How to co-parent (including with a difficult ex)

rules for co parenting

Co-parenting is the future, and the future is now.

Science is 100 percent behind equal co-parenting, in which both parents share parenting time approximately 50/50.

It is not divorce or separated families that harms children — but conflict between parents, which studies have found leads to fathers being marginalized in the family, and distancing themselves partly or completely from the kids’ lives.

Together, we can work to stop that from happening, and promote equally shared parenting — no matter how many hours each parent has with the kids, whether you are married, separated, divorced or never romantically involved with your kids’ other parent.

A full 55 peer-reviewed and published studies on shared parenting find that children fare better when separated, and divorced co-parents share parenting time and decisions approximately equally (courts and academics consider at least 40 percent time with each parent to be considered shared parenting, a.k.a. co-parenting).

This is also true for high-conflict situations.

29 ways to make co-parenting work

Whether you can stand the idea of relinquishing control of your children to an ex you dislike, loathe or hate, you likely do not have a choice.

Shared parenting legislation was introduced in more than half of states last year, and as science, media and general common sense infiltrates family court and culture, there has been incredibly positive movement towards it.

Even if the kids are with you a majority of the time, there is a lot you can do to promote a family culture of equality and harmony:

1. Trust, not control

The big, over-arching theme in successful, harmonious co-parenting is that both partners respect the other to be a safe, decent parent when the other is not around.

If you truly believe that your kids’ other parent is unsafe, then you need to take legal action to minimize contact.

Which brings me to the big point about shared parenting: If a parent is deemed safe to be with the kids 10 percent of the time, they are then safe to be with them 30 or 50 or 80 or even 100 percent of the time.

That means that you do not try to control what happens at the other parent’s house.

Maybe he is the fun weekend dad, all the time, and you prefer children have structure, chores and downtime.

He is a strict vegan and never allows sugar, carbs or produce grown outside of the county. You think kids need animal protein and the occasional cookie.

 You have to let that go.

The beauty of successful shared parenting is that once you trust each other and learn to communicate, you are more likely to peacefully negotiate differences for the sake of everyone’s best interests.

Says Elizabeth:

“My ex and I started to co parent amazingly once I let go of trying to control the situation, let him parent the way he wants to parent, be understanding when he was late, and ignore the clothes never being returned. Once you take the pressure off, the tension eases and you can start to bond and connect better.”

2. It’s about gender equality

Accept that men and women are equal.

That includes that mothers and fathers are equal parents.

3. Protect the kids

If things are tense between you, keep the focus of any must-have interaction on the kids. 

4. The two of you are a parenting team

Focus on parenting as a team.

Ask his advice about behavior issues.

Do not allow the kids to pit one of you against the other, and never very for the position as favorite parent.

As one member of my Millionaire Single Moms Facebook group said:

“In parenting, there is no good-cop / bad-cop. Sometimes we are both the bad cop.” 

I’ll add: And you both get to be the good cop!

5. The kids have two homes — use pronouns accordingly

When communicating with him, use ‘your house’ and ‘my house’ … not ‘Home,’ as in ‘When will you bring the kids home?’

It doesn’t matter how much time each parent has with the kids, keep these pronouns neutral.

6. Have family meetings

From Erin: “We still occasionally have family meetings.

It benefits the kids to see that we are on the same page and then everyone gets everything out at once.”

7. Respect his time with the kids

Do not call all the time to check in on the kids, or chat with them.

Related: I don’t live for my kids, and that my greatest gift to them

8. Involve him in matters large and small

Routinely involve him in decisions about the kids’ child care, school, health, activities. 

9. Boundaries

IGNORE when he gets pissy.


Emily’s tactic:

“It took me a while to release the angry texting habit I adopted once he moved out, criticizing him every time he was late, or his stories sounded fishy about a plan change.

Now I say to myself: ‘And that is why I divorced him,’ and breathe an actual sigh of relief.

I text ‘OK thanks,’ like a robot and get on with my life.”

10. Let go of the heartbreak

From single mom Laura: “Change your own mindset about the past/divorce/your heartache.


You are co-parents now, and it doesn’t matter how you got here, or whose fault it is. He’s your co-parent and children’s dad — not your ex.

His girlfriend or new wife is just that, not his mistress/affair partner.

Staying in a positive mindset about the now is critical.”

11. Careful what you call your ex

From Maggie: “Change your own thinking by reframing what your relationship is with him in your head. ‘My child’s other parent,’ instead of ‘my ex.'”

12. Invite your ex to parties

Invite him to birthday or graduation parties you throw for the kids.

You can also ask him to participate in the planning, to bring the cake or otherwise be involved.

13. Stay involved with your ex-inlaws

Stay connected to his family and friends.

Send them holiday cards and invite them to school, sports and birthday events.

14. Tell you kids happy stories about their dad

Share positive stories about the other parent with the kids.

Tell them about how you met, or trips you took, or positive qualities about their dad.

This communicates to your children something positive about a person they love and reconditions you to think different, and better about your ex.

This shift will infiltrate your energy, vibration, and interaction with him.

15. Be thoughtful of him on the holidays.

Buy him a holiday and birthday gift on behalf of the kids.

17. Be supportive of his new girlfriend or wife

Be positive about any romantic partners in his life — both to the kids and to him.

It doesn’t matter if you like her or whether she was the affair partner.

18. Respect him

When he makes a suggestion or request about parenting, listen and follow it unless you actually really object.

19. Support his parenting

Think about what you can do to help the other parent win at parenting.

These might include daily reminders, scheduling and planning emails, or follow-up phone calls.

Do it from a place of love and unity, and without being condescending!

20. Let him fail.

There is a fine line between being supportive and co-dependent.

Ultimately, he is responsible for being the best father he can.

I have heard moms say they schedule fun activities for their kids’ dad to do with “because I love my kids and want them to have fun weekends.”

That is actually controlling and co-dependent and doesn’t work in a co-parenting relationship.

21. Celebrate the kids with him

Share the kids’ successes with him: Screen shot good grades on homework or cute craft projects and send him, send pics or videos from sports events he misses – and not in a passive-aggressive way to punish him for not being there.

22. Say yes more than you say no (if you can)

Say ‘yes’ as very often as you possibly can when he asks for flexibility in the schedule. 

23. Please and thank you

Thank him when he is flexible with you, no matter how much more of the work you know you do.

24. Don’t keep score of stuff

Let go of the, ‘I bought those clothes so they stay at my house.’

If you’re running short on certain items, just ask that enough be returned when you are running low, and pay back that favor.

This mom of a blended family of 7 kids says: “Always always be the bigger person. When you feel the rage coming on STOP because it’s not about you. Save your energy for the battles that really matter in the long-term. You can’t force the other parent to be rational, but your life will be a lot more peaceful if you quit trying to make them.”

25. Let the kids see you speaking well of one another — to one another

Give him a compliment. Do it in front of the kids.

26. Careful with your new BF and social

Refrain from posting social media pics of your new boyfriend with the kids, with the exception of when everyone is really getting along awesome and it truly is NBD.

Otherwise, that is not only counter-productive for co-parenting, but it is mean and targets his manhood on the most primal level. 

27. Always always be the bigger person.

When you feel the rage coming on, STOP.

It’s not about you.

Save your energy for the battles that really matter in the long-term.

28. Accept that you don’t have to force the relationship.

You may not want to spend the holidays together or sit on the same bleachers at the kids’ volleyball match.

That is fine.

29. Be patient.

Take it from me: people change and grow and forgive and mellow.

Over time, handoffs at the police station can cease and be replaced by shared holiday meals.

Explosive texting can stop and words of support and encouragement can reign. Life is long.

“But my ex and I hate each other and it is impossible to co-parent”

My post-divorce road with my ex has been rocky. We’re six years into this co-parenting business, and we’re far from hitting a permanent groove. In the early days, aside from screaming matches in front of the kids and neighbors alike.

Whatever nasty thing you can imagine saying to the another person were in fact said. I’m guilty.

It seems inconceivable that our relationship would be anything other than an East Coast version of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, minus the fake tits, drugs and millions of dollars.

Every day I hear from people in the midst of co-parenting hell: Dads who check out, moms who block visitation, parents who cancel visits while the kids are waiting by the door, parents who call police when the other is one minute past the court-ordered time, screaming matches and one or the other spending nights in jail — for no good reason.

Fast-forward to today, and my ex and I hardly have it figured  all out, and ups-and-downs ensue. What I could not have imagined has come to pass: More or less regular visits and smooth communication. Spontaneous meals together with the kids, whether at my place or restaurants. Rides shared in one or the other’s Subaru to soccer games. Gifts exchanged on behalf of the kids to the other parent on birthdays and holidays. Chit chats and the occasional hug after a big argument or birthday party co-hosted successfully at the local bowling alley.

As I told him recently in a therapy session: I love him. I’ve known  him for more than 15 years and have two kids with him. He’s a good person. I’m a good person. We both love the kids. At some point everything more or less calmed down, the divorce was finalized and life moved forward. Battles picked. The immediate trauma of divorce subsided.

I wish I could say we are perfectly civilized like the lovely Brandie Weikle, my friend who heads the excellent blog and podcast, and who lives next door to her ex and his new wife, and are the shining model for what a healthy co-parenting relationship can look like — but that would be a lie (though we did discuss vacationing together — until we got into a fight about it, but nevermind.)

Instead I am here to tell you that it can get better. That one day while you’re both at the soccer game expecting the usual arctic glacier to stand between you on either side of the sidelines, you will find that you need help passing out rice crispy treats for the team in order to make it to the team manager meeting for  your other kid across the park. You will say, ‘Hey, can you handle this for me?’ and he will be so glad to thaw the boreal tension that he will chirp, ‘Sure!’ and suddenly there is a bit of a rapport, a hint of cozy relations that suggest the potential for more of good vibes and less of teeth-grinding hostility, and it feels good. It feels good to you, and it feels good to him, too.

After a while you forget why you were so freaking angry at him all the time, because being angry just sucks and being nice and getting along is so much better. Even if it isn’t fair or logical, you let go. You forgive. He forgives. You see this has been hard for him, too. You see that he does love the kids, and that is a lot. You offer him a ride home. He offers to help you replace your windshield wiper blade.

You get on with it. Steel yourself not for friendship or even a sense of family. At least not yet. Instead, you open yourself to a relationship that you have not yet defined, but will explore. And everything is better.

That, I want you to know — need you to know — is possible.

Related documentary and books on shared parenting:

Recommended shared parenting documentary: Divorce Corp

Kickass Single Mom, Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children, By: Emma Johnson

Blend, The Secret to Co-Parenting and Creating a Balanced Family, By: Mashonda Tifrere

Co-parenting with a Toxic Ex: What to Do When Your Ex-Spouse Tries to Turn the Kids Against You, By: by Amy J. L. Baker, PhD and Paul R Fine, LCSW

Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing, By: Dr. Richard A. Warshak

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