If your ex was emotionally or physically abusive during your relationship, you need to hire a lawyer to help with legal and custody arrangements, and severely limit your contact with your ex. It may even be wise to push for sole custody of the children so they won’t be exposed to a physically or emotionally abusive parent.

Sometimes, though, an ex-partner is a good parent but a terribly unhealthy communicator. In these instances, you may not want to limit your ex’s interaction with your kids, but you know you need to limit your joint interaction because communication is consistently damaging and pointless. If you can’t get along with your ex, can’t work together, and you only feel emotionally safe when you’re distant, then co-parenting isn’t a workable solution.

For such volatile situations, it’s prudent to create a parallel parenting plan as part of the legal and custody proceedings. Unlike the heavy communication required of co-parenting, parallel parenting requires essentially no communication. Each parent is given singular jurisdiction over major decisions, such as medical or educational, as part of the divorce proceedings, and the other parent is not allowed to chime in with an opinion. Transfers of the child occur on neutral territory, such as a daycare or restaurant, and no verbal interaction is allowed unless a third party is present. This type of parenting plan is far from ideal, but it reduces the emotional fallout of ongoing conflict, which is better for children in the long run. A parallel parenting plan needs to be created with the assistance of a mediator or lawyer.

Final Word

Parents want what’s best for their kids, but the best isn’t always possible when a divorce or breakup is necessary. And often, a divorce or breakup is the most responsible decision parents can make to reduce the emotional trauma of remaining in a high-conflict home. It’s possible for parents to put their differences aside to create a co-parenting plan that’s beneficial to their child’s long-term development. Take advantage of community resources, such as a mediator or counselor, to set yourself up for co-parenting success. And remember to create ground rules about mutual respect – neither of you should bad-mouth the other in front of the kids – to create a framework for healthy co-parenting. The pain of a divorce or separation doesn’t have to reverberate in your child’s life if you and your ex can come together to provide a safe, stable, and consistent environment.

How did you and your ex make co-parenting work? What was it like to put your differences aside for the benefit of your children?

Mary McCoy
Mary McCoy, LMSW is a licensed social worker who works closely with individuals, families, and organizations in crisis. She knows first-hand how financial choices can prevent and mitigate crises, and she's therefore passionate about equipping people with the information they need to make solid financial decisions for themselves and their loved ones. When Mary isn't on her soap box, you can find her hiking, jogging, yoga-ing, or frolicking with her family.

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