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”.

Reply
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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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