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

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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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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Anxiety has a way of demanding ALL of the attention. It shifts the focus to what feels scary, or too big, or impossible, or what needs to be avoided, or what feels bad, or what our kiddos can’t do. As the grown ups who love them, we know they are capable of greatness, even if that greatness is made up of lots of tiny steps, (as great things tend to be).
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
⠀⠀
Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
.
But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.

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