Co-parenting: keep the children central!

Many of us struggle when communicating with an ex-partner about our children. Here are some helpful tips to ease the journey.

If you’ve gone through a breakup and have children, you may now be co-parenting. This may not always be possible or easy if there are parenting orders or protection orders in place, which in themselves may bring conflict. Parallel parenting may work better for your situation. It is important to get advice to help keep everyone involved safe. Always consider calling police on 111 if there is a risk to anyone’s safety.

If you’ll continue to be involved at some level with the other parent until your children are able to make their own choices, it’s worthwhile making it as smooth as possible. 

The challenge with co-parenting is that you need to communicate with someone who you’ve likely been (or still are) in conflict with. We can’t always change our ex-partner’s behaviour, but we can choose our own. Negotiating within a difficult relationship can be very stressful. Parents often consider managing these conversations and arrangements themselves, but it can bring a sense of relief, direction and strong, appropriate support if others are engaged in the process of making family court arrangements. Connecting to agencies, such as Aviva, who can support you through times involving family violence, can be incredibly worthwhile.

Cooperation, kindness and generosity are three qualities that parents may use to engage with a child who may be experiencing separation within a family.

Here are some ways of communicating within a positive co-parenting relationship while remaining safe: 

  • No matter how cooperative and calm the co-parenting scenario might be, there should be awareness around self-care; each person should have a support person; at all times, children should feel safe; emotions need to be managed throughout a potentially stressful and challenging time; and there needs to be clear boundaries for all involved.
  • Get started on a friendly note. Use a soft start up: smile, act friendly, and be optimistic that the discussion will be a win-win situation. If it’s through text you could use emojis or a light conversation starter. John Gottman from The Gottman Institute says, “Ninety-four per cent of the time, the way a discussion starts determines the way it will end.” 
  • Be patient. You may have been thinking about this issue for a while, but it might be new to them. If they have a strong reaction at first, give them more time to think about it. Continue to keep yourself safe.
  • Use ‘I’ statements that also acknowledge your feelings, because these are authentic. Other people’s feelings need to be acknowledged. And others cannot, nor should attempt to, challenge another’s feelings. For example: “I realise I was late yesterday picking up the kids. I feel it’s important that we set times so it’s less stressful.”
  • Use cooperative language. Use ‘we’ instead of ‘you’, if appropriate. Because ‘you’ can sometimes feel challenging or accusatory. Try being a team. What do you agree on? What are your common goals? As an example: “We both want the kids to do well at sport. I’m wondering how we can both be more involved with their practices?”
  • Offer options. Avoid telling the other what to do (because that might seem controlling). Instead try to come to the conversation with potential ways to solve issues.
  • De-escalate if it turns negative. If the conversation turns combative, try to reassure them of your goal or remove yourself from the situation/environment. Say something like: “I want to work out a solution with you.”  Take a moment to ensure you are calm and try to get them back on track. Ignore the unrelated comments and state the issue again: “What I’m really asking today is, how we can sort out pick up on Sunday? Do the times I suggested suit you? 3pm or 5pm?” Sometimes you just have to end the conversation and try again another day.

There should always be a focus on what is best for the child. As adults navigate the potential minefield of co-parenting, parallel parenting or single parenting, the needs and safety of the child should remain paramount. This can challenge decisions being made, but may also bring formal direction and safe, strong management of the situation. Separation of any kind can cause a child more stress than is evident, so supports for the child are critical, especially if there has been trauma or family violence.

Co-parenting after abuse brings its own challenges but can be managed. Agencies can help during this stressful time by supporting you to make safety plans, consider custody arrangements and contact agreements, often using the family court process, self-care plan, longer-term professional supports, such as counselling, GP, or family violence supports.

If you are not able to co-parent then ensure you are aware of any abuse to the children – e.g. power and control situations; threats to leave with the children – and focus positively on the children and yourself. Understand that the child might find things more difficult at this time and need supports, but may not be able to put their feelings into words.

For co-parenting inspiration read (Step)Mom: A Dual Memoir written by a birth mum and stepmum about how they negotiate co-parenting for the benefit of their kids. gipfordmoms.com For support regarding family or sexual violence contact Aviva: 0800 2848 2669 / avivafamilies.org.nz