Co-Parenting – How to Co-Operate with Your Ex to Protect Your Child

Co-Parenting - How to Co-Operate With Your Ex to Protect Your Child

“You can be bitter or you can be better,” my mom used to say. It’s become my mantra for relationships. With respect to an ex, a former beloved that’s now reduced to two letters, this mantra is hard to maintain. Demonstrated by this study on relationships, 55% of Americans admitted to blaming their exes for the failure of their marriage. That number jumps to 65% when considering only women.

The path to forgiving an ex starts with yourself. Your relationship to you is the one that will dictate all others. For example, I am a needy person. I deal with a sort of separation anxiety that leads me to stay in relationships with huge red flags. It’s a daunting acknowledgement. To recognize it however, allows me to see it objectively—as a weakness and a strength.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “the great epochs of our life are at the points when we gain courage to re-baptize our badness as the best in us…” Yes, I’m furious with myself for exacerbating my misery. Yet, it may be this trait that leads me to a great love.

Through forgiveness of our actions, we can relieve ourselves of bitterness. When you become so enraptured in your own self-betterment, their trespasses may also wash away. With time, you may notice that your former loathing becomes more of a distaste, and eventually, an indifference.

With respect to co-parenting, this process is an absolute necessity. If you and the other parent cannot be amicable – or civil, at least – then your children will almost certainly feel the consequences. Co-parenting can be an everyday battle, one that takes relentless hard work and re-focusing. 

How to become co-parents that interact with grace and ease.

  • To start out on the right foot, attempt an amicable break-up. This isn’t always easy, or possible, but if it can be done it will make a difference to everyone. If married, consider an “uncontested” divorce. This involves agreeing on every aspect of the separation—from the division of assets to a parenting plan. 
  • Remember the adage that time heals all things. Do not expect instant rapport with your ex, especially if there was trauma in your relationship. There will likely be feelings of rage and jealousy in the first few years, if not more. Notice these feelings, acknowledge them, and try not to feed them.
  • Emotional distance is another critical aspect that is highly correlated to time. Until it’s realized, best to “fake it ‘til you make it.” To achieve a serene demeanor, it may help to pretend that you are at work. In our professional personas, we are less likely to be take hits personally. It may behoove you to mimic this aloofness when dealing with an ex. Treat each interaction as a business deal. You two have a common goal; let that not be overshadowed by ego.
  • A good team shares values. Especially when co-parenting, it’s important to be sure that everyone is explicitly on the same page. Consider sitting down with your ex and writing a family “mission statement,” that outlines high-level values & tenants. Ideally, it will help each parent make sound decisions in uncertain moments. To help get the wheels turning, try reading a company or organization’s mission statement. It would be a nice accompaniment to the legal parenting plan, which outlines the day-to-day logistics.

How to talk about your Ex?

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” so opens the novel Anna Karenina.

When interacting with your child, it’s crucial to consider how your words affect your family on whole. The emotional and physical well being of your children is biggest consideration. Try hard to put aside any personal urges that may conflict with that well-being. Below are some important guidelines to follow, so that you can guard the mental health of your children:

  • Do not speak badly of your ex. Don’t demean the way they parent, or tell stories that cast them in a negative light. This will only cause your children to feel as though they have to choose sides between their two parents.
  • In the same vein, make all efforts to humanize your ex (and not to dehumanize them). For example, call them either by their name or, if possible, mom/dad (as in, “Mom is going to pick you up from school today.”) Try to avoid the phrase Your father/Your mother as this subtly places blame on the child for existing.
  • Watch out for any micro-aggressions you may commit. Micro-aggressions are brief and nonchalant behaviors that are subtly hostile and often subconscious. They include any objectification or degradation of your ex—making a comment about their body or new beau, for example. Over time, these little habits can have a deeply destructive effect on your children.
  • Do not try to “win” in the court of public opinion. Your children can and will love you both separately and equally. 

About the Author: Marlo Spieth

marlo-spiethMarlo Spieth blogs and does outreach for Avvo. With resources like: tax forms, an attorney hotline, and even online divorce, we make legal easier. She’s learned about divorce and co-parenting from observation, interviews, and editing the Avvo Stories blog. If she could be described as “emotionally intelligent”, it would be mostly thanks to her mom, Susan.

Please note: The views and opinions expressed herein are the author’s alone and do not represent Avvo. Also, the legal information herein is intended for general informational purposes only and is not the provision of legal services. Please acknowledge that such information consists of third party data and contributions, that there are certain inherent limitations to the accuracy or currency of such information, that legal and other information may be incomplete, may contain inaccuracies, or may be based on opinion. 

3 Comments

jennifer davies

Did share custody for 18 years difficult We keep the focus on what was best for our daughter She 20 now and happy successfully who has two parents who love her unconditionally she has a close relationship with both parents so my message is don’t use child to hurt each other they didn’t cause the relationship break down

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Georgia

This is a nice, short piece. Lovely advice. Basic. When you have a toxic ex, who doesn’t do any of these things, and you, as a parent have to counsel your child/ren through time spent with them, it can be good to acknowledge the reality of what your ex is like. The hard part is to only do this in response to something your child reflects back to you. You cannot instigate this or you come across as the bitter ex. Yes. By 13 kids can see very clearly how things are. As Maya Angelou said (and I’m paraphrasing a lot here) “Do your best. When you know better, do better”.

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Kerry durkee

One will do better (simply, by) practicing the art of (having) Compassion w/an integral mindset. “How you treat others, (ultimately) speaks alot about you & your character’s ‘integral side’. Once, children are involved (then, it’s not about, the) parents, any longer. “Love” brought children into this (union) world & just-because the Love (is no longer there, between the adults, doesn’t mean, that-the) children, are the ones (meant-to) suffer, for it. Mature-acting adults, protect their children’s well-being. They would never think-to using (their kids) as weapons, against.

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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