Co-parenting is an enterprise undertaken by parents who together take on the socialization, care, and upbringing of children for whom they share equal responsibility. The co-parent relationship differs from an intimate relationship between adults in that it focuses solely on the childWikipedia

I am not certain that the word “equal” is necessary in this Wikipedia definition of co-parenting. The end of the statement, distinguishing the previously intimate relationship between parents from the co-parenting relationship, is important. It says it all.

“It focuses solely on the child.”

How many times do we, as divorced parents, get confused and caught up with our co-parent in issues that are not focused solely on the child? It happens very easily, as we fall into the traps that existed during the intimate relationship we once shared. During that relationship, we established roles, wrote narratives about each other, and ultimately drew lines and built walls to protect ourselves.  We elicited feelings in each other that ultimately did not support the viability of an ongoing intimate relationship.

So now we are in two homes. Now we are separated, finally at peace. At least working toward peace, right?

Here come the summer months, when it is time to make or revise scheduling plans and decisions with your co-parent. This usually involves a shift in the parenting schedule, a vacation week or two, and coordinating summer activities and camps.  It takes collaboration, communication, and sharing of responsibility to support your child during this time. Depending on the type of co-parenting relationship you have developed, you will handle this transition in different ways.

The three types of co-parenting relationships that most people fall into are:

  • Parallel parenting. This is what happens when the two parents have inordinate amounts of conflict or are in strong disagreement about values and parenting styles. They typically are completely unable and unwilling to make parenting decisions together, cannot undertake this enterprise together. Instead of continuing to disagree, they find a solution in parallel parenting. They simply manage parenting tasks and responsibilities without any communication (unless necessary), or consultation (unless required). There is no bridge for the child going from one home to the other in this type of parenting. The child must hold and contain their experience of each parent, without any reinforcement, curiosity, or support from the other parent. The child often struggles to feel secure, as the environment in each home is often very different. The child’s experience in the other parent’s home is invalidated or denied altogether. This child is at risk for alignment with one parent and could develop further into estrangement. The child is often overwhelmed with one or the other parent’s needs, rather than focusing on the tasks associated with their developmental stage.
  • Cooperative co-parenting. This type of parenting involves both parents communicating on an agreed-upon basis and method. They have often discussed when and how to communicate with each other, show an interest in the child’s experience with the other parent, and are curious and often learn from each other as to how to best care for their child. The conflicts that occur as a natural part of co-parenting are resolved using strategies they have learned, or with professional assistance. The child’s experience overall in this type of co-parenting model is a general feeling of well-being, containment, and safety from alignment and inappropriate pressure to take sides. The child is supported in the tasks associated with their stage of development.
  • Conflicted co-parenting. This type of parenting involves both parents communicating in an adversarial manner. The conflict is overt or covert, most typically overt and unmanaged. Either way, the child is exposed to the conflict, which is often related to parenting issues. These parents set up a chronic push-pull, eliciting negative feelings, reinforcing their worst narratives about each other. The bridge they build for the child between two homes is fraught with complaints and barbs about each other, putting the child in a position of being in the middle, alone or with sibs. The child has no option other than to decide which of the parents is the good one and which is bad. It is not possible for the child to maintain neutrality, because both parents need validation in their view of the other. The child is not able to integrate the two homes (or parents) by sharing positive experiences of the other parent’s home, because doing so is met with disdain and messages (subtle or overt) conveying disloyalty. If there are siblings, they may be divided by the parents’ strong disdain for each other. The child typically has a very difficult time accomplishing developmental tasks, particularly separating from one parent.

It is not too late to improve your co-parenting relationship. Summer planning can be easier when there is civil cooperation and communication. Often, if you are both motivated to change things, it can help to seek co-parenting counseling. You will work with a licensed and experienced mental health professional who can guide your communications and help you establish mutual goals. There is hope, no matter the ages of your children. Even as adults, children can be affected by your co-parent relationship. Weddings, graduations, and other important events can become welcome milestones for them – and you – when your co-parent relationship is effective.

Ann Cerney, MS, LPCC, LCPC is a couples therapist, divorce coach, and child specialist practicing in San Francisco, Marin, and Sonoma Counties.  More information in her bio on the “Find A Professional” page.