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What If Co-Parenting Doesn’t Work Out?

In this photo a mother is sitting in a car looking out the window as she watches her young child run towards the father.

What If Co-Parenting Doesn’t Work Out?

In this photo a mother is sitting in a car looking out the window as she watches her young child run towards the father.

There are many ways to have a family, but one of the most common pictures painted for us is parents and children all under one roof together. While it is becoming increasingly common for children to go back and forth between more than one home, you might feel that you are on your own when it comes to working out how to raise your child(ren) with someone who is not your live-in life partner. We see more and more examples of adults who are not in romantic relationships managing their time in order to co-parent, but it still might not be what you imagined or planned. Your biggest fear might be, “What if co-parenting doesn’t work out?”

Co-parenting can be an effective way for parents to work together to support their children’s development and well-being. If co-parenting is not working out, it’s important for parents to remain focused on their children’s well-being and to continue working towards a solution that meets everyone’s needs. The truth is that every situation of this nature will have its challenging times. All human cooperation is vulnerable to breakdowns in communication, high emotions, and misunderstandings.

What is Co-Parenting?

Co-parenting refers to the shared responsibility of raising children by two or more adults who are not in a romantic relationship. This can include divorced or separated parents, parents who were never married, or parents who are raising a child together but are not in a romantic relationship. Co-parenting involves working together to make decisions about the child’s upbringing, such as education, healthcare, and extracurricular activities.

5 Steps to Take When Co-Parenting Doesn’t Work Out

1) Seek mediation:

Mediation can be a useful tool for parents who are struggling to co-parent effectively. A mediator can help parents to identify areas of conflict and work together to develop a parenting plan that meets

In this photo we see a husband and wife sitting in front of one another during a divorce process. All we see is there hands facing each other. There is a graphic of a house split in half, with each parent on opposite sides with one child each, holding their hand.

the needs of their children. A mediator’s goal is to ensure that each parent’s voice has been heard and that what is agreed upon is clear to both parties.

This doesn’t mean you will have your ideal situation worked out through mediation. What it does mean is that there is a neutral person in the room whose sole purpose is to facilitate a working arrangement.

Headed into mediation, determine for yourself what your most important goals are. What are your highest priorities when it comes to the welfare of your child(ren)? Where do you have flexibility, and where don’t you? For example, you may know that certain days of the week are more difficult than others for you to schedule time outside of work; are those days that your co-parent can be more involved? Another example is having a goal for yourself about how you will speak to your child(ren) about the other parent involved. A mediator can help establish boundaries and verbiage that both of you can agree to so that your child gets congruent messaging no matter which parent they are with.

On that note, mediation can also help clear the air of any tension that might be under the surface in regard to co-parenting. Especially if you are coming to a co-parenting arrangement following a split, a mediator can ensure that you are staying on task in your arrangements. Not to be mistaken for a couples’ counselor or therapist, a mediator is there to keep everyone on the same page and headed in the same direction.

The most benefit you can get out of mediation comes when you are able, to be honest with yourself about what you want and how you feel, as well as being honest with yourself about where you feel unsure or have more questions. That way, a mediator can help you to stick to what you’re sure of and uncover what you’re still considering.

2) Consider parallel parenting:

A working mother is doing her job from home. She is sitting at her desk where her laptop and coffee are placed on the desk. She is using her phone to do work, as her two young children are sitting on the couch behind her playing.

If you have been in mediation and/or counseling and are still unable to see eye-to-eye, you may feel as though all hope is lost. That isn’t necessarily true; in some cases, parallel parenting may be a better option than co-parenting. Parallel parenting involves each parent having a separate relationship with their children and making independent decisions about their care.

Where co-parenting has room for flexibility and ebb and flow, parallel parenting often requires more rigid boundaries. For example, more detail is required when communicating between parents in a parallel arrangement, as their own specific rules and schedule aren’t known to the other person. It often enables strong and necessary boundaries; one parent cannot dictate what happens at the other’s home.

Some examples of parallel parenting include attending faith-based events, such as services, regularly when at one parent’s house but not at the other. It might also mean different bedtimes (though within the same window is ideal for sleep regulation). A parent at one home may have a restriction about staying over at others’ homes, but the other parent allows sleepovers.

Consider what your highest values are. For example, if you firmly believe you do not want your child to attend church on Sundays, parallel parenting will not allow you to enforce that. This system works best for parents who are able to compromise or reach similar conclusions, whichever it may be. Parents who are on the same page about the “big issues” may have an easier time parallel parenting because they know that, no matter what, their values are being upheld by the other person. Those with very strong opinions about access to technology, sleepovers, hobbies, activities, etc., may find that parallel parenting simply doesn’t work for them.

3) Develop a parenting plan:

A parenting plan can help to clarify expectations and responsibilities for each parent. The plan should outline how decisions will be made, how communication will occur, and how

Two professional businesswomen are sitting at a cafe counter having a conversation. They are facing each other and talking.

conflicts will be resolved. Ultimately, the highest good of the child(ren) is what most parents will seek. A parenting plan ensures firstly that nothing is being missed due to an assumption that the other person is handling it and secondly that responsibilities are fairly evenly distributed. This means that you are both responsible for everything, including fostering your co-parenting relationship.

Having a plan for how and when to communicate and how conflicts will be resolved can be a lifesaver in moments of stress. For example, you may decide that any communication to do with picking up or dropping off should be sent via text and replied to or at least have a reaction sent to them. This might sound like a simple plan, even a no-brainer, and that is the point. When you need to get out the door first thing the following day, and you’re confirming with your co-parent that your in-laws are doing school pick-up because you’re going on a business trip, the last thing you want to be worried about is whether or not your co-parent got your message, if they are going to reply before the morning, etc. This coordination requires mutual respect to work. This might also mean that you determine a window of time for communication; for example, seven in the morning until ten at night. Anything outside those hours would be a dire emergency only.

With planning and coordinating comes conflict. It is a natural part of life because life can be unpredictable. It is inevitable that last-minute meetings will arise, that the two parties will both want to take the child on vacation simultaneously, that there will be decisions about what ages are appropriate for access to various technology, and so on. Planning how you will resolve conflict is an activity best reserved for a time when there is no conflict. That way, you are able to be objective in creating a system that works well for you. This may include choosing specific vocabulary to utilize, establishing boundaries, and creating a system for expressing discomfort that is non-negotiable.

Because children change and their schedules and plans change with them as they grow, a healthy parenting plan will include how decisions are made. Is there a certain amount of notice required to change a schedule or go on a trip? Do both parents sign off on after-school activities? If not, is the parent who signs the child up for trombone lessons responsible for all pickup, drop off, practice, equipment, concerts, uniforms, etc.? Do you want to plan to be in the same space together at predetermined times, such as birthdays, holidays, family dinners? Depending on your co-parenting relationship, you might be a family who spends a lot of time together quite happily, a family who is never in the same room together, or anywhere in between.

4) Get support:

In this photo, an unrecognizable person places their hand on a mother's shoulder as she offers her comfort and support. The mother is holding her infant in her arms, and the infant has a yellow headband on her head.

Co-parenting can be emotionally challenging, so it’s important to have a support system in place. This can include friends, family, or a therapist. Relationship counseling can benefit people who aren’t necessarily trying to have a romantic relationship with one another. If you have split, you may have tried couples’ counseling, as we offer at our therapy practice in Woodland Hills, before you decided to go your separate ways. It might feel useless or hopeless to you to consider trying again, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, a couple needs to separate because of certain dynamics, needs, or goals. That doesn’t mean they cannot benefit from support on a mutual project such as child-rearing.

Couples therapy offers a structure for exploring emotions, having open dialogue, and creating strategies. It is also a great place to go for a sounding board; something you may have said a dozen times might be understood and repeated back differently by a therapist so that the other person understands you better. It can be challenging to get your point across when emotions are high, when there is history when you are thinking about the other person, as opposed to trying to focus on being direct in your communication.

Outside of professional guidance, your loved ones are a great network for feeling supported and bolstered when you encounter difficulty in your relationship with your co-parent. These are people who (most likely) also live apart from you, with whom you share part of your life but not your everyday experiences, much like your co-parent. They are also the people you can turn to if you are co-parenting with someone who is particularly challenging to work with. If you have a romantic partner with whom you live, it is important to include that person in decisions that impact them. It is also important that you are able to lean on this person when you are struggling to co-parent.

5) Prioritize the children’s needs:

Regardless of the challenges of co-parenting, it’s important to prioritize the children’s needs. Parents should work together to ensure that their children receive the care and support

In this photo, a mother and father are walking their daughter school. They are walking outdoors on a sunny day, as the daughter walks in the middle of both parents, hand in hand.

they need to thrive.

One of the major benefits of co-parenting is that there is no obligation to juggle relationship dynamics. Yes, each parent should show respect, courtesy, and appreciation for the other whenever possible. However, this is different from trying to maintain a romantic relationship while prioritizing your child(ren). When co-parenting, you don’t have to worry about the toll that will be taken on your separate, romantic relationship with your fellow parent because it doesn’t exist. In this way, both of you are able to make the child your number one priority without guilt or worry about how it is impacting the other adult. Remember that co-parenting provides a different set of challenges than nuclear families face. In some ways, co-parenting is more difficult; in this way, it can often be simpler.

Prioritizing the children’s needs doesn’t mean that they take top priority over everything every time. Self-care is as important if you are co-parenting, single parenting, or parenting with a romantic partner. What it does mean is that when you reach an impasse in a plan, with all things being equal, ultimately, you determine what is best for the child and choose that. Sometimes, this will mean biting a bullet or making a sacrifice you’d rather not make. This occurs when parenting in one home with a romantic partner, as well, so try to get focused on tallying up how many “wins” and “losses” you and your co-parent each have. The real win is when a child feels safe, seen, and supported.

After all, is said and done, you may still feel worried about your co-parenting situation. You may have grown up in an unhealthy co-parenting situation and fear repeating that cycle. Your parents may have raised you together in one household, and co-parenting is uncharted territory for you. Regardless, you will always be worried about how your decisions are impacting your child because that’s what being a parent is all about. What is most important to remember is that as long as your child(ren) feel(s) safe with, loved, and respected by each parent, they already have a strong start. It is not about traditional family dynamics or not, but about prioritizing the children’s needs over the parents’ pride.

Would you like to work with us to address co-parenting issues?

At Embracing You Therapy group practice in Woodland Hills, our therapists understand that relationships come with unique challenges. And sometimes, parenting can add additional stress. Couples Therapy is not just about improving the marriage; it also improves how you work as a team to raise your children. Because when you two are stronger as a parent, the children will thrive, and the family as a unit will be healthier. 

Contact us today for your complimentary 20-minute phone consultation with our Client Care Coordinator.

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