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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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